In much the same way humans communicate via speech, dogs (as wall as most Canid species) communicate with one another mainly by way of visual body language cues with the use of their ears, eyes, stature, dogs tail and more.
A complete understanding is a fantastic thing! Our pets do in fact ‘talk’ to us- all the time, perhaps even more often then we talk among ourselves.
Keep in Mind
When trying to accurately ‘read’ the visual cues given off, it is very important to account for everything- tail, body stance/posture, eye contact/focus, ears, mouth, even sometimes their fur. Usually you can pick up on a particular emotion by just one aspect, but it is just as easy, if not easier to misinterpret signals by not accounting for the whole picture. It really isn’t as complicated as it seems; after a short time, this will become natural to you- you won’t even need to think about it.
- A child approaches a dog, and is bitten. The dog is slowly wagging its tail back and fourth, but also maintaining a rigid, slightly forward posture, direct eye contact, and curled muzzle. “But he was wagging his tail!”
Does a wagging tail always indicate happiness?
The answer here is no, it does not. While sometimes a dog wagging it’s tail is indeed happy, joyful and friendly, it can easily mean fear, anxiety or aggression (which is why it is important to account for every visual cue given, not just one).
Notice the photo of the dog to your right. You can’t tell if it is moving or not, but you do see it is holding it’s tail straight back. This could indicate various things- usually intent or focus. However- combine that with the relaxed facial position, head slightly tilted and mouth open, relaxed posture, etc. It is a safe bet that this dog in a good mood. Knowing weather or not it is moving (tail, body) could tell us even more. A ‘fluffed’ appearance has indications too, but unfortunately this breeds tail is always somewhat fluffed.
Dogs Tail Movement
What do you think is going on in the mind of this Beagle? Consider facial expression (yup- they can have expressions), eye contact, ear position, stance, and the tail position (appears to be wagging).
Ok- give up? He/she looks aroused, like a game is about to begin. Fetch, for example?
Movement is very important to consider when reading tail signals. A dog’s vision is much more sensitive to movement then human sight, of course the use of movement to communicate making so much sense! Their tail is like an antenna; it is meant to send various signals. Is the dogs tail wagging swiftly back and fourth, held rigidly behind or straight up in the air, or is it slowly moving from side to side? Is the dog holding it’s tail relaxed, low to the ground, or tucked in-between it’s legs?
Fast/Rapid, Broad- This is a friendly indication, often meaning the dog is exited.
Tiny, Rapid End Movements– Another indication of excitement
Slow- A slow wagging tail, usually held at ‘half mast’ (often neither high nor low), is a signal of insecurity.
- A tense, highly held tail moving slowly back and forth can be an offensive sign; use caution if this is observed.
Dogs Tail Position
High- A tail held high is often a sign of confidence and dominance, but can indicate aggression.
Straight Out- In this case, it would be easier to tell you what this signal does not mean; other visual cues usually need to be accounted for along with the straight tail. Look at the dog’s face and head/eye position and body stance. Again- this may seem difficult, but in time will come so naturally you don’t consciously need to think about it.
Low or Tucked- A submissive signal (especially tucked under body). Can mean fear, timidness, or even pain. A tucked dogs tail is often a dead giveaway; one of the easier signals to pick up on. Notice the dog to your left; it’s tail is tightly tucked underneath its body, it is ‘crouching’ hunching (a fearful, avoidant dog will try to make itself look as small as possible), averting eye contact with a downward head position.
Docking a Dogs Tail
Cleanliness and sanitation are two of the original purposes for a docked dogs tail, especially huge, bushy tails. The idea of removing a tail for cosmetic reasons is also popular. Considering a dogs tail is used largely for communication, one might say this is needless and cruel (in the case of simple appearance).
Dogs not only use their tails for communication, but also as a kind of ‘fan’ to spread their scent; this becom
es impossible when docked.
A dog’s tail is not just flesh and fur, it is a continuation of their vertebral column, their backbone. Docking a dog’s tail entails removing a portion of the animal’s spinal column. Where as this must be done by a licensed Veterinarian today, breeders with no medical knowledge would often carry out this procedure in the past. In many areas, it is still completely legal today for untrained farmers to dock the tails of herd animals.
The photo to your right shows an x-ray image of a dog’s tail. If you notice, there is a fracture near the middle.
A Bit Of History
The original ‘dog tail’ belonged to these guys (photo to left), Grey Wolves (Canis lupis). Through both selective and natural cross breeding, we now have oddities (right), which can be somewhat difficult to read at times. The animals sometimes have limited control of motion as well.
To the left is a photo of a Grey Wolf, from whom modern domesticated dogs derived. To the right is a photo of a Japanese Akita.