Canine Body Language--Tails and Hair

Pawsitively Helpful Pet Tips

with DR. DEB

"Canine Body Language--

Dog Tails and Dog Hair"


People often assume that a dog with a wagging tail is a friendly dog, but this is far from the truth.  Dogs wag their tails for numerous reasons, including when they're feeling aggressive.  And a dog who isn't wagging his tail can still be friendly.  A dog's ability to use his tail to express how he feels is limited by the type of tail he has.  Most dogs have a "natural" tail that hangs down to somewhere near the hock (the joint between the lower thigh and the pastern on the rear leg).  Others, such as the pug, have tails that curl up and over their backs.  A few breeds, like the greyhound and whippet, have a tail that naturally tucks slightly between their rear legs.  And some breeds have naturally short bobtails or tails that have been docked.

When you dog is relaxed, he'll hold his tail in its natural position.  If he's feeling happy he may wag it gently from side to side.  If he's really happy, like when he greets you after being apart from you, his tail will wag more forcefully from side to side or might even move in a circular pattern.  If your dog feels nervous or submissive, he'll hold his tail lower and might even tuck it between his rear legs.  He may still wag it from side to side, often at a more rapid pace than if he's relaxed.  If he's really scared or feeling extremely submissive, he'll hold his tail tucked up tight against his belly.

When your dog is alert or aroused about something, he'll probably hold his tail higher than normal.  He'll hold it stiff, without any movement.  If he's standing his ground or threatening someone (a person or another animal), he may "flag" his tail, which means he holds it stiff and high and moves it rigidly back and forth.  It might look like he's wagging his tail, but everything else about his body tells you that he's not feeling friendly at the moment.

When a dog holds his tail he is indicating that he is stressed, unsure or fearful.  When the tail is tucked beneath the abdomen, the dog is very frightened.

When the tail is held just below the topline, the dog might simply be unsure.  The degree to which the tail is tucked, depends on the dog, the breed, the level of fear and reinforcement or punishment of the body language signal.  Some dogs will not tuck their tail when they are frightened.  Dr. Radosta has observed this in some Chow Chows and terrier breeds, although there are most likely many more dogs outside of these breeds who do not consistently display this body language signal.  That is why it is vitally important to consider all body language cues including: the dog's breed, the context and the movement of the dog in order to yield the most accurate interpretation.

A dog who has tucked her tail and also has er ears back, another indicator of fear.

Interpretation of tail carriage should be done with consideration of the normal tail carriage of the breed of dog.  If the breed's normal tail carriage is up over the body as in the case of the Siberian Husky.  An unfurled tail should be taken as a sign of fear, uncertainty or stress in that dog.

The tail carriage of the individual dog should also be considered.  In the photos below, the normal tail carriage of the dog can easily be compared to the fearful tail carriage.  The first photo shows the dog's tail in a neutral position.  The second photo shows the dog tucking his tail in response to the owner reaching for him.  The owner had been leaving a choke chain and leash on the dog all the time and correcting the dog with a jerk on the leash whenever he misbehaved.  As a result the dog is afraid of the owner although he is no better behaved.  When the owner reaches for him, he shows signs of fear by tucking his tail. 


Although dogs don't communicate much with it, you can discern some things from a dog's hair.  First, a scared or stressed dog is likely to shed more than normal.  It's as though the scared dog is blowing his coat, and it suddenly comes out in buckets!  You may have seen this if your dog gets nervous during visits to your veterinarian.  After the examination, you, the doctor and the table are covered with your dog's hair.

Dogs may also stick up their hair to communicate how they are, which is called "piloerection," or more colloquially, "raising the hackles." Although dogs' hair is most often raised over the withers (the area where the tops of dog's shoulder blades meet), dogs can raise their hair all along their spine.  Dogs raise their hair when they're aroused about something.  It's comparable to a person having goose bumps.  Raised hackles can mean that a dog is afraid, angry, insecure, unsure, nervous or wildly excited about something.  It is best to approach a dog with standing hair with caution.

NEXT:  Overall body posture as part of a dog's body language

Thank you to the ASPCA & Florida Veterinary Behavior Service, Lisa Radosta DVM, DACVB for the above information.


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