Decoding Dog Tail Wagging The Meaning of 6 Different Wags

hound dog looking up sheepishly

Dog are very expressive creatures -- we just might not always know their language. Learn what these 6 different dog tail motions are trying to tell you.

When dogs wag their tails they are happy, right? Not always. Tail wagging is actually a complex way of communicating that evolved among the dog’s wild ancestors as a way to signal to one another from a distance. Dog tail wagging is such a communicative device, in fact, that dogs do not wag their tails when they are alone. Much like our words are reserved for interactions, so too are a dog’s wags.

A dog’s body language says a lot about how they are feeling, and tail wags are a big part of that language. So what are the different types of tail wags, and what do they mean? Let’s take a look.

#1 “I’m happy!”

This is the type of tail wag that every owner wants to see. The tail is held medium-high and moves broadly back and forth. A dog who is extra excited will wag their tail rapidly at this height and sometimes in wide, circular motions.

#2 “I’m sad!”

When the tail drops low, it is a sign that the dog is upset -- they are feeling submissive, sad, worried, ill, or fearful. A tail tucked between the legs is the ultimate sign that the dog is frightened, as a tail between the legs keeps the dog from releasing any scent that could draw attention.  

#3 “I’m mad!”

The tail is held erect and wags rapidly -- almost vibrating. A dog who is warning of an impending attack may exhibit other body language in addition to this type of wag, including growling, barking, bared teeth, and a tense posture.

#4 “I’m the boss!”

A dog who lifts their tail high (sometimes vertically) and wags it stiffly is letting you know that they are in charge. This dominant gesture is often accompanied by other body language -- head held high, legs apart, and ears forward.

#5 “I’m paying attention.”

A dog who is attentive and observant will hold their tail horizontal to the ground.

#6 “I’m confused!”

A slow, sweeping wag -- especially when accompanied by a head-cocked, quizzical look -- may mean that your dog is feeling confused, anxious, or insecure. You might see this type of wag after saying something that your dog doesn’t understand.

New research also suggests that wagging on the right side of a dog’s body means something different than wagging on the left side.

Right Sided Wagging

Occurs when a dog has positive feelings -- e.g., happiness, excitement, or satisfaction.

Left Sided Wagging

Occurs when a dog has negative feelings -- e.g., fear, aggression, or anxiety.

More on Dog Behavior

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How to Teach Your Dog "Yes" and "No"
How We Misunderstand Dog Aggression

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