Why do dogs wag their tail?

Is there anything better than coming home from a long day and finding your wriggling, happy dog wagging their tail when they see you return? It is hard to resist a dog that sees you and starts to wag its tail in greeting – it seems to be a universal sign of joy and happiness. Whether your dog is a large Golden Retriever with a long furry tail that smacks things and knocks them off the table or a mini Australian Shepard with a short little tail that almost vibrates out of control with energy.

No matter the size of the tail, any dog lover knows that a wagging tail is typically a sign of engagement, welcome, and “please come see me.” Few people can resist reaching down to pet a dog with a tail that is going wild.

Although most of us know that a wagging tail is an invitation, do we know what a wagging tail means to our dog? Does a wagging tail truly mean they are happy, or like a bark, do dogs communicate different things with different tail wags? Talking to some dog experts shows multiple reasons why dogs wag their tails, including other messages they can send with this type of communication.

Why do dogs wag their Tail

If we start to pay attention to dog behavior, we begin to realize that animals communicate with us in so many different ways – barking, howling, and most importantly, tail wagging. That wagging tail is a universal sign that dogs in all parts of the world use to communicate with people and other animals. That wagging tail typically tells us that they are happy, engaged, and interested. But are those the only things that are communicated by the wagging tail?

What emotions are expressed when a dog wags their tail?

Since our dogs cannot use words to talk to us, they use their body to express different things to the people around them.

white dog jumping outsideDogs have many different feelings and use ears, eyes, bodies, and tails to tell us what they love and what they want.

Obviously, most people can recognize that when a dog is wagging their tail, they are happy to see us. Dogs that tuck their tail underneath them are probably worried, scared, or submissive, and a dog that has a tail held high, they are alert and watching. 

Tail wagging speeds – do different speeds mean different things?

If you had not noticed, dogs wag their tails at many different speeds – a fast-moving tail is typically expressing happiness or excitement. A fast wagging tail may be accompanied by barking, jumping, or upright ears, all expressing their happiness. 

If you have noticed that a dog’s tail is wagging, it could slowly mean a few things. Dogs that know you tend to wag their tail faster, that recognition gets a fast wag. Although a dog can still be happy to see a stranger, dogs may not wag as fast and furious as if they were meeting a friend. Usually, when the dog has determined that a stranger is now a friend, they may begin to wag that tail faster and faster. A fast tail is a good sign that the dog is enjoying the company of those they are hanging out with at that moment.

My dog’s tail stops wagging when I pet them, why is that?

If you use the tail wagging as your litmus test for happiness, you might worry when you see that your dog stops, even when you pay attention to them. happy dog smilingWhat happens is that when you start to pet your sweet dog, they often relax and stop wagging their tail. It does not mean that they are not happy, they are just distracted and paying attention to the lovely attention you are giving them, so they stop the wag.

Overall, tail wagging from a dog is typically a positive sign of doggy love. When meeting a new pup, you can generally be fairly comfortable greeting and petting them, but as always proceeding with caution is a good idea. Wagging tails aside, some dogs can still get aggressive so it is important to be cautious with any new dog. Using their tail to communicate is how they let you know how they are feeling, but some dogs have a wagging tail that can show insecurity if we are not paying attention.

So, to make things a bit more complicated, a wagging tail can mean:

  • Happiness
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Excitement
  • Joy
  • Engagement
  • Challenge

Paying attention to what the dog is trying to tell you is important. But in most cases, dogs wagging their tail is a good thing.

Bottom Line

For most dogs, a wagging tail is an invitation to engage with them and pay them some attention. Dogs use their body to communicate with us and with others, and we want to be sure we pay attention to what they are telling us.

In most cases, a wagging tail is a great sign of happiness and wanting to engage. If it is a dog that you know well, you can trust the signs and probably engage without any worry. Anytime you meet a new dog, even one with a wagging tail, it is always advised to proceed with thoughtful caution to be sure that what you perceive from the dog is true and genuine. 

Lisabeth has been a content blog writer for almost 10 years. She had fostered many dogs in that time, including 11 Golden Retrievers. She recently adopted an Australian Shepard named Shadow.

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