Unlike Humans, dogs cannot express how they are feeling using the English language. Instead, they must rely mostly on their body to communicate their emotions. It is easy to forget that dogs have this limitation, and look past their attempts to communicate with their owners, but there is no doubt that dogs do want to connect with their human counterparts.
One of a dog’s major communication resources is the tail. There are a few common positions that a dog will use to communicate with other dogs as well as humans.
1. An upright, stiff tail: this is usually accompanied by a tense body and legs, as well as an unflinching stare. These body language signals do not necessarily equal aggression but rather an unwillingness to interact. It is a dog’s way of warning other dogs to keep their distance. A dog will try to clarify the ‘back off’ message by flattening its ears and barring its teeth. If other dogs, or humans, fail to respect those visual cues, the dog may growl, bark, and lunge. The worst case scenario is ending up with a bite.
2. A stiff tail, tucked between the back legs: this is the sure sign of a frightened dog. The tighter the tail is tucked between their legs, the more frightened the animal. A tucked tail may also be accompanied by the dog lowering itself to the ground, turning its head and licking its lips. Those are all signs of submission but that does not mean the dog is less likely to snap. If the animal is frightened it is best to go very slowly and only approach if it is absolutely necessary.
3. A tucked tail, accompanied by a tense body and stare: this is the body language of a dog that is very frightened and feeling cornered or threatened. A dog in this position is more likely to lash out, not because of aggression, but as a last resort because all other ‘requests’ to be left alone have been ignored. A dog in this position will usually growl, try to back away or flinch, and seek an escape route. Do not approach an animal in this position; it is most likely to snap if it feels cornered.
4. A loose upright tail: if a dog’s tail is held up, but remains loose it is a sign of a curiosity and a willingness to interact. Usually this posture is coupled with a relaxed body and slow, swaying wag. This pup wants to get to know the dogs and humans around him.
5. A Neutral or limp tail: this could mean a number of different things, depending on the context. The dog could be more interested in exploring his surroundings, be passively interested in socializing, or just very calm. If this tail position is particularly unusually for a specific dog (for example, one that is very high energy and always wagging their tail), it could be a sign of not feeling well, being tired, or being unsure of their surroundings.
While the tail is not the only way for a dog to communicate to its owner, it is one of the most obvious signals for a human to begin picking up on. It is a good idea to get to know your animal by the way it moves and what it is doing with its body. The dog is practically screaming its thoughts at its human counterparts. It is all a matter of listening.