Here are some indicators to help you decipher what your pooch may be telling you with his tail.
Tail height can offer important insight into a dog's state of mind. In general, a dog who is holding his tail high may be feeling excited, alert or dominant, while a dog holding his tail down low may be afraid or submissive. The more anxious or submissive a dog is feeling, the more tightly he will tuck his tail close to his body.
Sometimes a tail held in a neutral or low position just means the dog is incredibly relaxed — this even happens to dogs with curled tails like Pugs, whose tails unravel and go straight when resting. A dog who carries his tail lower than usual can also be indicating that he is in pain, or exhausted from too much exercise.
It’s important to keep in mind that the normal tail carriage varies for every dog, since tail height is relative to the breed and individual dog. Chow Chows and Chinese Shar-Peis, for instance, naturally have a high, curved tail, while Whippets and Greyhounds have a lower tail carriage. Your knowledge of your dog's personality can help you determine if your dog is feeling happy or threatened, or if he's a little bit scared or just super relaxed.
The Tension in the Tail
A rigid, highly held tail shows a very aroused state; this dog is likely going to react to things around him, whether that’s the squirrel he’s spotted in the tree or a dog across the street. If a dog is agitated, his tail may also “fluff” up, with the hair standing up on end.
When the highly raised tail flicks back and forth rapidly, it’s called “flagging” and may indicate an imminent attack from a dog who is ready to defend his ground. Interfering with a dog in this state is a good way to get bitten.
In Pugs and other breeds with curled tails, a tense tail looks different: The existing curl in the tail simply gets tighter the more aroused the dog gets, eventually curling over itself again. In these dogs, a tensed tail doesn’t always mean aggression, and can simply indicate excitement.
The Way the Tail Wags
Not all wags mean a friendly dog. The type of wag that indicates a happy, relaxed dog is usually a sweeping tail wag that moves from side to side at a height close to the dog’s relaxed tail carriage. An exuberant, joyful reaction would be a tail wag that beats back and forth with gusto at a fairly neutral height, with the dog's hind end often wagging back and forth in unison and the tail possibly even moving in a circular fashion.
Keep in mind that a friendly dog may not wag his tail, while a tense dog may. An insecure tail wag is usually held low and may tick back and forth slightly or swiftly. The low, insecure tail wag could mean the dog is unsure about a situation; this wag may be a form of submission, or the dog may be conflicted and may bite.
Believe it or not, the direction your dog’s tail is wagging toward you or other family members may indicate the way he feels about you, according to a study from Italy published in Current Biology. The study showed that when dogs were attracted to or wanted to approach a person or stimulus, their tail wagged with bias to the right, while dogs that were fearful or wanted to withdraw from a person or stimulus had their tails wag with bias to the left.
Though it’s fun to try to guess what our dogs are feeling with their tail language, it’s absolutely essential to look at your dog’s overall body language to truly decipher what he may be feeling. One small slice of a dog’s body language will not tell the full story.