Ever wonder how dog communication is done? Did you know that a wagging tail is the main way that dogs communicate?

Dog Communication
Wagging tails and dogs

What does a dogs tail tell us?
Dog communication is done using their tails. Their tails are an important means of communication; their tail actions are evaluated along with other body language signals to determine what the animal is 'saying'.Most dog owners can tell you what their dogs tail is telling you at any given time. It takes time and observation to understand the body language of your pet.

Understanding what your pet is telling you is important for building a close relationship between you and your pet and for evaluating whether a strange dog is friendly or potentially dangerous.

For the new dog owner, there are a few points to help you get started. A dogs wagging tail is just one tool that the dog uses for communication; dog communication also includes:

  • vocalization
  • scents
  • eye and ear movements
  • pupil dilation
  • general body positions
A dog has to be evaluated as a whole to determine what he/she is saying.
  • a confident and alert dog has his/her tail upright and may be wagging with slow sweeps.
  • a dogs wagging tail may be compared to a humans smile. However, it is more accurately an indicator of a dogs alertness.
Depending on the breed, their tail may naturally curl over their back when held upright. The confident tail is accompanied by perky or relaxed ears and an inquisitive gaze.
  • a fast, enthusiastic wag indicates excitement or anticipation of something good, such as a treat or play time.
  • a slow wag indicates that the dog is pleased.
  • a relaxed tail indicates a relaxed dog.
  • a tail that is held horizontal but not stiff indicates a dog that is interested in its surroundings.
  • a tail that is horizontal but stiff means the dog is confronting an intruder or new object.
  • a fearful, insecure, or submissive dog has his/her tail lowered or tucked in between their hind legs. Their ears may be flattened against their head and their head may be lowered or turned to the side, revealing the whites of their eyes.
  • an aggressive dog usually has the tail erect and motionless. The head will be very high, with ears pressed against the head. The dogs stare is intense, direct and focused. Teeth may be bared if the dog is growling.
In addition to expressing emotion, tail wagging also helps dogs communicate their rank in a hierarchy. As highly social animals, dogs have a need for hierarchies in which each dog holds a rank in the pack. For example, a dominant dog will have his/her tail held high and wagging slightly when confronting another strange dog. Lower ranking dogs, on the other hand, will begin the encounter with their tails between their legs, wagging only slightly. The dominant dog is allowed to eat first, explore new areas first, and so on.

Wagging tails also spreads pheromones; pheromones are hormones produced in glands near the anus of the dog. These pheromones can be detected by other dogs and enable them to determine each others sex and social status. This is another aspect of dog communication.

So what about dogs that have no tails? Almost all dogs that have short or no tails have had them docked; only a couple rare breeds are born with no tail.

Docking a dogs tail is the amputation of the tail to a shorter length. In the past, this practice was done to reduce the chance of tail damage in working or hunting dogs; these days it is mostly done for cosmetic purposes. It is often done without analgesics (pain relievers). Many people believe that tail docking is a cruel, painful and unnecessary procedure. The practice is banned in some countries or must be performed by a veterinary surgeon (and not just an “experienced breeder”).

There have been studies performed to evaluate the physiological effects of tail docking on dogs. Aside from dog communication purposes, a dogs tail is also important for maintaining balance while running, turning quickly or while walking on narrow surfaces. So a dog with a docked tail likely has those functions compromised.

Amputation of a dogs tail may be done for medical health reasons, such as in the case of a broken tail that is not repairable.

A dogs tail is important for physiological functions such as balance and for communication purposes. Along with other body language signals, the dogs tail can tell humans a lot about what the dog is thinking.