A Wagging Tale

A Wagging Tale


Over the past twenty years I’ve had the immensely rewarding experience of companionship with Golden Retrievers and filled with happiness at their exuberant, wagging tails.  Their glee as they chase a ball in the field; the excitement of meeting a new arrival at the gate; anticipation of a treat; and the hopeful following of a new smell, nose to the ground and tail in constant motion.  The wagging tail, joyful happy grin and sparkling eyes never failed to bring happiness to the heart.

But it seems that not all dogs, in fact, not all Golden Retrievers, continuously exhibit their attitude and/or temperament by the wagging of their tail.  The dog’s tail is one form of communication used to tell their fellow four-legged associates about their current status; while their two-legged companions take educated guesses at what they’re saying.  And as humans we continue to attempt a translation; sometimes at our own risk.

The rapidly wagging tail, assumed to mean “I’m sooooo happy”, can also translate into “Boy am I full of energy.”  “What can I do to get rid of it?” “Who can I surprise and knock over?”  The true translation of the wagging tail is probably found in combining the tail movement with other body language events.

A dog’s tail movement can be consistent with the movement normally associated with the breed, but generally a fast wagging will usually be a sign of happiness and excitement; but at times can be a sign of aggression.  The dog’s human companion will normally understand their dogs tail movements and provide some guidance to newcomers.  An unattended dog should be approached with caution, if approached at all.

If you are new to the dog it is best to approach slowly and in a non-threatening manner.  Don’t rush the dog.  Instead let the dog find you and do a “let’s get familiar” sniff down.  Be casual and don’t attempt to pet until you get the sense from the dog that it accepts you.  Then pet its side or back with your hand.  More petting can follow but don’t make a fuss.   Some dogs do not like head petting so start with the body.   If you feel any tension or aggression break contact and slowly move away.  Avoid fixed eye contact.

Generally the tail held high is an indicator that the dog is alert and aware of the surroundings and usually comfortable with the situation.  But, an alert dog can also be ready for unexpected changes – like fast movements in its direction.  A tail held low between the legs will often mean the dog is fearful (dogs in fear are probably the most common biters).

A relaxed dog will have a comfortable stance with no body tension.  Its ears will be high or relaxed (long eared dog ears will hang straight).  The tail is handing or non-excited and the mouth will be slightly open and the tongue probably hanging out.

An alert dog, one that may not be totally comfortable with the situation may display its tail straight out and assume a more rigid and dominant stance.  Its ears will point forward (long eared dog ears may pull back).  The mouth is closed and the eyes open and alert.  It is best not to challenge this dog by making direct eye to eye contact.

A dog may show aggression, dominant or fear, both of which can quickly lead to a bite or worse.  The dominant aggressive dog’s tail will probably be raised or rigid and bristles may appear on the tail and back (hackles).  Its ears will be pointed forward (long eared dog ears won’t stand up but will move toward the crown of their head).  The mouth is open and lips may be curled.  Its overall stance will demonstrate an aggressive posture and usually leave no doubt that the dog is prepared to defend or attack.

The fear aggressive dog will assume an almost opposite stance.  Downcast, tail down and between its legs.  The ears will lie back along the head (long eared dog ears will also be pulled back).  The mouth is pulled way back and the lips may curl.  The posture will resemble a frightened soul and appears that it may just want to “slink” away.  But, don’t assume it will.

The bottom line:  Watch the tail for a preliminary indicator and then account for any other signals the dog may be sending.  Most visits with your friends who have dog companions will probably be enjoyable.  Take any advice your friend may provide about the dog and let the dog get to know you on its terms.  Keep quick movements and staring to a minimum.

If you do not know the dog, and their human companion is not present, avoid close contact.  A dog that appears friendly on one side of a fence or door may become territorially aggressive if the barrier is removed.  Error on the side of caution and remember that any dog has the capacity to bite or turn aggressive.  They know their comfort zone and their body language communicates that to other dogs – humans have not yet mastered that language although dogs may believe we have (after all, they seem to know our language).

One last note – children.  Never leave children alone with a dog until the dog and child have been socialized together, and have your complete trust in both of their behaviors.   Never leave a child alone with an injured or sick dog.  If a child is not familiar with the dog (or dogs at all), and vice versa, never leave them alone, even for the shortest period of time.


Written by Ron Lueth, Pet Guardian Angels of America  This work may be shared through the Creative Common License only if attributed to Pet Guardian Angels of America

These articles are posted as part of PGAA’s curation efforts.