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What a Wagging Tail Means – and Other Body Language Cues

What a Wagging Tail Means – and Other Body Language Cues

So you think a wagging tail means a dog is happy? Not always! It could even mean you’re about to be bitten.

Read on to find out what dogs mean by their actions and expressions so that you know how to respond and ensure your dog is a happy one!

Wagging Tail

The position of the dog’s tail is the key. Pay attention to how your dog carries his tail when he’s just walking around doing his normal business so you’ll know how to interpret his wags.


  • Broad sweep from side to side
  • Middle to middle-high position
  • Relaxed and loose tail
  • Moving hips or full body wag
  • Tail wagging mostly to the dog’s right

Negative and potentially aggressive:

  • A high position is dominant and/or aggressive
  • Very tight sweep or a vibrating tip
  • Tail moving mostly to the dog’s left
  • Stiff tail

Submissive or frightened:

  • A low position is submissive
  • A very low position is slightly frightened and apologetic
  • A stiff tail in a frightened dog can signal potential fear aggression.

Speed matters, too. A slow wag can indicate that the dog is unsure, insecure, curious, or confused. A fast wag signals excitement, be it positive or negative.

So, if you see a dog that is waving his tail toward the right in broad movements, he’s happy to see you. If his tail is going side to side rapidly toward the left in a high position, back off – he may be about to attack.

Ear Position

A dog’s ears have a lot to say, as well. You can tell quite a bit about their emotional state or their opinion about what’s going on just by watching their ears.

Ears that are pricked slightly forward are a sign that the dog is alert and focused on something in particular. If they are very far forward and spread a little, the dog is focused and feeling aggression. Ears that are pricked forward on a head that’s tilted mean what you think it means – that her curiosity is peaked or something is confusing her.

Ears that are changing position or twitching are the ears of a dog in thought. He is trying to figure something out, or at least how he feels about a certain situation.

Pinned back ears don’t always mean fear. Your dog may pin her ears back when greeting your or giving you “kisses”. Usually, this means she wants to show you that you have nothing to fear but love and a sloppy tongue.

You should worry about pinned ears when they are tight to the skull or dropped very low. This indicates true fear. Wait until the dog is relaxed before interacting with him. Fearful dogs can often be just as likely to bite as dominant dogs.


When your dog has that big, open-mouthed, panting grin, it does mean that the dog is happy, relaxed, and – smiling. When your dog smiles with teeth like we do, it’s not so happy.

A toothy smile on a dog is known as the Submissive Grin or Submissive Smile. If you have a dog that has done this for a long time and you see nothing negative in it, you may have trained him to see it as something that results in a positive reaction from you and your family. If it’s a new behavior, young dog, or a dog you’ve never met, it is probably frightened and wants space or for the current situation to end. Give it a little room and treat it kindly without pressuring it.

Now, go ask your dog if he wants a treat and see how he reacts with his ears, tail, and body language!

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