Beyond the Tail Wag: Reading Dog Body Language
By Eve Molzhon
It’s a common misconception that a dog’s tail (alone) can tell you its mood. A simple wag of the tail doesn’t always mean “I’m happy.” This scenario goes for humans as well…
When we laugh, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re happy or in a good mood, it just means we’re laughing. How many of us have done something really stupid and then laughed at ourselves? We’re probably not happy that we did something stupid, but we laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation or as a way to calm our anxiety or fears.
When humans are nervous, it’s not always obvious because everybody has different signs. Some people rock back and forth, some play with change in their pockets and some even say inappropriate things. All of these are signs of nervousness, and depending on the external situation, we can figure out what the internal situation really is.
So many times we hear pet parents say, “I took my dog on a walk, and we greeted another dog on a walk also on a leash. Both dogs’ tails were wagging and then all heck broke loose and they got into a scuffle.”
The external environments accompanied with the external, physical signs have to be examined together. You can’t just consider the single factor of a tail wag. Plus, for those breeds who don’t have tails such as my French Bulldog, how am I supposed to determine if my dog is happy? I’m looking at all the other things about the posture. Are the elbows bent or straight? Does the spine look relaxed or stiff? How are the ears sitting? How’s the fur—anything standing up? You have to take into account all the other attributes of the physical state along with the external situation to determine if the dog is in a happy, relaxed mood and positive state of mind.
Let’s say you’re walking up to a dog that’s in a boarding facility in their suite and the dog’s tail is wagging. He’s probably happy to see somebody, but he may not be happy about the situation that he’s in. Look at all the other attributes of the dog as previously mentioned. As you’re approaching the dog’s suite, you also need to assess your physical body language. If the dog is initially telling you, “Hey, I’m kinda happy to see you,” you need to reciprocate that by giving them appropriate body language in return.
You should always proceed with caution and look at the physical aspects. How’s the dog’s body language? Is the dog’s whole body wiggling back and forth? If that’s the case, the dog may jump on you and slobber you with kisses, because the whole body is loose and relaxed and he’s telling you it’s okay and he’s happy (even in what might be a stressful environment).
If the tail is wagging but the spine is stiff, the rest of the body isn’t moving and he’s just giving you the stare, it may mean, “I’m happy to see you, but I really am uncomfortable.” You should utilize all of your training and past experience to ensure that you’re going to handle this dog safely.
A lot of times when you walk into a room, the dog’s initial reaction is to wag its tail because the dog is happy to see somebody. But when the dog realizes you may not be the “somebody” they want to see, their body language could change quickly—and so could the situation. Understanding all the other attributes that go into the dog’s state of mind and looking at all the signs within the dog’s physical frame, as well as the external environment, will tell you how to approach the dog and the situation.
Just a wagging tail is not indicative of the entire physical or emotional state of the dog. Subtle tactics like approaching the dog with your body sideways (not approaching directly in front of the dog) and making yourself small so the dog understands that you’re not a threat to them can come in handy. Knowing that you’re just one piece of the puzzle in that environment with the dog will also help you handle the dog safely and communicate most effectively in a relaxed state of mind.
Eve Molzhon is the creator and owner of Dog Handler Academy. Dog Handler Academy is a 100% online, automated employee training program designed specifically for dog daycares and boarding facilities. Our real-life daycare videos and online quizzes fast-track your team members into understanding dog handling and care, saving you time and money. Courses cover basic and advanced dog handler skills, social cues and safety, client relations, and more. The mission of Dog Handler Academy is to provide employers with comprehensive training material in a cost-efficient, consistent, and effective program. Our end goal is to create better handlers within our industry to ensure the proper care of animals.