Why do Dogs Wag Their Tails?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Tail wagging is a behavior closely associated with dogs, who seem to engage in it more than other animals. The exact reason why dogs wag their tails may not be entirely clear, but it does seem to be linked with a desire to communicate information to other members of the pack. Being inherently social animals, tail wagging can provide social cues. In combination with other body language, owners can use it as an indicator of how a dog feels about a situation.

A dog that is wagging its tail high in the air may be aggressive.
A dog that is wagging its tail high in the air may be aggressive.

Some animal behaviorists theorize that wagging the tail indicates submission. However, this is unlikely to be true, as a wide range of dogs wag their tails in different situations. Wolves, used for the basis of a great deal of behavior study, do not bear out the submission theory. For example, puppies approaching a mother to nurse will wag their tails, which suggests submission, but the mother wolf also wags hers, making this theory less plausible.

Wolves also wag their tails.
Wolves also wag their tails.

It appears that dogs wag their tails in social situations only, and do not do so alone. It may be that it is a response to stimuli that they experience. The position of the tail also appears to have some bearing on the meaning. Further study may reveal the deeper reasons between why dogs wag their tails, and it probably also differs from dog to dog.

Dogs appear to wag their tails in social situations only.
Dogs appear to wag their tails in social situations only.

A dog that keeps its tail high in the air while wagging it may be aggressive. Many large dogs wag in this fashion to indicate that they are dominant. If a dog is holding its tail up and waving only the tip, you should approach with care, watching for other signs like the position of the ears or growling. If a dog has its tail between its legs, however, it indicates submission. Frightened or nervous dogs may wag their tails stiffly between their legs. Approach this type of dog cautiously as well, since dogs can bite or snap out of fright.

Dogs often wag their tails in social situations.
Dogs often wag their tails in social situations.

When a dog holds its tail straight out, rather than up or down, it is a sign of interest and curiosity. The majority of dogs that wag their tails in this position are friendly and interested in what is going on around them, and they do not pose a threat. Studies have also suggested that dogs who favor the right when wagging have a positive response to the stimulus they are experiencing, while dogs who bear left are having a negative response.

An owner may be able to discern how her dog feels depending upon his tail wagging and other body language.
An owner may be able to discern how her dog feels depending upon his tail wagging and other body language.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


What about dogs being either right tailed or left tailed? It's kind of like humans who are either right handed or left handed. If they are right handed, humans are dominant with the right hand. So, if dogs can also be right or left tail dominant, then the entire explanation of tail wagging does not apply.


To show their emotion or they just like to.


My theory is that it comes from a desire to be seen. For the happy dog it could be like "hey I'm not trying to sneak up on you. I come in peace." For people that get bitten by dogs wagging their tails, it could be "look at me, I'm big and angry. You better back off." Until I searched for why dogs wag their tails, I'd never heard of people being bitten by dogs wagging their tails. I think my theory covers both cases nicely. I'm not a dog psychologist. Just a guy who thinks a lot and has dogs.


My dog wags his tail when I feed him and when I first walk into the house. He didn’t used to wag it when I fed him but since I put him on Natural Balance he can’t help himself.


i think the dog is wagging his tail because he wants to show his feeling in the form of his posture.


I believe that there may be an evolutionary reason for the tail wag. Dogs are very smell-oriented. They identify places and other animals by odor. Everyone has observed dogs sniffing each other's rear ends when they first meet. I suspect (without evidence) that the tail-wag is a way of wafting the dog's odor upon meeting another dog or a human. Or at least, that that is the adaptive reason it began.


This doesn't help me much. I have a 12 month old Lhatese (Lhasa Apso x Maltese) I got as a rescue when he was 8 weeks old. His tail curls up and over his back in a semi-corkscrew. He wags his tail when playing, when dreaming, when waking m up, in anticipation, but it is always held up in the coil.

I am getting him used to walking on a lash away from the house. We have been around the block three times in three days. He loves going out and fetches his collar and lash from his toy box.

But if a neighbourhood dog is barking behind a fence, or if he is walking uphill, his tail drops and sticks straight out behind him, only the very tip curled up. I don't know if he is curious or scared when he does this.


this dog matches my dog's behavior pretty correctly. when threatened his tail is high and wags despite baring his teeth and raising his hackles. I have definitely warned people to watch his front end, not his back end.


I don't know how old these comments are as i have only just discovered the site. However in relation to comment no. 1. your Bichon has obviously been abused and is constantly fearful.


So, if a dog wags his tail because he is happy, can you make him happy by wagging his tail for him?


The article is quite correct actually. You shouldn't just look at the tail wagging. Look at the head placement, the eyes, the ears, body stiffness, etc. Dogs wag their tails usually when they are happy, but it also can be a warning.


My dog, Darby, a black lab, always wags his tail, even when he is lying down, and he always hits the wall or floor really hard and it doesn't even bother him. Like, he'll be on the front porch, lying by the door, and I'll be inside watching TV or something and he'll start banging on the door with his tail. why do you think he does that?


My dog wags his tail all the time. When he's lying down it stops wagging and only starts again if I stroke him or start speaking. Even the slightest noise I make he starts wagging his tail. Do you really think he could be happy by just suddenly hearing the tiniest squeak of my voice?


I think, no one did answer correctly, including the writer. I am not a Vet, but I concluded: since the tail is connected to the spine, and the spine is connected to the brain, hence it must have a connection. Please try to ask the proper people!



I'm pretty sure that dogs wag their tails when they're happy, much like us humans smile. We can't help smiling or laughing, and dogs can't help wagging their tails. My dog Cookie is always wagging his tail, and he sometimes even looks like he's smiling; the corners of his mouth turn up when he's happy.

My other dog, Zyggy, can't really wag her tail; the breeders we bought her off cut her tail way too short. It's only about 5cm long. Still, she can wag the stump faster.


my dog wags her tail when she hasn't seen you in a while. i think they are happy so they show it off like "woo I'm happy!"


my dog doesn't stop wagging his tail when he's out walking, he wags his tail indoors only when he's happy.

the above statement is true for the tail up or down. my dog attacks male dogs, i can tell when there's a male dog ahead as his tail rises.

and yes his tail drops and wags quickly when he's scared if I've been yelling at the tv lol.


why are all the messages from the same person?


my mother has a rescued Havanese. She was 3 1/2 and had many litters. She didn't trust anyone. She is social with people and dogs now but she still does not wag her tail in response to people.


I always wonder if dogs wag their tails on purpose, or if they even know that the tail is wagging. My Cavaliers both wag their tails when I talk to them, or look at them, or when they're happy. But, I have no idea if they are physically controlling the wagging, or if it's involuntary.


dogs are social animals and therefore wag their tails when they are near others. For instance if a dog is near someone it knows it wags its tail. this is not the same with all dogs as some may just feel "strange" by wagging their tails.


My male dog wags his tail when I enter the room or when I talk to him. It thumps very loudly on the floor. My female dog doesn't wag hers so easily. She has to be excited about something.


My chi stops wagging his tail when I pet him, does that mean he is broken too? ;-)


I just think that dogs only wag their tails because their scent glands are located close to the anus and tail. They're just trying to spread their pheromones around and mark their territory.


This article is pretty much wrong on what it means when a dogs wag their tails. I can honestly say that when a dog wags its tail it is a sign of enjoyment or happiness. But if it does put its tail between its legs that means it is scared or nervous.


How so?


Your dog's tail is broken.


My dog often wags her tail while she's napping during the day. She appears to be responding to her dreams, similar to the way humans talk and move in their sleep. Any opinion or additional scientific feedback on this is gladly accepted.


This theory is entirely incorrect.

My German shepherd, Wags her tail alone.

I watch her outside from a window, And when i give her food, she wags her tail. Clearly she's happy.

Of course, There are many other reasons.

Dogs as so easily seen, wag their tails not only in play, but in joy.


i have a dog called jack and he is 4 years old. he always wags his tail. more when i stroke him... even when he is sniffing the floor he is constantly wagging his tail. the only time he doesn't wag his tail when he is lying down or asleep (obviously)


I therefore conclude that she isn't a dog...


I have a 2 1/2 year old Bichon, she was adopted from a shelter. I've had her for 1 1/2 years and she does not wag her tail.

What does this mean?

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