Looking Beyond a Wagging Tail


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Do you know what a dog is telling you with its body language?

If you see a dog standing up the street tail wagging, do you know if this is a friendly dog, a fearful dog, or an aggressive dog?

When you are reading a dog’s behavior it is important to look beyond the tail wag. Where is the tail to the body?

If it is high, that can mean assertive or overexcited.

If it’s low, it can mean shy or fearful. If it’s even or slightly above the body, it is in a friendly, happy state of mind. We have exceptions, like the tail that curls up on the back. That is a normal position, so that tail will go straight up if assertive or overexcited. Normal position is relaxed, curled; it is calm, happy. Low is shy or fearful. Even dogs with no tails or a stubby tail communicate the same way— watch how they move their stub when they are in different moods.Relaxed dogRelaxed dog»

Ears communicate a lot, too.

Ears forward are assertive, alert.

Ears diagonal to the head or for floppy eared dogs, they are halfway pulled back.

Ears flat back or pulled all the way back are very fearful, aggressive.Submissive dog
Submissive dog»

The way the dog holds its body also communicates.

Dog stands tall on toes slightly leaning forward, communicates confidence, and leadership.

The dog that approaches, head even with their body, legs slightly bent to look smaller, communicates submission.

Then there is the roll over that everyone recognizes as total submission.

The mouth also communicates.

A relaxed, open, panting mouth is happy, excited.

A closed mouth in a natural position is concerned, suspicious.

A closed mouth with a pulled back or long lip is submissive.

A closed mouth with a puckered lip or short lip is ready to bite.

A dog that bares its teeth is not necessarily being aggressive, a dog will bare their teeth meaning submission as well as aggression— that’s where all the other factors come in.


They say eyes are the window to the soul; they also communicate a lot. Wide eyes showing the whites, pupils dilated, is what we call whale eye, which could be aggressive or a fearful, aggressive state of mind. A dog that is staring for a long period with intent can be showing interest or aggression, reading the rest of the body helps you understand which.

Submissive eyes are soft, sometimes blinking, and the dog tends to look away. Soft eyes looking at you is good.

If you put all pieces of the puzzle together, you will get the answer you’re looking for.

If you’re still not sure you can approach a dog, think of it this way: if you have to put your hand out for a dog to sniff, then the dog is not ready to meet you. If a dog is ready to meet you, they come right up to you; if not, they stay back or back up when you approach.

So when you approach a dog, take a moment to read its body language before you greet the dog.

Valerie Masi, owner of Best Paw Forward, can be reached at (760) 885-9450 or visit bestpawforwarddogtraining.com.

Pet Companion Mag
Southern California's Local Pet Magazine


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