Does a wagging tail always mean my dog is happy?

865835cf-0e49-4426-94c4-a69cdf3b2dcc

Tamsin Durston explains the different reasons a dog may be wagging its tail.

Q: I’ve often heard people saying that just because a dog is wagging his tail it doesn’t mean he’s being friendly. Can you explain? I always thought a wagging tail was the sign of
a happy dog.
Laura Green, Cumbria.

Tamsin says: A wagging tail is widely recognised by owners but unfortunately it is also widely misunderstood. It doesn’t necessarily indicate a dog is feeling relaxed or happy — a dog who is about to bite can be wagging his tail. It’s how they’re wagging their tail that reveals how they’re feeling. A tail held very loosely away from the body, swaying from side to side in a flowing motion, is communicating very differently from a tail firmly upright, stiffly vibrating, very quickly. The first dog might be relaxed and soliciting interaction from a person or dog, whereas the second dog might well be wishing to be left completely alone! 

Dogs communicate with every part of their bodies, so it’s important to observe the whole animal in order to interpret the motivation behind their behaviour, as well as the context within which it is happening. We can easily miss vital communications if we focus entirely on individual parts of the body. It’s also important to remember that the way a dog looks can have an impact on their ability to communicate. For example, some dogs have very tight, curly tails, while others don’t have tails at all! Understanding how your dog communicates means you’ll be able to recognise when he’s feeling confident and when he might be worried — enabling you to respond appropriately.