What’s Dog Body Language Got to Do With Their Tails?

Short, thin, long, wide, fluffy, or bald. A dog’s tail may vary in appearance, but they all represent the same thing, a social signal. Unfortunately for us, the dog species has not yet evolved to fluently speak any human language. It is therefore important to understand a canine’s body language in order to fill the language barrier. After all, they are man’s best friend.

Dog Body Language

A dog uses body language as a social signal to connect and communicate with us. It is true that dog’s also use their vocal chords to interact with us. However, even their vocal signals are paired with certain postures, or movements which help us decipher what our canine friend is really trying to say.

Reading Dog Body Language

Reading your dog’s body language can be pretty simple at times. It really depends on the enthusiasm and of course the context.

You’re at a park, there’s a ball in your hand, your dog bows down, their bottom is up in the air, their tail is wagging frantically. Here it is clear that your dog wants to play. You know this, I know this, your dog knows this, it’s not hard at all.

Your three-year-old daughter keeps pulling on your dog’s tail. Your dog is staring at this little person, they move away slightly, a small growl escapes their mouth, their tail is wagging again. Does this mean your dog wants to play? Your dog’s tail is wagging isn’t it? The correct answer is no. Your dog doesn’t want to play. This is obvious due to your dog’s body language as a whole, as well as the environment and social context around your dog.

Doesn’t a Wagging Tail Always Mean Happiness?

It is true, that your dog’s tail may wag when they are very happy. You have seen it in cartoons, on movies, everywhere: the cute and playful puppy smiling up at its owner, tail wagging, ready to play and ready for some love. It is a common misconception that a particular social signal is only associated with one emotion or need.

This is why reading your dog’s body language is critical. A social signal such as a dog’s tail isn’t meant to only tell us one thing. So, stop, relax, focus on the detail. Is your dog’s tail pointed upwards, downwards, horizontally? Is it moving? Different movements and postures associated with your dog’s tail will tell us different things.

Tips for Dog Body Language

  1. Give your dog time and attention: Reading your dog’s body language won’t happen overnight. We are able to read human social cues due to our instincts. However, this is different when it comes to interspecific relationships. We need to give our dogs time and attention to diligently assess their body language.
  2. Read the situation: Assess the environment and its factors. Are there any objects or beings which may affect your dog’s mood?
  3. Read their facial expressions: When a human uses their body to react in a certain way, they usually accompany their body language with a facial expression. For example, a woman is upset, her shoulders may be lowered and her movements may be slow, but her facial expressions further convey the message of sadness due to a frown. The same is true for dogs.
  4. Focus on one body feature at a time: It’s hard to pick up small details or changes in a dog’s behaviour if we are only seeing things as a whole. Start by focusing on one body feature at a time. For example, focus on your dog’s tail alone in response to different situations. After this you may move on to another body feature and do the same thing.
  5. Now, assess all body language as a whole: Now that you have a better understanding of your dog’s body features, it’s time to put two and two together. Link everything that you have learnt about your dog’s body features in response to environmental or social cues into one. Professional dog trainers use what’s known as the PET framework: paws, eyes and tail.

An Easy Example

The Dog’s Tail

  • Tail up and wagging: Playful
  • Tail horizontal and wagging very slightly: Interested
  • Tail relaxed (up or down, this depends on the breed): Calm
  • Tail down and tucked: Fearful and worried

Now try their eyes and paws!


A dog’s tail can tell us many different things. Sometimes it’s easy; when you’re holding their favourite ball, and they’re looking up at you with the most joyous look of love, bottom up, tail wagging, tongue out. But sometimes it’s a little harder. The key to reading your dog’s body language is to read the situation itself and to focus on other features too. Be diligent and aware, focus on the individual things!

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