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In our best guess, our dogs wagging their tails takes our minds straight to a way of conveying their happiness. And while that is true, our canine friends will also wave their tails back and forth to express a variety of emotions, including agitation, joy, fear, anxiety, and compliance. Typically, your dog’s tail is a tool for communication with other animals and you as well.

What is dog wagging behavior in dogs?

In dogs, tail wagging is described as the behavior of your pooch seen as his or her tail moves backward and forth in the same plane. Scientifically, your dog’s tail plays many important roles including communication and balance. But what does it mean when they wag the tails?

When talking about tail wagging in doggies, it takes me down memory lane with Chester, my grandpa’s yellow Lab. I would see Chester wag his tail when we went for hikes, walks in the dog park, and even when grandpa came home a little drunk upset and scolded him or someone else. He would wag his tail in almost all situations. And since like you always assumed tail wagging is a sign of joy, I couldn’t help but wonder ‘doesn’t Chester ever get angry?’ That, plus my love for dogs, prompted me into reading more about them and seeking valuable info for folks like us.

Today, therefore, you and I shall look into the reasons why our dogs wag their tails, the different directions in which they wag them and if there is any explanation behind it, and more. Both you and your vet will find my article today engaging and very useful. I intend to help you understand your pooch better and interpret his or her tail wagging appropriately.

Does a dog wag its tail involuntary?

Your dog wagging his or her tail can be a little bit both voluntary and involuntary.  How so you may ask. So, your doggie friend can control his or her tail and determine when to wag it. Yet, it seems as if he or she does often start wagging it out of instinct rather than conscious thought. That is why I would compare tail wagging to an emotional reaction to stimuli that can be controlled by conscious thought.

Like any other part of his or her body, your dog’s tail muscles are connected to the brain where all the emotions take place explaining the reasons why it can voluntary or involuntary.

What does tail wagging mean?

Overall, your dog wagging its tail can be an emotional response to express anything from joy to fear, satisfaction, and submission, and so on. For a long period now, we have been getting the wrong end of the stick when trying to understand the meaning of dogs wagging their tails. For most of us, we view it as just a form of indicating happiness. Yet, there is more than just one reason behind this, and which has been explained better backed by scientific facts. I have discussed that in length below.

Why does a dog wag its tail?

This is one of the most commonly asked questions about dogs. As mentioned in the introductory section, your dog will wag his or her tail to reveal a range of feelings. This includes anxiety, happiness, anticipation, feeling at risk, nervousness, and submission.

When your dog is calm, his tail is believed to sit in a relaxed position that varies depending on the dog breed that you have. And regardless of the tail appearance, curly and stiff or long and drooping, your dog will always wag it when aroused emotionally. A National Geographic article talks about a new study that shows how our dogs respond to the direction of a tail wag. On the one hand, if your canine friend sees his or her tail wagging to the right, he or she is more relaxed. When they see it wag to the left, however, she or he becomes tenser. Check out the different directions in which your dog wags his or her tail and the explanations below.

Do dogs wag their tails when happy?

Happiness is one of the emotions that your doggie can demonstrate especially when they are wagging their tail to the right. This is the same direction that your dog will wag his tail to when confident. Another way for your dog to communicate his happiness is when he wags his tail healthily while holding it in a slightly raised or neutral position.

Dog wagging tail in a circle

Have you seen your canine buddy wag his tail in circles and wonder what it means? This tail-wagging movement is an indication of excitement, and your dog can at times use it to manipulate you. Most notably, circular tail wagging is noticeable when you are feeding your pooch or when he notices you from a distance or even during play. When your dog wags his tail in circles, he might be overexcited in a way that can knock you over. So, be cautious.

Unfortunately, this type of circular wagging is not for all dogs, especially those with tails that curve upwards, clipped, or docked. So, if your pooch’s tail is in the three mentioned categories, there is nothing to worry about as the shape does not allow them to. 

What research says

As we have seen so far, research says that tail wagging could communicate different emotions depending on the direction. If your doggie, for instance, sees another dog wagging his or her tail towards the right side, that keeps him relaxed while one of the left sides might provoke stress. In a study devoted to understanding and interpreting the wagging of tails in dogs, researchers enlisted 43 pet dogs of several breeds to determine variation in their emotional response.

For their research, each of the 43 dogs wore a vest that monitored heart rates as they watched videos of other dogs: some wagging the tail to the right and others to the left side of the body. Surprisingly, the report says that the group of dogs that watched tails wag on the left side showed anxiety while those that watched tails wag on the right remained calm. This suggested that the dogs saw their tail wagging to the right side as a sign of companionship.

Researchers, therefore, think that the direction of tail wagging in dogs may result from automatic reactions ingrained in the different hemispheres of the dog brain. The same does for other dog’s responses to it. Giorgio Vallortigara equates this to the right and left sides of the human brain and how they are thought to control different behaviors and emotions. Vallortigara is a researcher at the University of Trento in Italy in the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences.

Dog wag tail to left or right

So, is there any explanation for your dog wagging its tail to the right or left? Yes, there is, and it can either be a positive or negative based on which side he or she is biased to. Consistent with science, the right side of your brain runs movement on the left and vice versa. As such, your dog’s brain is activated when he wags his tail to the right or left with response varying depending on which side he wags the tail. That explains why the right-side wag is associated with happiness while the left is linked with nervousness or anxiety. 

Prof. Vallortigara continues to explain that when your dog looks at a dog wagging its tail with a bias to the right side, he or she would also produce relaxed responses. This is because the dog’s left-hemisphere activation feels like it’s feeling some sort of positive response. On the other hand, a dog with a bias to the left would reveal anxious responses because the right-hemisphere activation was as if it was experiencing some sort of withdrawal response.

Dog wagging tail and growling

So, you have seen your dog wag his or her tail while growling and you are wondering what’s up! The most likely reasons why he or she would do this include feeling in danger, happy, begging for something/attention from you, or as a result of aggressiveness. If you want to understand why your doggie is combining the two, consider the timing when it does that and observe his or her body language.

This reminds me of Zeus, my friend Teflon’s rottweiler. If he did not know you, he would lie with his belly facing upwards then wag his tail as he growls. Now, a dog can do that for three reasons including happiness, confidence, or fear and you need to determine which. For Zeus, if a stranger approached, he used it as a strategy to lure him or her for a bite. If your dog does this out of aggressiveness, seek help and advice against intimidation.

Dog wagging tail video

Dog wags tail when I talk

Have you seen your dog wag his or her tail when you talk and wonder what it may mean? If you noticed the changes all of sudden, it could be from several reasons including a change in your tone when addressing him or her. Other possible reasons include a change in the feeding or exercise schedule. This will lead to excitement as he or she likes what you are about to do next.


Can dogs without tails communicate?

Dogs without tails also try to communicate to you despite the limitations and will tend to move towards you and other dogs carefully to avoid misunderstanding. I have friends with tailless dogs and interacting with them helped me learn something as well. To understand a tailless dog, you need to read other aspects of their body including facial expressions, stance, and ear positions. These body languages are key.


While your pooch can control the movement of his tail, maybe instincts seem to have a role in this rather than their conscious thought. As you can see, tail wagging has a lot of meanings which studies show are distinguished by the direction they move to. The best way, therefore, to understand your pooch’s emotions, is to read the direction to which he moves his tail. I know it might be hard, but if you know reading your dog’s body language it’s easy. Typically, a stiff tail wave might show negative emotions while a languid one shows positive.

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