There are certain behaviors every dog owner knows all too well: the way your pet splays out for belly rubs, the way they bark at the mail carrier like he or she’s your pup’s mortal enemy, and the way they bounce with excitement the second you suggest that the two of you go for a walk. But there’s one question even the biggest dog lovers still have about their canine companions: Why do dogs wag their tails? Sure, most people already know that their dog’s tail tends to wag in the presence of people both foreign and familiar, but that still begs the question why—and, more importantly, what does it all mean?
Think of a dog’s tail as their communication epicenter. Just as humans frown when they’re sad and smile when they’re happy, canines employ a wide variety of different wags that they use in order to convey certain emotions.
“The primary purpose of a dog’s tail is to keep them balanced, but over time, the tail has adapted itself to be a way for dogs to communicate their emotions,” says Dr. Danielle Bernal, a veterinarian with Wellness Natural Pet Food. “It’s important to look at the dog’s body language as a whole, and, if you observe closely, there is actually much more you can learn by paying attention to your pup’s tail.”
Though most pet owners operate under the impression that a wagging tail is always a happy one, Bernal notes that this isn’t always the case. So, why do dogs wag their tails to one side or another? “When a dog wags their tail to the right, it is generally a sign of excitement,” the veterinarian explains. “But when they wag it to the left, it may indicate a feeling of fear.”
The phenomenon that Bernal is referring to was actually observed by researchers back in 2013 and documented in a study published in the journal Current Biology. When researchers analyzed how 43 different good boys responded to other dogs wagging their tails, they found that left-side tail wagging was associated with anxious behaviors and an increased heart rate, whereas right-side tail wagging elicited a calm and cool response.
And though wagging is a frequent form of communication for dogs, it isn’t the only thing they can do with their tails. As you might have already witnessed from your own canine, other common tail positions include horizontal and parallel to the ground—an indication of curiosity—and tucked in between their legs, which indicates that they’re feeling threatened and attempting to hide.
Even more so than that goofy smile that spreads across your pupper’s face when you display their favorite tennis ball or hand over a treat, if you’re ever unsure about how your dog is feeling about a certain situation, you can count on your dog’s tail to give their innermost emotions away.
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