Creature Feature: Tails tell the tale

24 Aug

    Would you tell people that just because a dog is wagging his tail doesn’t mean he’s feeling friendly? I learned the hard way.  

A dog speaks volumes with his tail, but you’re correct that a moving tail doesn’t always mean a dog is relaxed or happy.

“The tail is the loudspeaker of your dog’s emotions — and one of the most misunderstood canine communicators,” according to the June issue of Your Dog, a publication of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

There are tail wags for different emotions, such as fear, aggression and happiness. Your Dog provides a guide for interpreting tail language:
■ A low tail that’s wagging quickly means the dog feels fearful and uncertain.
■ A low tail that’s moving slowly can indicate the dog is a little relaxed, but still uncertain.
■ When the tail wags slowly at half-mast, the dog is relaxed and comfortable.
■ At tail at half-mast that’s wagging quickly means the dog is happy and excited.
■ When a dog makes circles with his tail, he’s extremely happy and excited. In fact, the dog may make such vigorous tail circles he does a full-body wag.
■ A tucked-in tail means a dog is frightened or unhappy; the degree of tucking reveals the level of his fear or anxiety. If he’s extremely scared, he may tuck his tail between his legs so much that it almost touches his stomach.
■ A tail that’s straight up and moving slowly indicates controlled tension. When the tail is held high and wagging rapidly in a narrow range of motion, the dog is feeling even more tense and shouldn’t be approached.

The straight-up, rapidly wagging tail is called “flagging,” says the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ virtual pet behaviorist. A dog “flags” his tail when he’s standing his ground or threatening someone or another animal.

When interpreting a dog’s tail language, look at the rest of the body to get the full picture. For example, an assertive (but not necessarily aggressive) dog will try to make himself appear larger by standing tall, perhaps even rising up on his toes. He’ll hold his head high and center his weight on all four feet or lean slightly forward.

An aggressive dog’s body language looks similar to that of an assertive dog, but he’ll center his weight on his front feet so that he can lunge quickly.

Here are a few more clues to reading a dog’s emotions:
■ Hair — When a dog is scared, he may “blow” his coat and seem to suddenly shed bags of hair. A dog may also “raise his hackles,” the hair along his shoulders and spine, which can mean that he’s angry, uncertain, nervous or excited.
■ Feet — When a dog lifts a paw off the ground, he’s communicating deference. A happy dog will do a little dance by rapidly shifting his weight from one foot to the other. A nervous dog may leave sweaty paw prints.
■ Eyes — Direct eye contact is an assertive statement while looking away is a sign of appeasement or deference.

People often believe a dog looks away out of guilt but what’s really happening is that the dog is reading and responding to their body language. If the dog believes someone (such as his owner) is angry, he’ll look away to try to ease the tension.

Creature Feature appears in the Family section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette every Wednesday. This column was published June 29, 2011.


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