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The Myth of the Friendly Wagging Tail

Our barometer for measuring a dog’s friendliness is often checking out that tail. Is it wagging? If yes, all signs are clear for friendly play. No wagging? Proceed with caution.

It’s a myth – that friendly wagging tail stuff. Right up there with the tooth fairy and Easter Bunny. Take a moment to digest that fact, shed a tear or two for the now-lost belief system in friendly wagging tails…and read on.

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Pretty happy tails – level, in motion. But look at the other signs too. Squinting eyes, open mouths, etc.

All is not lost. The tail is definitely still a barometer you should pay close attention to. But, instead of thinking about it as measuring friendliness, think of it as measuring level of arousal. The higher it is, the more worked up the dog is. The stiffer it is (think a cat flicking fast in preparation of pouncing), the more coiled and tense the dog is feeling. Likewise, a low tucked tail is equally as concerning (but most people know that).

I’m gonna switch gears for a sec because I like to fill your head with haunting analogies related to people. So, think of the sociopath that is hoping to get you alone so he can attack you. Is his body language threatening or alarming? Nope. He’s enjoying the process of drawing you in for attack. My friends, a tiny percentage of dogs genuinely enjoy aggression. They will give you soft body language with few hints as to their true motive. They are not being manipulative. They are honestly enjoying the hunt. So, yeah, maybe that tail is wagging…just like that sociopath is smiling and laughing warmly to invite more contact with you.

Imagine the socially awkward person who is trying but, man oh man, is truly so conflicted. She’s laughing and making some socially appropriate gestures….butttttt you’d feel in your gut that something wasn’t right. So the obvious signs of smiling wouldn’t put you totally at ease. You’d be looking for other signs. The whole picture. I’ve got a great video of a dog (a golden retriever – gasp) who I evaluated in his kennel at a shelter. Golden Retriever guarding food from foot (note: there is a lot of other body language here, but for newbies please notice the wagging tail..the soft, even wagging tail).

The whole picture with reading a dog matters, too! The eyes (hard or soft), the body (tense or relaxed), the mouth (pursed/tight or slightly open and soft)…so on and so on. Who is controlling the space? Are the hairs on your neck standing up? Do you simply feel like you don’t really LIKE this dog and you have no idea why? That is probably your intuitive understanding of the dog/human bond. You might not be able to put it in words but pay attention to that feeling.

So, how do you know if a dog is friendly? The answer is more complicated than you might think. You know why? Dogs are often more complicated than we give them credit for. Again, think about people. A person might be a total nightmare in the workplace but the most loyal, loving friend a person could have. A friend might be sweet and a mushball with you on the average day…but after finding out some bad news you might suddenly find him sullen, hostile and hurtful.

The truth is, you’ve been trained since birth in the fluency of human body language. Without even thinking about it, you are equally adept at hearing the words they say and simultaneously hearing what their bodies are saying and assigning value to it. Then, you make your decision about how proceed.

Ah, so the last question is, how do you learn to get fluent in Dog so that you can make good decisions about protecting your dog and choosing the right playmates? That is like learning any new language. Check out dog body language videos, especially ones with narrative, and watch them more than once.

There are books and videos…a simple search on Google, YouTube or Facebook will pull up lots of good stuff. Sophia Yin had some gorgeous video analyzing Cesar Milan videos. Ah! So much fun stuff out there.

And it will all make your relationship with you dog so much better…and make your dog so much happier!