Do Dogs Wag Their Tails When They Are Happy?

A wagging tail could mean a number of different things.
It's always great to come home to a happy a household and a dog that loves you. When you open the door, the first thing that most people see is a dog running towards them with his tail wagging and their collar rattling. It is an indicator that he is happy and excited that his owner is home.

In that instance, yes, it's true that the dog's wagging his tail is a sign of happiness, but what most people don't realize is that a wagging tail is not always a sign of happiness. It can actually be a sign of a number of things, including aggression.

Types of Tails
Before we go into the different signals of a wagging tail, let's take a moment to identify different kinds of tails. These different kinds of tails can alter and limit the meaning of a dog's tail language significantly. These different tail types include:
Check out this pug's corkscrew tail.

  • A Cork Screw Tail- These tails can be found on pugs and bulldogs. These tails will sometimes straighten up when a dog becomes tense or feels threatened.
  • A Docked Tail- A docked tail is a tail that has been surgically shortened in the days after birth. "Docking"- as it is often referred to- was originally done during the days of the Roman Empire and was kept in practice to help keep working dogs safe. Today, however, many animal rights group see the practice as a form of animal cruelty. In fact, there are actually a number of areas that have made the practice illegal.
  • A Flagpole Tail- Flagpole tails indicate a tail that stands straight up, and it can often be seen on Beagles. Sometimes these tails can fall limp, which is indicative of a few things. A limp tail can be a sign of a bruised, concussed tail- often referred to as "Beagle Tail" or it can be a sign that a dog is nervous.
  • A Saber Tail- These tails are held in a slight semi-circle and are often seen on German Shepherds. When these dogs are at rest, the tail falls downward with a slight upwards curl, but when they are in motion or excited, the tail will lift a little higher and curve a little bit more.
  • A Sickle Tail- The sickle tail is similar to the saber tail because both have a slight semi-circle curve to them. But unlike the saber tail, the sickle tail stays upward above the body. These tails are often found on Siberian Huskies and Chihuahuas.

The Wagging Tail

Beagles are known for having a "flagpole" tail.
Dogs begin to wag their tails about 1 1/2 months after they are born as a way to communicate to their mother and the rest of their litter. They use their tail to communicate everything from anger to aggression to happiness; it all depends on the circumstance. It DOES NOT always mean that a dog is happy and wants to be petted.

According to veterinarian E'lise Christensen Bell, "It is so important for people to realize that a wagging tail does not equal a dog that is friendly or wants to be petted... It can, but you are much better off looking at the entire dog. If there are stiffened muscles, dilated pupils, tense facial muscles, or ears pinned forward or back, these are signs that you should back off."

The key thing to realize for us owners is that we must pay attention to the physical cues of the entire dog, not just the tail. Because dogs are limited in the ways that they can communicate, they use their tail (mixed with other physical cues) to express themselves in a multitude of ways. Once that is realized, dogs and owners will have a much better understanding of each other.

By: Tim Snyder
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