Even the Most Aggressive Dog Wags his Tail

There is this myth that frequently, if not CONSTANTLY gets circulated in the dog world.

And, this myth will get you, your significant other, your children, your friends and anyone else who falls prey to it BITTEN; sometimes significantly!

I’m not even sure where it started… but it is horrifically wrong and always has been!

People are under the impression that if a dog is wagging his tail… he is friendly and not showing aggression, even if he IS SHOWING other signs of aggression.

Oddly enough, it doesn’t matter if ever other signal is telling the person the dog wants to bite him.

Hackles up, teeth bared, lunging, eyes hard, body stiffened; people see a wagging tail as some kind of form of friendliness that negates any other outright sign.

The truth is:  even the most aggressive dog wags his tail and usually WHILE he is being overtly aggressive.

It is not about the “wag”, it is more about where the tail is held in accordance to his body; and what the other bodily signs are showing.

It’s All About the Tail Carriage

In my opinion, deciphering dog body language is all about tail carriage.

And by “all about” I am only talking about the tail.

We will get into other part of the body in a moment.

The Scared Waghappy retro cartoon dog wagging tail

A tucked tail, as most people know, is a sign of fear or submission.

But don’t be fooled, a dog with a tucked tail can also be aggressive if pushed to do something he doesn’t want.

And, that tucked tail can also wag quickly as the dog is threatening; this doesn’t mean the dog is friendly!

Whenever I see a tucked tail, I give that dog space; tucking means he is uncomfortable about something and it may very well be ME.  I may be an animal lover, I may think he is wrong for being fearful of me… but I am going to respect him and give him space and the ability to figure it out on his own.

I never force myself on a nervous dog!

The Rattlesnake Wag

A very highly held tail can be a sign of an aggressive or agitated dog.

Even dogs with cropped tails and curly tails can be assessed if you know the dog and the breed, as these dogs are still capable of raising their tail higher in its socket.

If the tail, or nubbin is at about a 90 degree level to the back, you should take note.

In my opinion, the dog with the most intimidating tail carriage is one that carries it high on his back.

These dogs are often very stiff with their bodies and sometimes lunging forward.

These also dogs often wag their tails uncommonly fast.

I call it the “rattlesnake” wag, it is like the dog can’t wag it any faster.

To me this denotes a dominant, aggressive, or super over excited, overstimulated dog.

When I watch dog/dog play and see 2 super high rattlesnake wags, I worry about the interaction of the dogs, unless one of the dogs rapidly changes tail carriage and body positions.

Keep your eye out for a super high tail and an exceptionally fast wag.

The Parallel Wag

Parallel Tail

Parallel Tail

When the base of the tail is parallel to the dog’s back (the tip may be higher or lower than the base), this usually denotes a friendly dog.  However even a friendly yet excitable dog can bite for more on that read this Why Your Dog’s Extreme Excitement Might Lead to a Bite. 

The tail is neither up and agitated or low, scared and tucked.

The more vigorous the tail wag at this stage, usually the more excitable the dog and as mentioned an excitable dog is more prone to bite.

I like a slow methodical wag and a soft squishy face for more on that click here.

The Circular Wag

And, I really like a circular tail wag!

Much research has been done on dogs and dog body language (which I find fascinating to read) btw.  I won’t get into right side/left side wags…

But in my opinion, the circular tail wag shows the happiest dog!

Not all dogs will wag their tail in a circle, which doesn’t mean they are unhappy, but I have found through experience and study of my own too, that a circular wag denotes the happiest of dog moments: like owners coming home from work, dogs seeing their favorite friends etc.

That’s Not All!!!!

But that is not all!

The tail is but one small piece of a dog’s language.

He also tells us his intentions through

  • His facial countenance
  • His eyes
  • His ears
  • His lips
  • His body posture
  • And of course his voice

You wouldn’t read the front cover of a book and be able to pass a college exam on it would you?

Then why… oooh why would we take one tiny piece of information from a dog and think we KNOW the dog?

I try to assess all I am given, but take special note of tail and eyes.

Well, and of course if a dog is barking and growling at me I will take that as a direct message of intent.

The truth is we need to be better about reading and understanding our dogs.

They learn our language, yet we barely take the time to know and assess their language!

Do your research, watch some dogs and learn!

And, above all spread the word,

A WAGGING DOG IS NOT NECESSARILY A FRIENDLY DOG!

 

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Comments

  1. Dolores Murphy says:

    This is really great information. Now I am more aware of tail wagging due to your statements. Thank you so much for posting this great news.

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  2. Linda says:

    This is very helpful.

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  3. I have learned a lot thru my dogs eyes. I do give them respect tho.

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  4. Karen says:

    good info!

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  5. hadas says:

    Very informative and important to know! Thanks!

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  6. Coleen Black says:

    Interesting information–good to know! Nice point made regarding us taking time to know their language. Thanks!

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  7. Millie's Mom says:

    My hound dog does the “rattlesnake wag” when she’s checking out the chipmunk condos in the woods.

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    Minette Reply:

    excitement wag 😉

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  8. Dorothy Gates says:

    Love your assessment of Wagging Dogs!
    I have what I call a Talking Doxie!
    She will wag her tail in a friendly fashion, and in Dog Language SWEAR at me, because her food is 15 minutes late. How in the world can dogs tell time, and why do they not adjust to Daylight Savings time?
    I an tell Muffie all of my problems, she never gives advise, but does know “good” people from “bad”. How can they do that?

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  9. Gloria says:

    All of this is true. Having had several different breeds of dog over my lifetime I have found it more accurate to use facial expression and eyes to judge a dog’s emotions. Tails can, as you said, give false impressions. It is much easier, and safer, to read the expression of the eyes and face. A happy dog appears to smile and it shows in his eyes as it does with people. Don’t stare directly into his eyes, as that is a sign of aggression if done by other dogs and people.

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  10. Lynn says:

    MY DOG IS A FEARFUL DOG. LOVES PEOPLE. DISTRUSTFUL OF OTHER DOGS.
    I HAVE TRIED SOCIALIZING HER AND SHE WILL TOLERATE OTHER DOGS IF SHE KNOWS THEM AND DON’T INVADE HER SIX FOOT BOUNDARY. THE EXCEPTIONS MY SON’S DOG AND THE DOG I HAD WHEN SHE FIRST CAME HERE. HE HAS SINCE PASSED AWAY. I FIND PEOPLE TRYING TO PUSH THEIR DOG INTO HER SPACE WHEN WE GO FOR WALKS. THEY WILL SAY “JUST LET THEM PLAY” no stay away

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    Minette Reply:

    Not all dogs are social and we certainly can’t force sociability

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  11. Will says:

    I get the rattlesnake wag a lot with my Small dog…. he looks me in the eye, does the wag, and It is almost always followed by barking at me b/c he wants something… can anyone specifically address how I should handle this? I have tried trying to make him do some type of obedience command: sit, down, come etc with some limited success. Telling him no or trying to correct it sometimes appear to nag him on more.
    Thanks for any help…

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    Minette Reply:

    You need consistent obedience.

    As mentioned this wag often comes with excitement as well as just aggression. Sometimes we must exercise our dogs so that they have an outlet for their exhuberance.

    But you also need to focus on obedience we have many products that will help you with obedience.

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  12. Janet says:

    How do you take the fear out of a dog was sleeping in the fire everybody got out safe but their anxieties are through the roof they also had to be in a kennel 4/28 days.

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  13. navneet says:

    great article.

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  14. Will says:

    I get the Rattlesnake tail very often with my little small dog. He always follows that up immediately with barking at me ferociously to get me to do something or pay attention to him. How can I handle this? I have tried doing some type of obedience command: sit, down, come… with very limited success. When I tell him “No” that almost seems to nag it on.

    Please help…

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  15. Michelle says:

    Now I understand why other dogs the same size or bigger than my dog (lab x) see him as aggressive. He carries his tail at 90° nearly all of the time and often bounces/lunges forward and bows to play. I try to keep confrontation to a minimum. He is highly excitable even though I constantly strive to reduce his excitement. I keep him away from the bigger dogs unless they are really placid. When he’s off lead he still does all the usual moves but the dogs are more tolerant. He can be submissive but usually with really annoying dogs. Any tips on trying to keep him calmer when meeting other dogs please.

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  16. Lou says:

    When my Japanese Chin “wants something” (bring his bone in the house etc)., he will sit in front of me, look directly in my eyes and wag his tail VERY slowly!

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  17. AnnaMarie says:

    My dog has a circular wag mostly all of the time.. However she is only a puppy( 8 months old). When she meets other dogs her tail stays circular but she usually lies down then and goes into submissive mode .. Even if the other dog is barking and being aggressive towards her she will roll on to her back. She’s a big softie but I guess as she gets older that submissiveness may change. I understand my dog as a result of Chet. Thank you Chet. U Rule

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  18. Betty says:

    We have a Cocker with a very short, cropped tail. Sometimes I can’t tell how it’s wagging so I have to rely on the rest of her body signals like you mentioned in your blog. Great information!

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  19. Robert M. Esch says:

    Wagging tails, bared teeth, open mouths eager to bite–we see a lot of this “dog play” at our dog park. Some dogs engage; others couldn’t be bothered. They act like they want to kill each other, but then stop and meet at the water bowl for a slurp. Then they take off running with my barking schnauzer trying to be the referee at the big dog park. At 14, he manages quite well. And tails are wagging everywhere. The hilarious insanity starts up every morning when the rock star arrives, a chow, who allows all of this to happen, stirs up the fun, ignores my dog who tries to jump on him, and then settles everything when he comes to his owner. The numerous wags–neither parallel nor rattlesnake–show the dogs’ great exuberance for life.

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    Minette Reply:

    dog to dog behavior is much different than dog to human behavior and communication. Totally different subject

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  20. Susan Norton says:

    I’ve got a new rescue.A year and a half old 7 lb little demon who has bitten me twice!She cowers,carries her tail between her legs and will not make eye contact.She prefers to live under the bed,but she has to come out for walks and to be fed.I’ve tried to let her sleep with my other little dog and me,but after last night,not for a while.She tends to bite me in the wee hours of the morning,so it’s back to the crate.She appears to like to snuggle,but does not like to be asked why she is biting herself.She does not have fleas!She likes walks and is perfectly trained.I sense that she has been abused because she refuses treats and is hand shy.I intend to stick with her,but will keep her away from my grandchildren.

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  21. Red Barn Saint Bernards says:

    Very interesting. I will keep my eyes peeled and notice what they are trying to tell me! I’m hooked and will continue reading as much as possible! I will recommend to everyone I know who has a dog. 🙂 Thanks a mill. …. and even relate some of my readings to those who do not.

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  22. k bowron says:

    My fox red Labrador loves people and used to love all dogs until he has been set upon by other male dogs .He is fine if the other dogs are friendly but the ones who have attacked him while I had him on the lead he remembers them and wants to pay them back.Luckily I can make him stand still while I get to him and put him on a lead but other owners can’t always get theirs to stop.Its such a shame that a dog who loved every body and every dog is changed by others being aggressive to him.

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  23. Pearl says:

    I have a male chihuahua, and taught him some commands , he is very affectionate like being cute and as he goes around my neck he lunges at me , and won’t let go. What can I do to make him stop. He did not do this when he was younger . He was very social. He will be 1 year old next month. Thank you.

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  24. Pearl says:

    Forgot to add i have bin bitten quite a few times and bled ,. I do mot hit , spray or do what othets tell me . Getting a bit scared of my own dog .

    [Reply]

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