Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?

Why do dogs wag their tails? The quick answer is that a dog wags its tail for a reason which seems self-evident enough, being that it’s the tell-tale mark of a friendly dog. Indeed, anyone who’s stood near the pounding tail of a prototypical friendly breed, such as a Labrador Retriever, can take a veritable shellacking from the whack of its wiggle. But if friendliness were an altogether accurate interpretation, why is it that so many people are bitten by a dog that’s wagging its tail, often very enthusiastically?

For this and other reasons, behavioral science has called into question the popular wisdom that dogs wag their tails out of friendliness. The definition that behavioral science prefers (and which an energy model finds wanting) is that a dog is wagging its tail as a submissive overture to a superior member of its pack. For example, if one observes an inferior wolf approaching a superior one, tail-wagging is a pronounced feature of his body language.

But this isn’t wholly satisfying either because when adult wolves regurgitate food to their cubs, the cubs’ tails are wagging and so are the adults’. Are the adults being submissive to the cubs and the cubs to the adults all at the same time? That seems like a confusing scrambling of signals and it’s my experience that the nature of behavior is never that ambiguous.

The recurring theme of this blog will be to make the point that submission and dominance, while expedient, convenient, and seemingly reasonable means of making sense of canine behavior, can’t really accommodate the data. For if a dog is showing submission to a human out of respect, why then would he bite such a person? Such paradoxes plainly call into question the traditional scientific interpretation.

A thinker on dogs who I respect quite a bit, (although once again lacks a model for what’s going on inside the dog’s mind), is Desmond Morris. For our current purposes I call on his book Dogwatching wherein he writes at length on the phenomenon of tail-wagging. He states: “The only emotional condition that all tail-waggers share is a state of conflict. This is true of almost all back-and-forth movements in animal communication. When an animal is in conflict it feels pulled in two different directions at the same time. It wants to advance and retreat simultaneously. Since each urge cancels the other out, the animal stays where it is, but in a state of conflict. Essentially the animal wants to stay and wants to go away. The urge to go away is simple–it is caused by fear. The urge to stay is more complex.”

I agree that tail wagging indicates a state of conflict, there is an inherent momentum pulling/pushing the dog forward, but something is causing it to hold back as well. A state of attraction in conflict with fear: this is why dogs wag their tails.

It also needs further elaboration, for example, if we consider a dog who we can be sure is never going to bite anyone but who nonetheless is wagging his tail, what possible fear might there be for this dog in a situation where it’s only about to be petted, or fed, or any other number of pleasurable experiences?

The full answer to that question will be covered in an upcoming article entitled, “The Nature Of Fear”. However, Desmond Morris’ assertion that the the urge to go away from the person or dog because of fear, is simple, is mistaken. Fear is a little more complex than he has presumed. But putting that dynamic aside for the moment, for now I would simply like to elaborate on Desmond Morris’ insight by going a step deeper into the phenomenon of the friendly dog wagging his tail.

Tail wagging is indeed a state of conflict. But the conflict is arising from the following condition: it is the state of the body vibrating with more energy than the body at that moment is able to conduct given whatever action is currently available to it. In other words, there is more energy trying to go through the pipe, the dog’s body, then the pipe can accomodate. Wagging the tail is the body’s physiological response for dissipating the excess energy. And while it would feel better to the dog if its body could process the energy in a straightforward active range of behaviors, for example by making hearty physical contact, but for a number of reasons which we’ll discuss when we consider the nature of fear, it can’t. Hence the state of conflict with the tail going a mile-a-minute beating out the energy just like the utility meter spinning at high speed on the side of a house .

Published June 1, 2009 by Kevin Behan
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35 Responses to “Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?”

  1. shanty says:

    I’m really enjoying your insights. Thanks for the fountain of information.

  2. Chistine says:

    That makes good sense, especially in relation to my #2 dog, Duncan. He is definitely energized by people and his tendency is to make “hearty physical contact”. He likes to jump up on people and make face contact. He gets especially excited when my son comes for a visit. Duncan’s tail becomes a helicopter and the sound he makes is almost as if he’s crying; a mix of growling/whining and he always goes and grabs something to have in his mouth. He gets so excited in the presence of certain people that it looks very much like aggession only I’m not convinced that’s what it is. Is there an effective way to channel this energy so his greetings will be less physical?

  3. kbehan says:

    It may be a judgment that being near isn’t quite enough because Duncan is vibrating with the noise and while the tail is supple, it is unwinding a mighty spring. To work on Duncan, find the equal/opposite area where he is doing the opposite. If he avoids something, work on this. Notice also how he is the perfect complement to your other dog described on your other post. It would be interesting to know if they play tug with all their might.

  4. Christine says:

    Okay, now I’m seriously considering being impressed with you! (wink, wink) That you made that observation re: Duncan and Diva. She’s my #3 and when I took the boys for a ‘”meet n’ greet” before I adopted her, that’s almost the exact comment the adoption counselor made about their interactions. And yes, I believe they do “play with all their might” when they play tug together. Duncan gets very vocal; sometimes it borders on sounding like he’s very angry or a mix of frutstrated/angry. She seems to have him all figured out and knows what to do with him. For example, Duncan has shown an escalating tendency for aggressive behavior towards Bodie (#1) and Diva will come in between and block Duncan from making contact with Bodie and then she proceeds to act very “preyful” to get Duncan (as I see it) to chase her and get rid of all the stress/tension. But I digress…I’m not sure I understand your suggestion for equal/opposite with Duncan. Would you provide some clarification? Thanks!

  5. kbehan says:

    When Duncan is escalating the situation with Bodie, he is transmitting energy that he normally holds in, and Diva is attracted to this energy, she has no idea she’s protecting Bodie, which is why she becomes the opposite to Duncan in order to fit with him. This also means that there is an opposite place in Duncan wherein he internalizes the energy that he under certain circumstances externalize toward Duncan. For example, perhaps he is afraid of thunder and slinks away. This equal but opposite to externalizing and is therefore the input/loading mechanism that then sits around in his emotional battery until triggered. This is the real source of the “vibration” and this is the best place to affect change in the overall. If this input were to 100% soften, then there would be no output.

  6. Christine says:

    My brain is grinding away trying to digest this so that I can make practical application. Am I correct in thinking that it’s fear-based and so should look for situations wherein Duncan is afraid but shows no outward/physical behaviors, instead avoids by turning away or going in the opposited direction? Or could it be any situation that is energizing and yet he ignores or turns away?

  7. Christine says:

    Just a note regarding Duncan: I adopted him from an animal shelter when he was 4-months; he came in as a stray so I have no way of knowing whether his current behaviors are based on past experiences prior to my adopting him or if they are a result of my own ignorance/mishandling. At any rate, I don’t want to add any more to the pile and really want to get to that place with him where he is free to be his real doggie self. There are times when he feels very much like he’s still a puppy and I wonder if there is something ‘missing’ from his puppyhood that needs to be corrected or fulfilled.

  8. kbehan says:

    Both those scenarios could be right because if there is energy on the table and we’re dealing with a young, active dog, and said dog doesn’t engage and participate in movement of energy, it is due to fear. The energy is being absorbed but the dog is internalizing and holding back. So what is the one thing about Duncan that is the most opposite to his episodes with Bodie?

  9. kbehan says:

    Don’t worry about compensating for an earlier deficiency, in fact, that only builds on it. Duncan is computing energy perfectly, the point of the dog in our life is for us to learn how to read the input and the output.

  10. Christine says:

    So I was just out in the backyard with them and I had a soft, squeeky toy on a rope. Bodie usually runs around with the ball until I kick it for him. I had played a little tug with Diva and then was playing with Duncan. At one point, he growled at Diva as she was trying to grab the tug toy. A slight flush/tingle of fear went through me and that effected a significant change in Duncan. Prior to that Duncan and I had been running back and forth (my back yard is fenced) as Duncan held the toy and he wasn’t showing any interest in tugging. After the “incident” his whole demeanor changed and he would back away from me and turn slightly to the side if I approached as he kept a (seemingly) wary eye on the other two dogs. And he slowed down in his movements and would pull hard and steady on the tug watching me intently. When I offered him a treat to get him to drop it, he kept a tight grip on the toy. I ended the game and came inside as now I am uncertain and quite shaken by the experience. I’ve never been afraid that Duncan might bite me but I was at that point. Now what do I do?

  11. Christine says:

    I went back out with Duncan (3 years in November) sans the other 2 and did some push-of-war with him. Again, we ran around the yard with the tug toy and I had to encourage the tugging. He never did growl again, even though I would push and crowd him a little. When I let him “win”, he runs away with the toy. He does relinguish for a treat once and again for another squeeky toy. At that point I end the game, even though he still is very eager to get the toy again. Inside, he does seem to be defensive as he growls seriously at Diva when she approaches the crate he’s in. I do have to say regarding Duncan, that he’s very good at going to his crate (actually it’s Bodie’s crate; occassionaly Diva’s) on his own when he feels a little stressed. The other two prefer to be wherever I am and will lie down and wait until I move to another room. Duncan doesn’t follow me from room to room; unless of course there’s food involved! I like that he can be by himself.

  12. kbehan says:

    This is getting somewhere. The crate is a place where Duncan is free to express his fear, meanwhile you are projecting some judgment about “can be by himself” as in a need to guard one’s personal space from intrusion and this overcompensation is the source of the fear he is expressing when over reacting to strangers and toward Bodie.

  13. Christine says:

    Huh. Perhaps a miscommunication on my part. I am, by nature, an out-going, gregarious creature and can be “hyper-friendly” and a bit over-the-top sometimes in my enthusiasm. At the same time, I require a generous amount of “down-time”. That being said, my intent was that I appreciate that facet of Duncan; that he is able to/comfortable in being in his own space. At the same time, I take it as a complement that Bodie and Diva like being in close-proximity. Whatever.

  14. Nichole says:

    Hello, my words may sound childish, (because I am one, but I will not state my age, and yes I know I sound older than I really am) I am looking for the responces to Dogs in everyday life, here are some examples.

    What do dogs do when they are cold?
    What do they do when they smell something bad?
    What do they do when they get hurt?

    Simples questions like those would help me in sience. So please answer them! Thank you! Bye. =)

  15. Nicole says:

    It depends on the size of the dog, and the breed on what they do when it is cold. I have one (a Australian Cattle Dog) that jumps and seems to rejoice in the snow, but also a Min Pin that HATES the cold and hides as much as she can. My cattle dog raises his head and looks like he is VERY interested in smells, the min pin searches the smells out. Both love the snow, and hate the cold.

  16. Wayne says:

    I think the tail wagging is simple – it is part of communication, by spreading the odor than comes from the scent glands under tail. It is the dog’s way of saying “Hey, I’m here … check me out!”

    This is why the fearful dog will often tuck their tail – they are enclosing and hiding the scent.

    As to why they might tail-wag and still bite – it seems to me a dog might freely advertise itself and still bite; in fact, I rather believe that dogs’ scent changes with health and stress levels, so that dog might be trying to spread a scent which includes “I am not happy!” smells in an attempt to avoid getting to the bite/attack stage.

  17. kbehan says:

    The article is about what’s going on inside the dog, not what purpose the behavior might serve and that’s an interesting point about dispersing scent. However the visual aspect of the behavior is far more prominent because when dogs are looking at each other from a distance, most often they’re not smelling. For example, why wouldn’t the fearful dog advertise his scent because one could just as easily say the dog is thinking, “I’m afraid, I’m no threat, don’t worry.” This is the problem with inserting a psychology into the dog’s mind. It’s attaching thoughts to a behavior according to a perceived purpose for the behavior.

  18. Christine says:

    Hey Kevin, regarding your earlier post on November 1, 2009 RE:Duncan and the crate. I’m working on getting a handle on this one as I think it’s time he stops being so defensive around the fence. I would like him to be able to relax and not be on guard all the time. I know I’ve always been one to guard my own personal space and there are times/things I do not want any intrusions. Recently, when Duncan engages in fence aggression, I’ll enthusiastically tell him what I good boy he is and I’ll physically hug him and hold onto him for a bit. It seems to have a calming effect on him, especially when I’m really feeling the good boy part of it. Are there other tactics that would be helpful? I’m not physically able to push-for-food or do much tug-toy play with any of them yet and haven’t for a while now. Are there other ways of compensating for this lack that will address some of these issues?
    BTW, anxiously looking forward to your new book, “Your Dog is Your Mirror”. I’ve pre-ordered it on Amazon. Are you still shooting for a January publish date?

  19. kbehan says:

    First just create an energy circuit which simultaneously softens his charge to the fence. Only feed him by hand (no push required) when he leaves the fence and comes to you. Have a friend go to other side of fence and as he is triggered by situation, yet feels a pull to you, have friend offer more and more provocation. Now Duncan is attracted to you more than the charge at the fence and you’re making an important step one that can get you pretty far. Before a dog can get to the push, he’s gotta feel the “Pull.”
    Yes, “Your Mirror” looks to be on track, thanks for asking.

  20. Donnie_O says:

    “Before a dog can get to the push, he’s gotta feel the “Pull.””

    This is a very important point to me. When I first started to try and channel Jinxsie’s attraction to squirrels or other dogs, I think that I was giving her too much resistance and expecting her to push. Since making this realisation now all I’ll do is back-pedal and get her to hup. I find that this has been very effective in attracting her in those moments.

  21. kbehan says:

    Excellent point Donnie, when the dog projects its p-cog into you and “hungers” for contact, then it feels a Pull and this has to be strong enough so that it can be sustained even when under resistance so that the dog feels it’s still on track. This is why I teach a dog to bark-on-command in moments of conflict so that it can learn to feel the Pull when it’s experiencing resistance, which is “push-back.” (Note that when you teach a dog to speak and it’s struggling, you will see that it looks behind it for the source of what it’s experiencing as a push-back and which is keeping it from barking. This push/back is also why sensitive dogs scare themselves with their own bark when startled. However, when the Push and the Pull are part of the same wave function, then there is a clear circuit with output begetting input, a self-charging system, and this is reflected by a deep, clear and metered bark, just like the propagation of a light wave, the electrical begets the magnetic begets the electrical and on and on. One police dog I trained held a criminal at bay by barking for twenty minutes until its handler arrived to make the arrest. The clear channel bark was a self-reinforcing behavior.) Keep On Push/Pulling!

  22. Mark says:

    Yep, dissipating energy, I agree. :) But, perhaps we need to look again at this definition Tail “wagging is indeed a state of conflict” and rather call it a state of excitement. That better reflects the real emotional state, as we might understand it, a combination of fear of the unknown but also of some kind of renewal and even ‘stretching’. Excitment can come before a ‘fight’, meaning withdrawal into the walls of imagined strength (a dog may bark but not necessarily scare a stranger), or it can mean an expansion of the world, i.e. a new friend!

  23. kbehan says:

    Consider that when a dog is “excited” (and to a maximum state of energy) about spotting a prey at a distance, its tail does not wag, and certainly not when it’s in hot pursuit. That would be inefficient. So tail wagging is a way of dissipating energy when taking straightforward action is not so clear. No conflict, no tail wagging.

  24. Rosie says:

    When a dog struggles with the bark, as well as looking behind them, they move backwards. Sometimes they paddle their front paws and/or move backwards a few steps before getting the bark out. I’ve also seen the opposite where a dog barks, and it surprises them, and seems to propel them forwards into the bite. So in reference to post 21. these are both illustrations of the push-pull not quite working?

  25. kbehan says:

    Good observation. I’m supposing that you mean by “into the bite” the dog goes to bite a nearby dog, in which case, then the physical memory incited by its own bark, of which it has no idea it has generated because the physical memory of another dog attacking it is so intense, therefore the dog isn’t sufficiently grounded into its handler so that the memory of the other dog displaced it from a feeling of attraction to its handler. If the dog were sufficiently grounded into its handler, (projecting of p-cog and then feeling part of a wave pattern) then the presence of a nearby dog would be given “credit” for getting the food after the bark. So it’s just a matter of going too fast or not constructing a safe enough situation so that the dog can be helped to work through the problem of feeling attracted to the handler despite the presence of another dog. Hope this addresses and clarifies your point.

  26. Rosie says:

    Sorry I wasn’t clear, I meant when they bark they get propelled forward into biting a ball or tug.

  27. kbehan says:

    Okay now I understand. When a dog barks with a deep, metered pitch that originates from the gut so its whole body is a resonating chamber, then it has “let go” after projecting its p-cog into object of attraction. He becomes the emotional counterbalance to the one holding the ball or treat, and thus feels a push down to its butt and is inspired to sit. It’s very easy to reinforce this and dog quickly grounds out the energy by maintaining the sit position. If the bark is hectic and originating higher especially in the head, then the dog is on the load/overload electrostatic setting and will tend to jump up and grab, but still, it’s nevertheless a simple handling issue to bring the bark down to a deep root and the dog trains itself to be patient by maintaining subliminal attention on its deep gut by sitting.

  28. Heather says:

    That is a good summary. With a toy/food handy, the exercise is something that could also be used when a dog is getting ready to bark at a stranger or another dog.

  29. Em says:

    Hi, I’m 18 years old and I wanted to know more about my two dogs Scratch and Dagger. So I thought I would look up some questions about their behavior and I found what you said sort of perplexing but at times really understandable, my dog Scratch wags her tail everytime I come out and see her and Dagger, when I look at her and we meet eye contact she starts wagging her tail and when she gets too much attention from me or anybody Dagger gets jealous and makes these whining noises and growls at her and sometimes bites scratch softl on the neck but Dagger doesn’t wag her tail when she does this, it stays almost straight at those times. I’m trying to make light of this behavior…

  30. bob says:

    suppppp dudes
    dogs wag their tails because they love you

  31. Lol great article! Have to love dogs. Ecspecially yorkies

  32. Gene says:

    At this very moment my 5 year old GSP is standing calmly beside me making eye contact. If I speak to her or show any excitement she begins wagging. As soon as return to a calm state she ceases her tai wagging. I see this more as pent up excitement in convict with fear of consequences of overly aggressive affection. Surely the are any number of environmental stimuli that could trigger the wagging reaction. Just as there are differnt reactions by different indivduals to the same stimuli. Still this insight into behavior is much appreciated.

  33. brad says:

    MY adopted 11 year Belgium Malinois has recently come up with some interesting behaviors. (1) Long luxurious groans as she stretches and readjusts on her bed and (2) She’ll be sleeping and dreaming with legs & nose twitching. We’ve all seen that. But sometimes still asleep she will start wagging her tail as if she just figured out the punchline to that last joke.

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  35. Dog Care says:

    Great post! Been reading a lot about understanding my dog. Thanks for the info here!

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