by Katelyn Schutz, CPDT

Tail Talk: Deciphering Dog Language from the Back End

tail talk


Do you really know what your dog is trying to tell you, by looking at his or her tail?  Want to know more about how to detect what your dog is feeling by their tail language?  Let’s divulge into learning the dialect of doggie tail talk!


As a professional dog walker, it always makes my day to be greeted by a happy, wagging tail from one of my puppy pals!  But one of the biggest myths about dogs, is that a wagging tail equals a happy dog.  When working with aggression cases, I often hear, “But he was wagging his tail right before he attacked.”  This simple marker does not even begin to cover the complexity of dog tail language.  So let’s break it down further to dispel the confusion…


It’s all about context!  The type of movement (sweeping/fluid vs. rapid/stiff) and the position of the tail (high vs. low) matters equally as much, when attempting to interpret canine body language.


Broad, gentle waving motions of the tail are associated with friendly, non-threatening intentions.  This is probably the tail you’ll see when your professional pet sitter walks in!  Your dog’s movements should be fluid and loose.  I joke that my Springer wags his tail from the shoulders back, as his whole body joins in, like a goldfish swimming up to greet you.


Rapid tail movements usually indicate excitement, or tension.  “Propeller” tail is my affectionate term for a dog whose tail is bouncing all over the map, whirling around like a propeller of a plane.  This is a typical warning that the dog is over-aroused and needs to settle down.  Also watch out for the “rattlesnake” tail, or rather the high-held tail with stiff, rapid movements.  This is often a precursor to a sudden burst of energy, and dogs will use it to indicate a challenge.


Stiff tails can result from intense concentration, or caution.  If your dog is wagging it’s tail, then suddenly stops, pay attention to what is going on around your pooch.  Sudden stillness is usually a result of a dog concentrating and trying to focus on something.  Stiff, tense tails could be telling you that the dog is stressed.  If the tail is stiff, but held high, the dog is using body language to indicate an offensive challenge.


The height of the tail matters too.  A neutral, relaxed position for a dog tail is at half-mast.  A high tail is typical of a more confident expression, and a way for a dog to express dominance.  Whereas the translation of a tucked tail is more fear, stress, and avoidance.  A tucked tail could be a warning that the dog’s fear is escalating, so immediately do what you can to calm your dog if you see this.


Take note of the rest of the dog’s body to see if it matches the energy of the tail.  Look around the dog’s environment to see what might be causing the emotional response from your pooch.  Remember, it’s all about context!


One must also consider that human interference and selective breeding has made tail talk more challenging for some dogs.  Tail docking, corkscrew tails, and tailless dogs cannot express themselves the same as a dog with a full tail, making it more likely for their body language to be confused by humans and other dogs.


Some dogs talk with their tail more than others, thanks to our human meddling.  Did you know we chose to dock tails in our guard dogs, such as the Doberman, so intruders would have less to “grab on to” during a dog attack?  Sled dogs have high-held plumed tails that curl over their backs, to provide a strong visual marker for driver of the sled.  Similarly, we have bred Beagles to have a white tip at the end of the tail, so we can better track them as they scent on the ground for us.  Conversely, herding dogs tend to carry their tails low, as not to be seen and confuse the sheep or cattle.  Gun dogs are commonly trained to “point” with a stiff tail to alert their human of prey, and many have docked tails to prevent injury while out and about on hunts.  Not surprisingly, this endless variety can muddle translations and create miscommunications.


So start paying attention to your pup’s back end, and soon you’ll be a master at doggie tail translations!