“….but his tail was wagging!”

As a dog behavior consultant, I oftentimes work with families whose dogs have bitten people or other dogs. These families often feel hurt and betrayed by their dog’s actions. One of the most common bite scenarios I’m asked to interpret for confused and frightened families is one in which their beloved pet bit somebody unexpectedly, usually shortly after a family member witnessed him or her wagging their tail.

Photo by Sini Merikallio

A wagging tail is a universally recognized symbol of the friendly dog, so the fact that a dog could wag his tail and then bite somebody greatly concerns the dog’s owners. Is their dog unstable? How could his actions be so conflicted? Is there any hope for him now that he’s shown what an unbalanced dog he is?

This is one situation where a knowledge of canine body language becomes indispensible. I’ll let you in on a secret: wagging tails aren’t always friendly.

Think of a wagging tail as the doggy equivalent of a human smile, and you may start to see why dogs could wag their tails and still resort to using their teeth.

Human smiles are frequently meant to be signals of our friendly intent, but everybody can picture a scenario in which they may have smiled when they weren’t feeling relaxed and happy. Smiles are social signals, but they aren’t universally friendly. Sometimes people may smile because they’re nervous or uncomfortable. A very angry person may smile, but the smile won’t reach their eyes. Somebody may smile because they’re pleased about what’s happening, but you may not feel similarly happy about the state of events.

In the same way that smiles can convey many different emotions, so too can a dog’s wagging tail be related to a variety of moods. Dogs wag their tails in social contexts, but we need to look at the rest of their body language to evaluate why that tail is wagging. The worst bites I’ve ever received came from dogs whose bodies were stiff, with high, quickly wagging tails. Many nervous dogs will lower their tails and wag the tips quickly, but may bite when the person who frightens them turns away, as they finally develop the courage to let that person know how they feel when that person is no longer directly facing them. Dogs who stress up will wag their tails as they bounce around, but are not doing so because they feel happy.

In truth, the only thing that a wagging tail tells us is that a dog plans to interact with us in some way. That interaction may or may not be pleasant and affiliative, and only the rest of the dog’s body language can tell us what’s really going on. If a dog is wagging his tail in a big helicopter motion and shows relaxed body language with soft, squinty eyes, the chances that he wants to greet you and be petted are quite high. On the other hand, a dog who stares directly into your eyes with a lowered head, stiff body posture, and upright, quickly wagging tail is a dog who does not want to be approached, and is telling you as clearly as he can to keep your distance.

When it comes right down to it, it’s important to remember that dogs don’t speak English. They don’t have lawyers and can’t write letters to the editor when they feel upset. Dogs have a rich and complex language, with many subtleties and nuances that are lost on us. When a dog bites, he’s often told us in every way he could how upset he was, and been ignored. Sometimes a bite is the only way he has of letting us know what’s wrong. The more we can learn to listen to our dogs by watching their body language, the better we can live in harmony together.

Does your dog’s tail wag change based on how he’s feeling? What does it tell you about his emotional state? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

11 responses to ““….but his tail was wagging!”

  1. I have a German Shepherd mix and by watching her tail, I know exactly what she is planning. Usually it’s 11 at night when I take her for her potty break and she thinks she sees something or someone to bark at. Her tail gets stiff and raises up like a flagpole. She thinks she needs to police the neighborhood. But if someone comes over to her she relaxes and is extremely friendly to them.

  2. Laura Haselhorst

    I will have to watch Ami’s tail more closely – it’s so fat that I sometimes struggle to determine whether it’s high or middling. He does tend to have very loose body language when meeting strangers in public, but only truly “windmills” when he’s running too fast and needs to stop to pick something up… it looks like he’s trying to use it as a sail!
    On the other hand, Hershey’s tail has always been pretty easy to read – she has very definite “high”, “middling” and “low” tail positions that go with her mood, when she’s sad or anxious it’s low, when she’s happy and relaxed it’s middling, and when she’s trying to show she’s the boss it’s up and curling over her back a bit (she does this a lot when we walk up the driveway and encounter the neighbor dog, who is big and rude. We think she is trying to tell him “this is my personal driveway, not yours, and you don’t want to mess with me!”) . Her tail doesn’t really wag quickly anymore, regardless of posture, probably because of her arthritis, but it’s nice that she still uses it to communicate with us!

  3. My dog is definitely someone who wags her tail in good and bad times. My father took her for a walk and luckily I was there. He saw her wagging her tail and we approached a neighbor (male) and I knew she was not happy, and he was about to let her go up and didn’t understand-he said that her tail was wagging. I had to explain myself-you are right it is a big misconception that wagging tails mean they are happy and going to be friendly.

  4. I really like your blog. You do a great job explaining things in a clear and accessible way. Very nice!
    …that’s all…:-)

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  7. Wow! This explains a lot but it also makes it more scary I have a dog in my home now, who I love, but has become rather aggressive. He started out here wagging his tail and everybody loved him, but now …. well, he seems more stiff, and definitely not as friendly and gentle. It’s really becoming an armed camp in our house, but I don’t want to get rid of him. I’m really at a loss.

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  11. My dog wags his tail in good and bad moods. He can nip and wag his tail and when he wants to play he wags his tail. But he was abused before I got him. He can be the most loving dog at times. But when my nice walks he goes after her feet. He nipes and then he licks her feet like I am sorry. How do I get him to stop going after her feet? Can anyone help me?

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