A dog with a wagging tail is an ubiquitous sight that most of us interpret as a dog that is happy and friendly, and there is a whole language behind your dog’s wags that help to indicate their mood and temperament at any given time.
Dogs that have long tails have a large range of movement available in them and will often have them in a state of near-perpetual motion, and even dogs with very short or cropped tails still perform all of the same movements, although they are harder for other dogs and people to see and interpret.
Because wagging tails are so common and innate to dog behaviour, this is something that we don’t tend to pay a huge amount of conscious attention to, once we’ve reached a level of familiarity with our dogs that enables us to instinctively interpret their moods via their body language.
However, one question that sometimes crops up among dog owners is whether dogs actually consciously control the movements of their tails and what they are saying when they do so, or if such movements are instinctive or involuntary – like breathing, yawning, or a natural smile.
In this article we will attempt to answer the question of whether or not dogs consciously control the way they wag their tails, and if tail wagging is a voluntary or involuntary behaviour on the part of the dog. Read on to learn more.
To answer the question about whether or not dogs choose to wag their tails or if this is instinctive begins with answering the question of whether or not tail wagging itself is an instinctive behaviour, or something that puppies learn.
Young puppies don’t wag their tails and they only begin to exhibit this behaviour when they get a little older and more mobile, and begin crawling and walking and playing with their dam and littermates. This leads a lot of canine behaviourists to believe that wagging is at least partly learned via observation of other dogs, but because such behaviour is displayed from a young age (as well as other tail-related behaviours, such as tucking the tail in when scared or nervous) it is likely that such movements are at least partly instinctive, or evolved.
As puppies get older and begin to go outside and meet and socialise with more dogs, they learn more about the fine complexities of canine communication, and develop their body language vocabularies to encompass a much wider range of tail-related signals.
The tail of the dog is actually an extension of their spines, containing vertebrae and cartilage that give it strength, shape and mobility. From the point at which the base of the tail joins the butt to form the tail itself, your dog can direct and control the muscle movements of the tail’s base, but they cannot deliberately control the lower section of the tail independently.
Dogs can lift and lower their tails and swish them from side to side with deliberate movements, and they can also suspend movement in the middle of a wag too, which indicates that dogs can indeed consciously control how their tail moves, and stop it; but much as someone telling a funny joke or saying something that pleases us instinctively raises a smile or a giggle that we would have to actively try to stop if we wished to, so too is tail wagging in the first instance likely to be involuntarily controlled by signals from your dog’s brain that depend on their mood.
Ultimately, tail wagging in the adult dog tends to be involuntary in response, but it can be consciously controlled if the dog chooses to do so.
Whilst most of us would automatically state that a wagging tail means a dog that is happy, this is not necessarily the case. Communication with the tail is a complex language that is probably easier for other dogs to interpret than people, and in order for us as humans to be able to determine the meaning and mood behind any wag, you have to view the complete picture and not just concentrate on the tail alone.
If the dog is holding their tail low and swishing it from side to side slowly and deliberately, the chances are that they are concentrating on something they are watching, interested in something, or potentially getting wound up with the behaviour of another dog or person, depending on what the rest of their body language indicates.
Similarly, a dog that is holding their tail low or close to their body’s profile may be trying to protect their back end because they are scared or feel threatened, and are trying to minimise the risk of becoming injured if the interaction goes bad.
When your dog greets you with a happy wag, they’re probably not thinking about what is going on with their tail – they just know that they are happy to see you, and because dogs are very open in terms of their body language, they can’t help but let you know this!