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Dogs wag their tails when they want to be friends, right? Well, yes, sometimes. Tail wagging can actually also be a source of anxiety and there is also all manner of other things that a dog could be trying to tell you by means of the way he holds and moves his tail. So, what exactly is a dog trying to tell you? Keep reading – I’ve learned a lot about what tail positions and movements mean (sometimes to my detriment).
I remember back when I was in my early teens, encountering a neighbor’s dog on the sidewalk while I was walking home from school. Back in those days, we didn’t see much wrong with dogs wandering around loose, and I kindasorta knew this dog. Cash was a German Shepherd who belonged to a family just down the block from me.
Anyway, Cash was panting a bit, and his tail was swinging slowly back and forth, so I reached out to pet him. I wouldn’t say he exactly bit me, since a bite from a dog of his size could lead to a person needing to have their hand re-attached, but he gave me a nip that required five stitches. What I didn’t know was that Cash was blind in his right eye, and of course that was the side I reached out to. I know now that his body language was telling me that he was apprehensive. The nip was my fault, not his.
Fortunately, my parents were reasonable people, and didn’t start agitating to have Cash put down, which would have been very unfair, and would also have broken my heart, since I have been totally soft on dogs practically from the day I was born. And Cash and I did become fast friends, once I learned why he reacted the way he did, and knew how to approach him the proper way.
So, what I’m saying is, don’t assume that because the tail is wagging, it means that everything is going to be sunshine and rainbows and cuddles.
There is actually a lot of science behind interpreting tail wagging in dogs. Studies have shown that tail wagging is linked to left and right brain activity. If a dog is wagging his tail toward the right, it means that he is feeling happy, and would probably like to play. If he is wagging it toward the left, that means that the dog is feeling restless or insecure, and might be prone to biting. The left side of the brain relates to the right side of the body (and vice versa) in the dog, the same as it does in humans.The right brain is what controls the “fight or flight” response in both humans and animals. If you know this, then you will be much safer when approaching dogs.
Now, what does it mean if a dog is not wagging his tail, but is holding it in a certain position? The tail can still tell you a great deal about the way in which you should approach a dog.
If a dog comes toward you with his tail high, it means that he is very confident. You should approach with caution. This could be simply an indication that the dog is not fearful, but it could also suggest that the dog is very dominant and could be threatening.
When a dog’s tail is held out straight from the body, and roughly parallel with the ground, the dog is not relaxed, but not necessarily dominant. He may simply be curious. If that’s the case, then his ears will probably also be perked up. He is probably not a threat to you, but again, you should approach with caution.
If a dog’s tail is pointed downward and between his legs, he is probably being submissive. However, he could also be afraid, and many dogs will bite out of fear. So again, approach cautiously. Use soothing tones and keep your hands low. Often, a fear-biter will react badly if you attempt to touch him on the head.
You know your own dog, and chances are you know your friends’ dogs pretty well, too. I know, for instance, that when I am at the dog park, Al’s Saint Bernard, Hannah, will approach me with her tail almost dragging on the ground. I don’t know why that is, and I don’t really know what she means by it. It’s just a Hannah thing. She’s always friendly, and I never worry about what kind of mood she’s in.
If you know the dog, you can still keep an eye on the tail position, but keep in mind that just as you sometimes have a bad day, so can a dog. If you think something is off, then don’t invade the dog’s space.
In addition to holding their tails certain ways, sometimes dogs will chew their tails out of anxiety. It is probably best not to approach a dog who is doing this. If your dog chews, and you can’t identify a behavioral issue that could be causing it, it is possible that the tail is simply itchy or irritated. You could try a medicated preparation like Nootie Medicated Oatmeal Dog Conditioner Spray: It contains oatmeal, which is very soothing. Normally, this product lists for $32.97, but you can purchase it at Amazon for $19.97. It also contains lidocaine and pramoxine HCL for further soothing properties.
A dog’s tail can tell you a lot about what he is feeling and the mood he is in. Obviously, our canine friends can’t tell us when they’re having an off day, so it is up to us to watch their body language and react accordingly. Every interaction with a dog should be a positive one, but you do have to proceed with caution. I learned that the hard way.