This Is Why Dogs Wag Their Tails

Whether you have a dog or have simply seen it happen to others, the image of a happy pup greeting its owner with a wagging tail is familiar. But the meaning of that tail wag is not as simple as you might imagine. Tail movement in dogs can mean a lot of things, as SciShow highlights in a new video. 

Host Olivia Gordon notes the details can vary between breeds, but the general outline of why dogs move their tails is pretty straightforward. If the dog tucks its tail between its legs, it's likely feeling scared or submissive. If the dog holds the tail aloft, it's alert and interested. A slow wag may indicate uncertainty, and a fast wag may indicate happiness. All of these signs are pretty familiar.

However, the wagging may be more complicated than it seems, according to some researchers. In particular, the direction of the wag may carry importance. One study showed dogs wagging their tails more on the right when they saw their owners. It was just slightly to the right when they saw strangers or a cat. And, when the dogs saw a dominant, unfamiliar dog, their tails wagged more to the left. The study suggested dogs wag more on the right when they see something they'd like to approach, and more to the left when they see something they'd like to avoid. 

A follow-up study had 40 dogs look at videos of other dogs wagging their tail on each side. The dogs in the study seemed to be able to read other dogs. When the dogs saw another dog wagging its tail to the left, they became anxious and had an elevated heart rate. When they saw it wagging to the other side, they remained calm.

So, if your dog is wagging its tail because you bought a canned pumpkin spice latte for dogs, it might be wagging its tail because it wants to avoid that gift. 

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Dustin Nelson is a News Writer with Thrillist. He holds a Guinness World Record but has never met the fingernail lady. Follow him @dlukenelson.