Tail wagging, is it all that it seems to be?

Animal communication can be defined as the exchange of information between animals through various means that may have an effect on the immediate or future behaviour of another animal.
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A dog may wag its tail for a person or another animal, even a passing butterfly but when by itself will simply not wag its tail indicating that tail-wagging is meant as communication or language.  
However like any interpretation of communication behaviour you must be careful NEVER to take a small part of display in isolation.  Tail wagging in dogs is a simple behaviour (as regards neurological involvement) but from a functional point of view it is just so complex. Tail wagging could mean any of the following;

  • Contentment.
  • Playfulness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Acknowledgement.
  • Excitement.
  • Appeasement.
It has long been assumed that when dogs wag their tails that they are happy and friendly.  But approach a dog that is sending you warning signals to stay away and you just might get bitten!
Understanding more about the positioning of the tail can help understand what the dog is trying to communicate.  Movement of the tail is also important as dog’s tails have evolved to be seen, they can have bushy or white undersides or black tips at the end of the tail.  Dogs cannot see colour like humans do but they understand movement and it’s meaning.
A slow wag, held at half-mast can mean the dog is feeling insecure with a faster, broader wag being closer to ‘I’m friendly’ wag especially if the back end of the dog is moving as well.
A highly held tail slowly moving (possibly only the tip) can mean the dog is going to do one of two possible things; fight or flight. This tail held high can mean the dog is threatening or sending a warning to back off.
A middle height tends to depict relaxation and a lower tail can mean the dog is feeling anxious or worried.
It is important to understand that different dog breed may have different tail shapes such as spitz breeds that have their tails curled over their backs or even no tails at all.  This can make communication between dogs a bit more difficult but not impossible.
How dogs use meta-communication 

Gregory Bateson an anthropologist referred to meta-communication as “communication about communication.” It’s mainly used to depict a secondary form of communication so to differentiate the smaller subtleties in communication that can make a world of difference.

Meta-communication is an important factor in influencing the future and current actions of another dog.  You may see your dog pinning another dog to the ground, baring teeth or growling during play and some owners become worried and  may want to step in and stop the play. But most dogs with good social skills know that when they see meta-signals such as a play-bow and tail wag that subsequent ‘aggressive’ gestures are part of the game – social animals know when they are role playing rather than being serious.
Meta-signals such as the play-bow have also been described by Patrica McConnell as ‘A pause that refreshes’.  This pause allows the dogs to manage emotional arousal especially in dogs that have just met.
3 dogs
Vallortigara et al done a recent study into canine body language and discovered that when dogs feel fundamentally positive about something or someone, their tails wag more to the right side of their rumps and when they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biased to the left.  30 mixed breed pet dogs were shown various stimuli, including an aggressive dog and their owner.  When the dogs saw their owners, their tails all wagged vigorously with a bias to the right side of their bodies. When the dogs looked at an aggressive, unfamiliar dog their tails all wagged with a bias to the left side of their bodies. Thus when dogs were attracted to something tails wagged right, and when they were fearful, their tails wagged left.  This left or right tail wag must be viewed from the point of view of the dog as if you were looking in the same direction as the dog.
However it is important not to become obsessed with the idea that tail wagging (or lack thereof) is the way to a dog’s soul.  Communication displays among social animals especially are full of detail and a wide range of actions for a reason – one being that this helps to change the meaning of a particular part of display when used in differing and changing situations so as to increase the animal’s ‘vocabularly’.

Is your puppy a blank page?

rupert and chita

New puppy care is vital.  Your new puppy is a wonderfully fresh blank page. This is your chance to shape your puppy into the dog you want him to be. Puppies don’t start out with separation anxiety or other behavioural problems, but it is usually in puppy hood that these problems arise. You have the chance here to help your puppy through training and socialisation to become a dog that can cope with most things he is going to encounter in his life and environment.

Socialisation with conspecifics is essential of course as well as socialisation with people of all ages, sizes and colours as well as other animals that he may have around him in his home such as cats.  Socialisation must be positive and never forced.  Only socialisation can prepare the dog for anything it may encounter in life and it is infinitely easier to socialise puppies than remedial socialisation with older dogs. Socialisation means getting used to environmental elements through exposure to them and making positive association.

Below is a link to a puppy socialisation checklist where you can tick off every time your puppy experiences unfamilar people and other dogs/animals.  All experience must be a positive experience.  Also included it a list of items that you can get your puppy habituated to. Habituation can be described as the process whereby an animal becomes accustomed to non-threatening environmental stimuli and learns to ignore them.  These can include a variety of environments, sounds and surfaces. Dogs that experience different sights, sounds and textures learn how to adapt and how to bounce back from surprises.


From the moment you bring him home your puppy is learning.  He is learning to practice as many naughty behaviours as he is  good behaviours and you the owner may be inadvertently rewarding those naughty behaviours such as inappropriate greeting, chewing on furniture and barking.  Because basically dogs do whatever works!  One example may be the dog that is jumping up on his owner. If the owner is pushing him off, saying “no” or “down boy”, the dog may actually think he is being rewarded with attention for jumping up and will continue to do so as long as he is receiving attention for jumping up. Teaching puppies to perform a good sit and asking for that instead of rewarding the jumping up can help teach puppy to offer a sit for polite greeting instead.

Teach puppy what to he needs to do to get attention and  rewards!  Rewards can include treats, kibble, toys, play, praise, attention, a scratch behind the ears and must be something that the dog wants.  Studies and personal experience have shown dogs learn VERY quickly when using a combination of positive reinforcement and negative punishment. Positive reinforcement is adding something (a motivator that your dog wants) in order to increase a behaviour you would like such as sitting when asked.

Negative punishment is all about removing something to decrease unwanted behaviour.  This can include turning your back (removing your attention) when puppy jumps up at you or removing eye contact when puppy barks at you for attention.  The word punishment should not be a word to be afraid of, in the case of dog training it simply means removing an expected reward in order that the puppy learns what he is doing is not working.

For best results you can combine both positive reinforcement and negative punishment; Ignore the behaviour (such as puppy jumping for attention) and follow up with positive reinforcement of the desired behaviour.  You can teach puppy what you want him to do using operant conditioning.  However try to avoid using positive punishment such as smacking a dog in the face with a newspaper as this is an aversive and very damaging to the bond with your dog.

quadrants of operant conditioning