If a dog is is wagging his tail, it means he’s happy, right? It’s conventional wisdom. If a dog wags his tail at you, he wants to be petted. If another dog is wagging his tail at your dog, he’s friendly.
Brace yourself: I’m going to burst that bubble. (Sorry – it’s for your own good.) This is a myth, and a dangerous one at that. A wagging tail can actually indicate a variety of emotions in a dog – and can even be a warning – and if I may speculate, I bet that a large percentage of dog bites happen while a dog is wagging his tail.
When a dog wags his tail, it signals a willingness to interact with what he’s looking at. That’s all. Does he want to be petted? Play with another dog? Chase you off his property? Defend his bone? Whomp on another dog in the park because it’s fun? Once an interaction is invited, how that interaction will go, or what the dog’s intent is, must be read from the rest of his body and his face.
Here are some examples of dogs who are actually friendly, or soliciting a pleasant social interaction:
This is Irma. Note her soft, slightly squinted eyes and relaxed mouth. Her tongue is out only a little, and it’s relaxed, too (not curled up at the end, or hiding behind her bottom teeth). Under her fur, her ears are in a middle-position (not pressed back on her head, nor alerting forward), her facial muscles are relaxed and she almost appears to be smiling. If after presenting her your hand to smell (an invitation on the human side to interact), if her face still looks like this, yes, you may pet her!
This is Rafter (mauling me in puppy class). Note that his tail is blurred – he is wagging it. Also note that his tail is in a middle-position – neither high over his back nor low toward the ground. His eyes, too, are soft and squinty, and note how far back his ears are (this is a signal of deference and affection, as is the lick-under-the-chin). He is relaxed, happy, and offering affection. Dogs will do this licking to other dogs, too – although depending on the comfort level of the recipient, sometimes they find it annoying.
Now, compare Irma and Rafter’s body language to these dogs’ (none of these are my pictures; I found them online):
This dog is not interested in a petting right now. Note that his weight is shifted forward onto his front legs, and they are slightly bent like he is ready to move. His ears are far forward – he’s on alert. His eyes are NOT relaxed and squinty; rather they are hard, fixed on what he’s looking at, and his facial muscles are tense (see that little horizontal line below his eye where the muscles meet?) His mouth is closed and his lips are tight. And of course, the tail – it’s probably wagging. But in this instance, he’s still deciding whether whatever he’s looking at is a threat or not. The tail is held very high over the back, indicating a high level of arousal and possibly a “hair trigger.” If you petted a dog who looks like this, you would be risking a bite.
This dog has a closed, tight mouth as well. Again you can see the horizontal ridge below his eye where the muscles are tense. Notice how far back his ears are – they say, “I’m not sure I’m okay with this.” Also notice his eye – that sliver of white is called “whale eye” or “half moon eye” and what it means is, “this makes me a little uncomfortable!” If a dog were looking at you like this and you went to pet him, you would be risking a bite.
Another example of dogs on alert. You can tell that their tails are wagging, but look at how stiff they are, just like the rest of their muscles. Both dogs’ weight is shifted forward, and both dogs’ ears are pricked forward. They are on alert. Their eyes are squinty but it’s most likely because of the light, because the rest of their faces are very tight, mouth clamped shut, wrinkles on the forehead. The dog on the left is air-scenting to gather more information about whatever is approaching. These dogs are guarding something and if you were to pet them right now, you would be risking a bite.
All of this said, if you have a child – or an adult – who needs to be educated about which dogs are friendly and which are not, break the cycle of bad information! There are several fabulous educational programs available to teach children (and adults) to be safe around dogs. Here are a few:
Have an idea for a training Tidbit? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!