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The Talking Tail

Can a dog's tail talk to you? Of course, it can!

We all know that a happy dog has a waggy tail, and a relaxed swing and the rest of the body follows in this happy-go-lucky way in which they communicate that all is well with their world.

Dog tails come in all shapes, sizes, lengths, colours and furryness! Some are extra long, some are stubby and almost non-existent, others are almost bare of fur and others have curtains of hair hanging from them, colours vary obviously and curliness too, from a corkscrew design to a long elegant length. They all do the same thing and have the same purpose for a dog, they communicate to us.

There is more to a dog's wag than just happy moments and sometimes not-too-happy moments. Their tail is arguably the most expressive part of their body, it is one of the most important parts of their communication system when expressing themselves to the world around them. You can learn so much about your dog just by watching its tail, are they in a good mood or tired mood, are they worried about something or trying to alert you to a situation you are not aware of or are they feeling vulnerable? The more you watch a dog's tail in its environment the more you understand your dog. Take time to watch and you will be surprised at how easy it can be to interpret your dog's mood. Of course, all dogs are different and angles and speed and movement vary immensely between dogs, also the size of a dog, his tail, age and energy all play a part in slight variations on a tail's movement to communicate.

A dog's tail when wagging also gives off its own unique pheromones to other dogs, a signalling system and also helps them communicate with other animals.

Puppies on the other hand do not use their tails for communication purposes until they are between 30-50 days old, they use their tails mainly for balance, and with their under-developed bodies their tails help keep them stable. As they start to grow they copy each other's wags and watch other older dogs by mimicking them and realising that there is a communication system between themselves using their tails.

A dog's tail has two components when moving to communicate these are movement and placement. The movement is speed and swing and placement is if a tail is up, down, or under one side or the other. The two work together to create a visual clue as to what a dog is thinking or about to do and their mood and state of mind.

So what do these positions mean?

A dog's tail is usually in one of four positions, up, down, horizontal or under.

Placed Up

This is a confident position, the tail is pointing upwards in the air. A dog with a tail like this is showing confidence, alertness, excitement or is aroused. It can also be a dog not being friendly or wanting you to keep away. If the tail is up and also bending over their back this can also be a dog who is over-stimulated, on high-alert or very excited, although some dogs naturally have a tail like this, it is always best to check with the dog's handler (if there is one) whether to approach their dog.

Placed Down

This tends to be the opposite of a tailed placed-up. A dog with a down tail (not moving or wagging) is concerned, lacking in confidence and often can be submissive. If the tail starts to wag then it may be a delayed response to the environment around him. Slowly as the dog becomes accustomed to people, things and situations their tail may start to wag more and come up as they become more assured of their situational awareness.

Horizontal Placement

This is a neutral position, the dog is in a relaxed posture and state of mind. The tail can be wagging or not, but when in a relaxed horizontal position they are comfortable with their surroundings.

Tucked Under

A dog whose tail is tucked under the body is a dog lacking in confidence, maybe fearful and unsure of its position with other animals and people. They may be feeling threatened and totally submissive. It is always best to be careful with dogs with their tails tucked under as even though they may be fearful or showing anxiety their response can be unpredictable. Caution and careful movements around dogs doing this are required so as not to spook the dog or make their situation feel worse.

Also if a dog is not well, or has recently had surgery they may tuck their tails under as a protective mode to help with healing or if they are feeling uncomfortable or in pain.

Speed and excitement of a tail

As a general rule the faster a tail wags the more excited a dog is, the slower it gets the less enthusiastic they are.

If their tail wags broader (wider) they are happier and more content, often a dog's whole body moves in sync with the tail, and their back end and hips seem to be wagging too, this is a happy dog who is approachable and happy to see you.

As the tail wags with smaller strokes, they are starting to show that they are not so happy or getting more anxious about something.

If a tail wag becomes almost stopped in motion this shows the dog is anxious and unsure of a situation, especially if in the upright position, this shows insecurity and/or assertiveness in a dog. Also if the tail is in the vertical position and still wagging in short strokes fast this can be an active threat, so caution is required, the dog is telling you he is uncomfortable with something and may react accordingly.

Wag to the Left or right

Although still questionable a lot of research has been done on why dogs may wag to one side or the other, it is said that wagging or holding a tail to the left indicates a dog is meeting someone unknown to them and may want to show assertive behaviour. If they wag to the right or hold the tail to the right side it he has already met the person or animal in front of them.

How about stubby tails?

Just like with long tails, short tails and stubs also act the same way. The tail is the extension of a dog's backbone so any movement of the backbone will reflect in the tail, the same placements can be seen by looking at the base of the tail and angle the dog is showing and of course speed too can easily be seen.

Female "on heat" and Tail Flagging

Let us not forget that when an unneutered female dog is on heat (in season) she will move her tail to one side to invite a male dog to mate with her. This is known as "Tail Flagging" a kind of flirtatious behaviour to encourage males to come to her.

Regardless of anything it is always best to read the entire body of a dog before approaching or deciphering a dog's mood. Their ears, eyes, hackles (hairs) on their back, do they appear relaxed or dead still and facing you down. The tail is a great communicator which must always be read alongside the rest of the dog's body language.

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