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What does an aggressive dog tail look like?

Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails? (It’s Not Always What You Think)

A dog running towards you with a wagging tail feels like just about the best thing for a dog lover. In this situation, many people believe it’s an indication of enthusiasm and happiness. Perhaps you’ve even been with a dog whose tail would always thump loudly on the floor whenever it had its belly scratched. There are also very eager dogs whose strong tails can kind of hurt when they happily wag them with reckless abandon in your personal space! But, a wagging tail can have many different meanings depending on the situation. What does it really mean?

Tails Tell Emotional Tales

Humans have hundreds of muscles in our faces that help us to make complex facial expressions to communicate how we are feeling to other people. Dogs use their tails to communicate their emotions to other dogs and humans. The pace and positioning of the wagging indicate what emotion the dog is feeling. Dogs’ eyes are very sensitive to movement, making this a great way for dogs to communicate clearly with each other.

What Does a Low Tail Mean on a Dog?

When your dog’s tail is low, usually between its legs, the dog is showing fear, insecurity, or submission. Every dog owner knows that the tail often goes straight between the legs when the dog is reprimanded. Some dogs may also put their tail between their legs when they are sick or feeling under the weather.

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What Does a High Tail Mean on a Dog?

If your dog’s tail is higher than usual, it may sense prey or something else lurking nearby. This is especially true in hunting breeds like pointers. These dogs instinctually point at prey nearby by stopping in their tracks, holding their tail high in the air, and lifting one paw off the ground.

A tail that is so high up that it is arched over the back may be a sign of aggression. Lifting up the tail this high releases more scent from the dog’s anal glands, marking the territory and letting others know to back off.

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What Does a Neutral Tail Mean on a Dog?

A neutral tail is at its most usual height. A tail held firmly in the neutral position and not wagging may indicate curiosity or a desire to investigate. A wagging tail at neutral or slightly higher means happiness and enthusiasm.

Dog breeds have different relaxed tail heights. Many breeds’ tails hang down naturally. Greyhounds‘ tails usually are so low they curl beneath them when in a neutral position. However, some breeds, like beagles, are more upright. Other dog breeds, like pugs, have short tails that don’t wag as much as others.

What Does Tail Wagging Speed Indicate on a Dog?

The faster your dog is wagging their tail, the happier they are. When a dog wags its tail so fast that it looks like it may be vibrating, it is called flagging. Some dogs are so friendly that their wag turns into a full-body movement that includes the rear hips wiggling back and forth.

A low and slow wag indicates insecurity. A super high and fast wag can be an indication of aggression. Many people believe that if the dog is wagging its tail then it is happy. However, you can still get bit by a dog wagging its tail up high.

How Do Dogs With No Tails Express Themselves?

Some dogs naturally have very short tails that aren’t as expressive. Other dogs have been through an accident that resulted in the loss of their tail. These dogs may approach other dogs and strangers with caution because they can not communicate as well. They will also use other cues to determine what the other dog is trying to communicate.

Other Ways Dogs Use Body Language to Communicate

Tails aren’t the only cue that gives you some insight into what your dog is thinking. Pay close attention to these other cues to read into your dog’s feelings.


Hackles are a special type of fur that dogs have along their shoulders and sometimes down their spine all the way to their tail. When a dog becomes aroused, due to something positive or negative, these hairs will raise up. It’s basically a response to a rush of adrenaline. It often happens in situations where the dog feels some aggression is necessary, but it can happen in situations of extreme happiness or playfulness as well.


Dogs can move their bodies in different ways to show you what they think. For example, when a dog wants to play, it will often do a “play bow.” This is when the dog lowers their chest to the ground and puts its rear in the air, sometimes with a little jump.

Other postures to look for include hunching over. In some cases, this can indicate your dog is feeling sick to its stomach. Other times, it means your dog is afraid of something and is trying to make itself appear smaller and less threatening. Scared dogs may also lay on their backs and show their bellies as a sign of submission and vulnerability, to further prove they are not a threat. Peeing in this position is also a sign of submission.

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Contrary to those positions, a dog that leans forward is often trying to make itself appear bigger, to intimidate something or someone, especially if the dog is making other aggressive movements. A forward lean without aggressive indicators could also indicate curiosity and interest.

Your dog’s paw positions can also indicate emotions. While pointers lift a paw to signal prey, other dog breeds often lift up one paw when they are uncertain of what to do next.

Facial Expressions

Even though dogs don’t have quite as many facial expressions as we do, they still do use their faces to communicate. Have you ever thought you caught a dog smiling? You’d be right! Some dogs do smile. In fact, Samoyed dogs are often called “smileys” because of how often they smile. However, a dog’s smile can look kind of scary to the untrained eye because they bare their teeth when smiling.

If a dog smiles with a relaxed posture, and a neutral wagging tail, it’s likely happy to see you. If it bares its teeth with an aggressive growl and posturing as previously described, it would be best to stay away.


Dogs can yawn when they are tired, of course, but they may also have excessive yawning in stressful situations. Yawning often helps them to calm down. However, you can use this to your advantage. If you yawn at your dog in a stressful situation, like a grooming visit, they will yawn back which might help them to feel calmer. Yes, yawns are contagious between dogs and people too!

Licking the Lips

Many dogs lick their chops excessively when they are nervous. If your dog just ate, they are probably just making sure to get every single last bite, but if they haven’t, they may be expressing anxiety.

The Eyes

Dogs communicate a lot by either looking or not looking. When your dog stares intently at something, they are likely sensing a threat. Dogs may also look away to try to diffuse a situation. If you are reprimanding your dog, you may read your dog’s side-eye as them being upset with you, but they are likely trying to make the situation calmer in the best way they know how.

Ear Position

When your dog’s ears are in their usual position, they are relaxed and happy. If their ears are pressed back but not pressed against the head, your dog may be worried about something. If they are back and pressed more tightly to the head, plus other aggressive body signs, your dog is feeling confrontational or aggressive. Upright ears may indicate pointing towards prey or alerting to something.

How & Why to Read Dog Body Language

You must consider your dog’s whole body, from the tip of the ears to the tip of the tail, to truly read their body language.

Knowing how your dog is feeling can deepen your bond and make training more effective. Want to learn more about dog body language? Check out a dog training book or contact a dog trainer in your area.

Reasons Why Dogs Growl While Their Tail Wags

Reasons Why Dogs Growl While Their Tail Wags

When you really think about it, our dogs need to be bi-lingual. They not only must understand verbal and non-verbal cues from other canines, but they must comprehend what we are saying to them.

Our dogs are far better at interpreting “people speak” than many people are at correctly deciphering “dog speak.” Classic example: a dog wags his tail while getting head scratches, belly rubs or even hand massages down the spine. Suddenly, without warning or explanation (at least in the minds of us two-leggers), he starts growling.

What’s going on? Is the dog suddenly switching from a state of bliss into one of agitation? Should you stop and back away, or continue petting him?

For your safety, stop petting.

“A wagging tail doesn’t cause physical harm. Unfortunately, far too often, people mistakenly pay more attention to the tail action than to the front end of the dog, specifically the mouth displaying a full set of sharp teeth,” cautions Alice Moon-Fanelli, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist in private practice in Eastford, CT.

She urges you to look at and assess the total dog before bending down and offering a belly rub. Some cunning canines use this belly-up posture with tails wagging side to side to lure unsuspecting people for growl, or even worse, bite attacks. These dogs make direct, hard stares and tense their bodies – warning signals that they are about to growl, snap or bite.

Growls come in different durations and pitches. The growl doesn’t always mean “back off,” which is why it is vital to assess what’s going on from head to tail before approaching or petting a dog.

Related Article: Dog Breed Guide: Bull Terrier

Consider these three very different growl scenarios:

1. A confident dog wanting you to move away will often deliver a low-pitched warning growl. His body will stiffen and the loose circular wag may become a stiff side-to-side motion.

2. A scared dog who really doesn’t want to defend himself may make a high-pitched growl-bark to get you to move away from him.

3. A happy dog attempting to solicit you to play with him may let out a few short growls as he plops into a play bow (his front legs are extended while he raises his rear end) and his body is relaxed, not tense. His eyes are soft, too.

Her take-home safety message: pay attention to the end of the dog that can really hurt you – the front end with the big teeth. When approaching a dog, be alert and avoid being one of these three types of people:
• The Clueless: This person mindlessly approaches a dog head on.
• The Caretaker: This person assumes a dog is scared and needs to be comforted.
• The Controller: This person believes he can overpower any dog with stern talk.

The best way to engage in a meaningful two-way “conversation” with your dog is to speak less and stop, look and listen to what your dog is trying to tell you. After all, the best communication always involves sharing and receiving. Learning to “speak dog” will help bolster a stronger friendship bond with your dog.

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Arden Moore

Arden Moore wears numerous “collars” in the pet world: editor, author, professional speaker, radio show host, media consultant and behavior consultant. Arden travels all over to help people better understand why cats and dogs behave the way they do. As “America’s Pet Edu-Tainer™,” Arden is also an in-demand TV and radio show guest, (including The Today Show, CNN, FOX, Martha Stewart and The George Lopez Show.) She is also a certified pet first aid, CPR and safety instructor with Pet Tech, the world’s leader in hands-on training and pet wellness classes.

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Dog Tail Signs: What That Wagging Means

You can understand a lot about your canine companion from his dog tail signs. That wagging or thumping on the carpet? You know your pup is feeling great. That feeling of dread when you walk through the front door and that same tail is tucked low? That tail tells you something has been destroyed by a bored pup while you were away. Whether you consider yourself fluent in wag or you’re still learning how to decode dog tail language, read on to learn more about how your pet communicates.

Cocker spaniel laying in the grass and wagging his tail

Spotting the Signs: A Guide to Dog Tail Language

A dog’s tail originally evolved to help him stay balanced, like a tightrope walker’s pole. It serves as a counterweight to the front part of his body when he’s making a high-speed turn while hunting and helps keep him from falling off narrow walkways.

Now that a dog hunt generally involves finding the last piece of kibble that fell behind the bowl, that wagging tail is largely thought of as a communication device. Here are five key things the placement of a dog’s tail can tell you, according to the Center for Shelter Dogs at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

  1. Circular swish: A dog whose tail is swishing back and forth or in a circular motion is one happy and relaxed pup.
  2. Lowered or tucked tail: A dog who is frightened or feeling submissive will often lower or tuck his tail between his hind legs.
  3. Tail wagging stiffly: A dog who is excited may wag his tail stiffly while jumping, spinning or sticking his rump in the air. His excitement may be from a positive source like an upcoming walk or a negative source like an intimidating stranger.
  4. Tail held horizontally: A tail held straight out indicates a dog who is attentive and alert or perhaps curious about something nearby. Traditional hunting dog breeds like pointers or setters also hold their tails out straight when they point at an animal or object.
  5. Sudden tail raise: When a dog moves his tail from a down position to a vertical or raised position, it could indicate he is feeling aggressive.

Reading Wag Speed

The speed of a dog’s wagging tail might also give you an indication of his mood, Psychology Today reports.

  1. Quick wag: A short wag usually happens during greetings when a dog is feeling tentative.
  2. Big, broad wag: This indicates a friendly dog who is not threatening anyone.
  3. Slow, reluctant wag: This might indicate a dog who is feeling anxious. Other signs of anxiety include avoiding eye contact, refusing food or ignoring what’s happening around him.
  4. Tiny, high-speed wag: A tail that moves in short, vibrating bursts can be a sign a dog is about to run or fight. Be careful!

Backside of Saint Bernard puppy on a leash on patio.

Dog Tail Language Barriers

Some dogs wag with long, expressive tails, but what about dogs with small, stumpy tails or no tails at all? A truncated tail may make it more difficult for dogs to communicate with their pet parents and with other dogs, writes Psychology Today. An observational study of more than 400 dogs greeting each other off-leash in a dog park showed a higher number of aggressive incidents involving dogs with short tails. This doesn’t mean that your corgi will inherently pick more fights than your shepherd mix, but it could be something to watch out for. Overall, the study found that only 12 percent of dog park incidents resulted in any kind of aggression. That’s a sign that dog communication has a pretty high success rate.

The tale of the tail? Dog tail signs help pups communicate not only with us, but also with other dogs. Knowing the meaning of how a dog is using his tail can go a long way to showing you how your pet is feeling.

Contributor Bio

Kara Murphy

Kara Murphy

Kara Murphy is a freelance writer and pet parent who lives in Erie, Pa. She has a goldendoodle named Maddie.

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