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Canine Behavior/Happy waggy tail, Warning waggy tail, Agressive waggy tail? Which one is it?

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Question
Hello there,

I wanted to understand how to tell if my dog's wagging tail is something more. I've had my dogs since they were pups and worked hard on socializing them with children, cats and other dogs. One is 4 years old, and one is a year old.

What I want to know is if I should be watching their tail wagging in certain situations a little more carefully or not.

Both of them when they get into a dog park have the body posture of being very proud looking, but they have a straight tail that is wagging back and forth really quickly when they meet a new dog for the first time. Are they sending a warning to the other dog? They've never done much more than that, no dog fights, or anything ever, but I don't want it to ever turn into one. Is it something I should be monitoring more carefully with them? Will another dog take it as a threat?

Also, one of my dogs does the same thing if children are running back and forth in our backyard. He doesn't really chase them, but the straight super fast wagging tail, makes me wonder. He lets kids poke and prod him and step on him with out doing anything, but the minute they're running around the yard, he gets alert and a super high wagging tail.

All I ever heard is that a high wagging tail is a warning/aggressive sign, but what's your take? Is it aggressive, a warning, just excited??

Thanks in advance!

Answer
Happy, approachable tail wag (not docked tail):  at body height, can be wagging back and forth rapidly (some dogs get tail injuries because of this!) or casually.  Dog's ear set usually normal: not flat back on head, not pricked forward, natural and relaxed.  This tail wag says:  HIYA, GOOD TO SEE YOU, HAPPY HAPPY.

Excited, maybe happy yet to be determined, tail wag:  tail raised higher than body length, tip can be wagging rapidly, dog is usually "grinning", ear set is forward, can be perked, never flat against head.  This tail wag says:  HIYA, ARE YOU FRIENDLY OR SHOULD I WORRY

Apprehensive tail wag:  Tail held low, tip wagging furiously (in some breeds, not at all); ear set back, head down, eyes flashing white.  This says:  I AM NERVOUS BUT NO THREAT - UNLESS dog is vocalizing or snarling in which case dog is a clear and present danger.

Warning tail wag:  Tail is held high and perhaps over back (dependent upon breed), legs are stiff, ear set can be lifted and back or forward and pricked.  Direct eye contact.  Approach can also have pilo-erection (hair raised on hackles and along back to tail).  This says:  BE CAREFUL, I AM NOT NECESSARILY GOING TO BE FRIENDLY.  Such a dog does not back away, turn to his side, or turn his head.  He approaches head on.  The result can be two dogs of similar temperament (they know this instantly from body language) meeting/greeting and ending up playing, or it can result in dog fight.

SUPER HIGH wagging tail would be, from your report, a tail held straight UP or over the back with a great deal of direct attention: eye contact, perhaps happy face (grinning), accompanied by yawning (calming signal).  Dogs with high prey drive will give great attention to children (or anything else) running nearby.  Certain breeds are predisposed to "control" of running objects or to "chase" running objects.  You have to read the whole body language and know the dog's temperament to determine, in a split second, if you should redirect the dog to a trained behavior for reward.

NEVER let ANY children "poke and prod him and step on him" for any reason whatever.  This puts the dog at risk as well as the children.  It is not okay.  A dog CAN (and many do) "chase" children who are running in play and generally such dogs are happily participating in a social behavior they can't truly understand but know is benign.  IF a dog intends HARM, the chase is quite different: "eye" is given (even for a second: this means, dog locks onto object), head is lowered (for a second), pilo-erection might occur (this can also be a body signal that I AM IN CHARGE HERE), dog SHOOTS toward running object to tackle it (at best).

To learn more about dog body language, go to Turid Rugaas' site:
http://www.canis.no/rugaas/index.php

She also has a book and video (probably available through her site but it is on Dogwise and Amazon, too).

Dogs communicate in an instant with one another.  Knowing how to "read" this language is quite interesting and a great plus as a dog owner.

Canine Behavior

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.

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I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.

Experience

30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for ThePetChannel.com for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, K9Shrinks@egroups.com. Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Organizations
Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Publications
Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Education/Credentials
Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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