What do your dog's tail movements really mean?

We know that a wagging tail generally means your pooch is happy, but tiny variations in tail movements can mean different things. Here's a guide to decoding what your dog is telling you with their tail.

A dog’s tail is one of its most endearing features. As children, we obsessed over it, just like we did over shiny new toys. We used to gently (or ferociously) tug on it, signaling Fido we were ready to play. As adults, we smile at its wagging frenzy as if Fido’s electrifying happiness instantly becomes ours. Over time, it’s become quite obvious that a dog’s tail movements symbolize much more than just a simple motion; it’s a communication tool dogs use to translate their emotions. And like with any language, different words — in this case, tail movements — carry different meanings. In order for you to better understand what your dog is telling you, we’ve decoded a few common tail movements and positions to help you better understand what your pooch is saying. Read on to become fluent in “dog tail” and earn your official status as a savvy member of the pack!

What does your dog’s tail position signify?

Your pup’s simple tail placement (movement included) can reflect a variety of different feelings and emotions. Here are a few:

  • A wagging tail held high (but not too high) means your doggo is head-over-heels happy. This burst of joy is usually accompanied by a full-body waddle.

    Illustration of dog wagging tail in the air

  • A tail held high and still can either symbolize alertness or dominance. Whenever Fido’s tail is perked up in this manner, he’s either ready to pounce or simply stating his alpha status in the room.

    Illustration of dog with tail held high in the air

  • A tail held straight out (in alignment with the back) is your doggo’s confrontational stance. Fido is ready to fight — his tail is rigid, his hackles are raised, and his stare is unbreakable.

    Illustration of dog standing with nail pointing out directly to the back

  • A tail held in a neutral, relaxed position is your pup’s way of saying “I’m enjoying time on my own” or could mean that they’re feeling a little bored.

    Illustration of dog with tail in neutral position

  • A tail held low (near the legs or in between the legs) indicates fear, submission, uncertainty, or insecurity. If Fido’s tail is lowered but he’s barking and his hackles are raised, he’s more defensive than scared. But if his tail is stuck between his legs and his head is bowed down to the ground, he’s feeling anxious and frightened.

    Illustration of dog with tail between legs

Is a tail wagging dog always happy?

The common belief that a dog’s wagging tail symbolizes happiness is partially true - it can signify joy but it can also communicate a whole different array of emotions. The speed, frequency, and direction at which Fido wags his tail will help us understand what he’s trying to communicate:

Speed

In general, the faster a dog’s tail wags, the more excited they are about something. But the slower it moves, the less enthusiastic they are.

Illustrations of dogs wagging their tails quickly

Frequency

Broad, fast strokes symbolize joyful behavior while smaller, speedy strokes symbolize a bit of tension or uncertainty.

Illustrations of dogs wagging their tails with broad versus short strokes

Direction

Is Fido swinging his tail to the right? If so, he’s beaming with joy at the sight of you (his friends or his toys). If he’s moving it to the left, he might be asserting dominance upon seeing an unfamiliar face.

Illustration of dogs wagging tail to left and right

Do all dogs use the same language?

Most languages have dialects which are particular forms of a language with small variations in sounds and word usage. And guess what? Dogs have it too. Every dog uses similar tail movements to express themselves, but Fido (the outdoor husky from Alaska) and Finn (the indoor Yorkshire terrier from Manhattan) will show off slight variances in communication styles due to their differences in breed and upbringing. That being said, the above “tail movement” translations are a general understanding of a dog’s language, but your pup has a personalized version that you’ll quickly learn to comprehend as you get to know your doggo!

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