You see your dog wagging their tail, or slouching away with their tail tucked, or even holding it straight out, but what does it all mean? Have you ever even considered the plethora of possible meanings your dog could be trying to convey, or did you always just chalk it down to ‘happy’ or ‘sad?
Alertness, Joy, Dominance
There certainly are a dog’s tail position for ‘happy’ and ‘sad’, but also for anxious, aggressive, frightened, injured, attentive, focused, dominant, and pretty much any attitude you can imagine.
Look at the guy above; how do you think he is feeling? Probably playful and exited (as long as the tennis ball isn’t photo-shopped). In reality, a tail held high probably indicates security, dominance, or even playfulness. Even if that ball is photo-shopped, this dog is showing giving off a friendly, non- threatening persona.
On the other hand, a tail held in this fashion can very well indicate dominance or aggression.
My dog, for one, walks around with his tail in this position almost all of the time spent awake, and he is rarely upset. Loki is very easy to read.
What about this dog? It’s safe to say his tail is relatively pointing rearward. Well, tails held in this direction can in fact indicate alertness and focus, or contentment all the way to aggression (although this guy doesn’t appear to aggressive).
What’s that tongue all about? That’s the second thing I noticed, and it certainly has a meaning- but what? Some will say anything from scent gathering to anxiety to excitement to ‘calming down’ (not all may be correct). In this case, we can eliminate submissiveness or fear at least. Since he likely just went for a swim, to imagine the dog is calming down isn’t a far stretch.
Does a wagging dog’s tail always mean he or she is happy? In this fella’s case, a rapidly wagging tail does indicate a form of ‘happiness’, or excitement. In every case, no; a wagging tale doesn’t always mean happiness. Generally speaking, a slowly wagging tail at half mass (like the fellow above, if his tail were wagging) indicates insecurity, especially if only a portion of the tail is moving.
Small, rapid movements like that are also said to indicate the dog is about to perform some action.
In the end, it’s important to take in the entire picture. For example, it would be easy to just assume the animal staring you in the face below is extremely dominant aggressive, but in fact it is more fearful than anything. Notice how the two dogs hold their ears, even the shape and form of a dog’s snarl indicates either fear based aggression or dominance.
Though I can’t see it, I would guess both this dog’s (the one facing us) tail and overall posture is held low, slouched.
Submissive Aggression; Submissive Anxiety, Fear
In the last picture below, you can see three dogs, all showing distinct signs of insecurity. Notice how they all attempt to make themselves look smaller? Number one and two have their tails tucked inward (and we can assume number three does, too). Number two seems defensive, and number three- well, that little guy is desperately seeking avoidance.
- body bent forward, head down
- tail down and limp, or tucked
- ears folded back
- eyes avoiding looking directly at anything, pupils dilated
- Image from positivemed.com