Interpreting Tail Wags in Dogs

What does a wagging tail mean?

When your dog wags his tail is he telling you that he’s happy? Not necessarily! Canines know many variations of the “tail wag” and they all mean different things. In fact, a wag of the tail is one of the best methods of  communication in the canine kingdom. Like human infants, dogs must learn their language. Pups aren’t born knowing what a wagging tail means any more than a newborn baby understands words. But when a pup is about a month old, he recognizes the need to communicate with his mother and siblings so he picks up the lingo. The pup wags his tail to tell his littermates that he’s tired of playing or to tell his mother that he’s hungry.

Why do dogs wag their tails to communicate?    dog4

Words are the basis of human communication so people are good listeners. Dogs, on the other hand, are watchers. Lacking a verbal vocabulary, dogs communicate broader messages with body language by taking a certain stance, moving their ears, furrowing their brow, shifting their eyes or wagging their tails.

Tail wagging works well for dogs. Since canine vision is attuned more to movement than to colors or details, dogs readily discern different tail wags. Evolution has also helped by producing tails that are more visible. Some tails have color variations such as dark or light tips, some are lighter on the underside, and some are really bushy. All of these traits accentuate the tail wag and enhance communication.

What messages does a wagging tail communicate?

Before we learn to speak “tail,” we must recognize that the neutral or natural position of a dog’s tail varies by breed. Most dogs have tails that hang down near their heels when they are relaxed. But some dogs, like Beagles, hold their tails more vertically. Others like Greyhounds and Whippets curl their tails under their bellies. Still others, like Pugs and Boston Terriers, have tails that coil tightly against the body and don’t wag at all.

Tail position may indicate:

1. Preparedness or agitation. When dogs are alert, they stand with their ears up and tails raised. This posture indicates that they are watching and ready to confront whatever caught their attention.

2. Negotiation. When a dog suddenly stops wagging his tail and freezes, it may mean that he wants to divert a threat without being aggressive. Many dogs do this when petted by strangers to communicate that they don’t want to interact with them.

3. Aggression. When a tail moves from a neutral position to a vertical one or arches over the back, it indicates that the dog may be aggressive. The higher the tail, the greater the threat. This high tail position also releases more of the dog’s scent from the anal glands which announces the
aggressive dog’s arrival and marks his territory.

4. Submission. When a tail moves from the neutral position to a lower one, the dog is submissive and is not a threat. If the tail is tucked tightly between the rear legs, the dog is scared. He perceives a threat and is asking not to be harmed. This lower tail position reduces the amount of scent emitted from the anal glands and allows the dog to remain in the background or fly under the radar.

5. Curiosity. When a dog is curious about something she hold her tails straight out in a horizontal

6. Happiness. When a dog is happy, he holds his tail in a neutral or slightly raised position and adds a healthy wag.

The rate at which a tail moves adds further meaning to canine communication.

Wagging speed may indicate:

1. Excitement. The faster the wag, the more excited the dog. A tail wag may range from very slow to extremely rapid (known as flagging). Sometimes the dog’s tail wags so fast that it appears to vibrate.

2. Insecurity. A dog that is tentative about meeting a new person or another dog may wag his tail ever so slightly to indicate that he is insecure.

3. Friendliness. A dog that is very friendly may wag his tail more freely and even wiggle his hips at the same time.

4. Aggression. When a dog wags his tail very fast while holding it vertically, he may be an active threat. So, remember that a person can get bitten by a dog that is wagging its tail!

Canine “tail talk” is so complex that even the direction of the wagging is significant. Studies show that dogs wag their tails to the right when they are happy or confident and to the left when they are frightened and there is a reason for this.

The left side of the brain controls movement on the right side of the body and vice versa. So the left brain is engaged when the tail wags to the right and the right brain causes the tail to move to the left. Since the left side of the brain is associated with positive feelings like love and serenity, a happy dog wags his tail to the right. Conversely, the right half of the brain is associated with negative feelings like fear and depression, so a frightened dog wags his tail to the left.

Can tailless dogs communicate?

Dogs without tails communicate but have limitations. Tailless dogs approach other dogs or people cautiously to avoid miscommunication. They depend on other aspects of body language such as ear position, facial expression, and stance to communicate their intentions.

Tail Talk

While dogs don’t speak the human language, they still communicate quite effectively and tail wagging enhances their ability to communicate. Interestingly, dogs don’t talk to themselves. They will wag their tails in front of humans or other dogs, but they don’t wag when alone! Think about that the next time you mutter to yourself!

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Lynn Buzhardt, DVM
© Copyright 2014 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.



How to Help Animals in Your Community, and Beyond (Part III)

The two previous segments of this multi-post blog have touched upon adoption and donation as possible methods to help animals in need. These are both fantastic ways to aid animals directly within the community, and are extremely fulfilling options as we are able to see the results of our efforts almost immediately. In the final posts of this series, we will begin to investigate how we can make a more widespread impact on the struggle to help our furry friends. We are going to delve a little deeper into some of the issues these animals in need are facing, and turn our attention toward animal rights and how we can help through animal advocacy.

To begin this discussion, it is important to understand exactly what an animal advocate is. In it’s simplest terms, an animal advocate is someone who supports the animal rights (or animal liberation) movement. The primary focus of the animal rights movement is that animals are currently viewed by many, especially in the eyes of the law, as property rather than living, breathing creatures. Animal advocates believe that animal lives should be afforded the same considerations as human lives – mainly the right to live without suffering.

I want to preface the posts to follow with a few warnings…

First, animal advocacy can be an extremely controversial topic. There are varying degrees of commitment: some people focus on the fight for basic animal welfare, while others may be a little more extreme and aim to eliminate all animal products from society in any way, shape or form. Period. The intention of this multi-post blog is not to direct anyone in what is the “correct” way to advocate on animals’ behalf, but rather to present the idea of advocacy as a whole and allow readers to make their own decisions. If we are to join the fight for animal rights, it needs to be in a way that we are comfortable doing so. Second, animal advocacy is not always pretty or glamourous. In fact, in researching for this post, I came across articles, pictures and documentaries that brought tears to my eyes (both of admiration and of horror), and some things even made me feel sick to my stomach and I had to take a break. There are a lot of emotions involved in advocacy, and while there are many highs, there are also many lows. Be prepared. Finally, my objective in writing this series is to raise awareness of something that is very near and dear to my heart. Everything discussed is meant to be informative and presented in a way that does not force any particular views on any of our readers. That being said, let’s get back to the focus of this blog…

The key to advocacy of any kind is education. In order to advocate for animals, there needs to be a clear understanding of the issues they are currently facing. As this is a many tiered topic, there will not be a chance to discuss all animal rights issues today. That is why self-education is so important in this struggle. As was mentioned previously in regards to choosing a charitable organization if one is interested in donation, so too should one research to find a branch of animal rights that speaks to them on a personal level. There are many different areas of animal rights that can be explored. A few examples are issues surrounding the companion animals that we accept into our homes, local or international wildlife and/or endangered species, farm animals raised for human consumption, or animals used for scientific research. The list is extensive, and within each of these categories are many sub-categories. For instance, in Part I we discussed adopting companion animals and touched on the business of puppy mills – which is just one of many concerns surrounding companion animals.

Animals in industry is another hot topic these days. In the media, there has been a recent focus on the treatment of elephants in zoos. Some stories have been successful (though not without their struggles), such as the relocation of three African elephants from the Toronto Zoo to the world-renowned Performing Animal Welfare Society’s (PAWS) ARK 2000 Sanctuary in California. Sadly, others have not been as successful, such as the story of Limba, Canada’s oldest elephant. Limba was euthanized at age 50 in December of 2013. Many critics claimed that her captivity was extremely cruel and demanded her retirement at a sanctuary, such as ARK 2000, after spending her years as a performance animal. Of course, there are always many sides to a story. Zoo officials maintained that she was happy, well taken care of and deeply loved. They insist that she was euthanized not due to her age or lack of ability to perform, but for humane reasons – there were large amounts of blood in her stool caused by tumors developing in her spleen and throughout her abdominal cavity. When I first came across Limba’s story, it was through an open letter of apology written to her and posted on C4P Animal Rescue. Intrigued, I began to look into the story further and came across archives of reports from well-known sources, such as the Toronto Star. No where in the letter of apology that I had read did the author discuss any of the health concerns that some of the articles I found indicated. However, in the same turn, the majority of the news articles and interviews that I read (which were primarily centered around the zoo officials) made no mention of the cruelty and humiliation that the author of the letter asserted were Limba’s reality.

Limba’s story is one with many points of view. That is why it is such a powerful example of the controversy that can arise when discussing issues of animal rights. It is sometimes hard to know what to believe, but it is essential to do your homework and look at multiple resources, not just one. Form your own opinions. Ask questions. Always keep in mind that well-known Latin aphorism that knowledge is power. In order to achieve what you are hoping for, make sure you are well-educated on a topic before you begin to act.

Of course, choosing a cause can be difficult, even overwhelming, as there are so many facets to animal rights. Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to approach this, as long as you are acting from the heart. Be sure that you understand every angle of what you are advocating for, if not for a better insight personally, than at least for a clearer understanding of the opposition that you may be facing.


On behalf of the staff at Snelgrove Veterinary Services,

Thank you for reading,


How to Help Animals in Your Community, and Beyond (Part II)

Audrey, Rennik and Dakota

Audrey, Rennik and Dakota – Puppy Play Date

In the first segment of this multi-post blog, we covered how to help animals in need through adoption. The best places to adopt from are shelters, rescues and reputable breeders. However, not everyone has the ability to provide a forever home for an animal, which is completely understandable. Today, we will continue our discussion on helping animals by exploring some alternative options.

Beyond adoption, another fulfilling opportunity to aid animals in your community is through donation. The most common form of donation is monetary, and most registered charities will provide tax credits for money received. There are many deserving organizations out there, so if this is the route you are interested in, do some research to find a group that speaks to you on a personal level. One example of a commendable charity that we here at Snelgrove Vet Services lend our support to is the Brampton Animal Service’s HOPE Fund. Click here to read about the history of the fund and stories of some of the hundreds of animals it has helped.

While monetary donations to a worthy cause are always appreciated, there are a variety of other things that can be donated and appreciated just as well. Used blankets, bowls, leashes, brushes, etc. are all examples of excellent resources that can be given to shelters or rescues. If you are unsure of what items would be appropriate to donate, you can always call the shelter or rescue in question and ask if they are in need of anything in particular.

If you are unable to donate supplies, there is one thing that all of us have that costs nothing to give: our time! There is no greater feeling than knowing that you’ve given your time to help an animal on their road to recovery. Volunteers can do many things at shelters and rescues; from walking the dogs to playing with the cats, providing transportation to or from veterinary clinics or rehab facilities, helping out with fundraising or awareness events… The list can go on and on! In addition to making a difference and helping an animal in need, a lot can be gained through the volunteer experience. Not only will you feel wonderful afterwards, but you can also gain a whole new set of skills. And who wouldn’t love spending an afternoon with a new furry friend?

If you find that spending time with animals is rewarding, you could always take it one step further and foster an animal while they are being rehabilitated or waiting for their forever home! Many shelters and rescues are overrun with animals in need, so they are always looking for volunteers willing to accept them short-term into their homes. Foster experiences can last anywhere from just a few short days, to a few weeks or even months if you are so inclined. Some worthwhile organizations that are always looking for foster homes are the Toronto Cat Rescue (TRC) and Brampton Animal Services. If you are feeling particularly ambitious, you could even look into a training apprenticeship for the Lions Foundation of Canada Guide Dogs or the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind (CGDB), which can last up to over a year and a half! These are just a few examples of potential foster options, but there are many more available.

No matter what level of commitment you are able to provide, there is an opportunity right for you. Whether you are able to contribute money or supplies to a deserving cause, or donate your time, any and all gifts are very much appreciated. Support within our community is so important, and helping animals in need is certainly worth the effort. But what about beyond our community? Stay tuned to learn about how to make a provincial, national or even global impact in the ongoing fight for our furry friends!


On behalf of the staff at Snelgrove Veterinary Services,

Thank you for reading,


How to Help Animals in Your Community, and Beyond (Part I)


There is nothing more heartbreaking than opening up a newspaper, reading an online article, or watching a newscast detailing the latest case of animal cruelty or neglect. Oftentimes, we read or watch these reports, feel sympathy for all involved, then move on to the next story. But what if we replaced our sympathy with true empathy? Rather than simply extending our compassion towards others, what if we really took the time to sit back, imagine ourselves in a similar situation and understand the pain involved? To quote Stephen M.R. Covey:

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour.”

What would happen if we instead judged ourselves based purely on our actions? Would we be as good of a person as our neglected intentions would lead us to believe we are? It is so easy to have the best intentions, but it is entirely different to execute them. While this concept can be extended to many facets of our lives, the focus of this multi-part blog will be how we can put these good intentions to use in order to help animals in need. Here, we will outline some ways that you can make an impact within your community, and even globally. Making a difference is easier than you think!

The first (and most obvious) way to help an animal in need is through adoption. Undoubtedly, the best place to adopt an animal would be from a shelter or rescue. These types of organizations work tirelessly to help and home stray, abandoned, surrendered or seized animals. By providing proper medical care and living conditions, shelters and rescues allow these animals a second chance at life, in hopes that they will be adopted into a loving home. The Brampton Animal Shelter is one of many examples.

If you are looking for a certain breed of dog or cat, there are also many breed-specific rescues that extend a wide network, so do a little investigative work. Of course, if you want the true “puppy or kitten experience,” that’s fine too. Just make sure you are adopting your future family member from a reputable breeder. The Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) provides excellent information on how to find such a breeder, just click here to check out their “Golden Rules.”

It is best to avoid adopting from any source other than a shelter, rescue or reputable breeder. Issues begin to arise when pets are adopted from alternative sources, namely pet stores and “backyard breeders.” Please, make sure you do your homework if this is the avenue you are planning to take. In 2010, the public was shocked by the HBO documentary, “Madonna of the Mills,” which chronicles a young woman’s struggle to save dogs from puppy mills. It is not a film for the faint of heart, and exposes a previously unconsidered world of puppy mills. The documentary was later followed up by a Forbes magazine article in 2012 called “Where Not to Buy a Dog: The Pet Store Connection to the Business of Puppy Mills,” which uses an interview with the documentary’s director to elaborate on the puppy mill industry and the goal to raise awareness through public education. While these examples are based in America, the puppy mill industry thrives in Canada as well. According to the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS):

“Over the past decade the puppy mill industry has increased in Canada. Before 1995 most puppies in Canadian pet stores were imported from the United States, but in 1995 new legislation was implemented by Agriculture Canada to regulate the import of puppies from the United States. The […] new law was successful in reducing the number of puppies being shipped to Canada. Unfortunately, the decrease in imported puppies from the U.S. created a demand that was met by an increase in Canadian mills.”

Unfortunately, puppy mills exist because a demand for cheap and easily accessible puppies exists. While recent Ontario legislation has prohibited pet stores from selling puppies, the puppy mill business is supported by a public that continues to purchase puppies online, from newspaper ads, or through puppy “brokers.” Until there is an end to the economic support of puppy mills, they will remain prevalent within our society. Only after the profitability of this market is gone, will we start to see a decline in the puppy mill industry. This, however, is a topic that will be explored in future blog posts – the focus of this blog is aiding animals through adoption.

Of course, not everyone is in the position to adopt a needy animal into their home. However, those people could always consider a symbolic adoption. The concept here is that you give a small, one-time donation to “adopt” an at-risk species of your choice, and that money goes towards supporting the conservation efforts of the organization from which you are adopting. A few examples of organizations that offer this type of program are the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), but there are many others.

Whatever you choose to do, make sure that it is within your means. Some people may not be able to provide adequate space, attention or care to an animal in need, and that’s okay. It just means that those people can take their good intentions and put them to work elsewhere. Stay tuned for the next segment in this multi-part blog to read about other avenues that can be employed in the ongoing struggle to help our furry friends.


On behalf of the staff at Snelgrove Veterinary Services,

Thank you for reading,