Although we sometimes wish our dogs could talk, they don't actually have the ability of verbal speech to communicate. How they do communicate is through their body language: stance, ear positioning, eye and facial movement, vocalizations, scent cues, and of course, tail wagging. But a pup wagging their tail does not always mean they are happy. In fact, a wagging tail may indicate anxiety, fear, or insecurity.
In this post, we will examine a dog’s primary physical cue, the tail wag, and look at the difference between happiness and anxiety.
What Tail Positions and Tail Wagging Means
The wagging of a tail is the most recognized dog communication to humans. But we often misinterpret it. A wag can mean happiness, of course, but a dog wag can also signal other emotions.
The article “What a Wagging Dog Tail Really Means: New Scientific Data” says that science shows there are three sources of information coming from the tail: the tail’s pattern of movement, the tail’s position, and which side the tail wags more towards, the right or left in relation to the dog’s body.
The tail acts as an emotional meter, so it is necessary to look at these three sources of information when trying to figure out whether your dog is happy or nervous.
First, you should recognize your dog’s neutral or relaxed tail position. Every dog breed has slight variations in its tail positions, but for most dogs, this position hangs by the heels.
From this point, a tail higher in the air signifies dominance or even aggression, and a low tail (like a tail between the leg) signifies a submissive or nervous state.
This same article also states “... the breadth of each tail sweep reveals whether the dog’s emotional state is positive or negative.”
For example, a slow wag with a shorter breadth will mean friendliness. A dog holding its tail in a neutral position while wagging is a happy dog.
A slight or slow wag may mean insecurity, being neither dominant nor submissive. A fast wag means excitement. And a tail wag in a position high up shows dominance and aggression.
So Is Your Dog Actually Nervous?
If you can observe the height and movement of the tail wag, you can determine if your dog is nervous, feeling anxiety, or stressed out. A well-known position humans are quick to recognize in their canine is the tail tuck between the legs. This can mean the dog is scared or thinking “don’t hurt me.” But another way a dog can show insecurity is through a slow, apprehensive tail wag.
A study has shown that a wag more biased to the right of the dog can be seen as positive, relaxed, and approachable. While a wag dominating the left side of the body can show negative feelings such as stress, nervousness, anxiety, or aggression. So if your pup is showing off a wag dominating his left side, they are having negative feelings.
Of course, the tail is not the only way to interpret a dog’s nervousness or anxiety level. Avoiding eye contact, tongue flicking, or a misplaced yawn are all potential signs your dog may be anxious or uncomfortable. To determine if your dog exemplifies nervous behavior, it is crucial you recognize their “normal” behavior first. For more information about dog communication, read Pet Coach’s article here.
Next time you see your dog’s tail wagging, think twice before you assume they are happy. Remember that they can actually be feeling stressed, anxious, angry, or uncomfortable while still wagging their tails. Keeping these tail-wagging signs in mind will help you decipher the emotional state of your canine friend.
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Coren, Stanley PhD. “What a Wagging Dog Tail Really Means: New Scientific Data.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 5 Dec. 2011,
Buzhardt, Lynn. “Interpreting Tail Wags In Dogs” VCA,
Pet Coach Editorial. “Dog Communication: 10 Ways Dogs Communicate With Us” Pet Coach,
Shea, Erin. “Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?” American Kennel Club, 24 Aug 2016,
“Tail Wagging Explained: Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?” Be Chewy, 12 June 2017