Dogs primarily communicate with each other using nonverbal cues, and a wagging tail is one of those cues. Although many people think that any type of wagging tail means the dog is happy, the truth is far more complex.
So why do dogs wag their tails?
A wagging tail is a quick and easy way for a dog to convey his mood to those around it. It can be similar to a human smiling or waving during a greeting, although it is not always a positive gesture. Dogs do not generally wag their tails when they are alone, just like humans don’t wave to the walls of an empty room.
The height and speed of a dog’s tail is often a clue about what the wagging means. Happy dogs generally hold their tails at a relaxed, middle height and wag in a loose motion. Fearful dogs usually hold their tails low and may tuck them under their bodies completely. A high, fast-moving tail is not necessarily a good sign. It may indicate that the dog is aggressive or trying to dominate another dog. A high straight tail can also mean that the dog is curious or on high alert. The exact tail carriage can vary depending on the breed and the dog’s natural conformation.
Even the direction of the wag can be full of meaning. Dogs use both sides of their brains to control their tails, but they regulate happy emotions with the left side of the brain and more fear-based emotions with the right side. Believe it or not, this means that when a dog is happy, such as when it sees its beloved owner, the tail tends to wag more heavily to the right. When the dog is afraid or uncertain, the wag is biased to the left.
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Tail wagging has one other important function. Dogs like to mark their territory with scent, and the sweeping movement of the tail helps spread out scent from the anal glands. Other dogs can then detect that and know which of their friends have been in the area.
Although dogs are man’s best friend, communicating with each other can sometimes be difficult. Tail wagging is an important clue that helps humans and other dogs determine what their four-legged friends are feeling.
Next time you meet a new canine friend, watch for facial expression and body language – but also keep an eye on the tail!
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