The Wagging Tail
The Truth about a Wagging Tail
Megan Brooks CDT, CGC Evaluator
I recently went to visit a couple who had a Bichon Frise with whom they needed help. Frilly, as they called her, had turned into some sort of devil dog it seemed, biting the owners and strangers alike with “no warning whatsoever”. As a dog trainer, I knew that dogs are highly unlikely to bite without warning but that people very often miss the clear signals that their dog has given. They also mentioned that she had wagged her tail before and while she was delivering the bite.
When Frilly’s owners disclosed the information about the tail wagging it sent red flags up in my mind. When asked about Frilly’s tail wagging both owners agreed that tail wagging could only mean she was happy and welcoming their approach. When I asked what the circumstances were surrounding the bite I was told that once she had been eating when one owner decided to pet her and the other time Frilly was chewing on a bone when a guest tried to pet her and she snapped, this time drawing blood.
Now I had all of the information I needed to determine where I thought the problem stemmed from, a case of food/toy aggression with the humans totally misreading the body language that Frilly had clearly given them.
I explained to the couple that not all tail wags were friendly gestures inviting them to touch her. The way in which a dog wags his tail and the other body signals present all need to be evaluated in order to determine their meaning.
A tail can be wagged in numerous ways, only one of which meaning that a dog is happy or inviting a person to touch them. One must judge not only how the tail is wagging, but how high it is held and even how fast it is going. Sure, a tail carried semi-low and swinging back and forth possibly even to the point of swinging the hips is a friendly wag indeed. Generally the faster a tail is wagged the more excitement it communicates.
A tail held high is a message of dominance and should be approached with caution. If the tail is wagging a bit, so it seems that the tip is vibrating, it is not a good sign! This communicates not only dominance and a less friendly greeting but also possibly impending aggression. A tail carried high over the dog’s back is a sign of a very confident dog and should be treated as if they could bite.
A dog who carries their tail low even to the point of between their legs is also a dog that is at risk of biting. These dogs are showing submission but also may be showing fear and a fearful dog is a dangerous dog. Most dogs will flee if they are given the chance but if you were to corner one it may feel it’s only option is to bite.
I think Frilly gave her owners a very clear signal before biting to protect her toy and her dinner. Whether or not people see the signs dogs give, generally the signs are there. I worked with Frilly’s owners to help them be able to read her body language better. I also advised them not to try to pet her while she is eating or while she is chewing a toy. We worked to desensitize her to having a toy taken from her so that she would no longer see it as a threat.
Last Updated: Monday, February 08, 2010