ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO ~~~~~ July 10, 2020 (LSN) As a dog trainer, I have heard the following countless times: "He was barking but his tail was wagging so he was happy ... and then he lunged and bit!"
It is a myth that has been around for a long time: That a dog who is wagging his tail automatically is a happy, friendly dog.
Many times owners think their dog is conflicted: the hackles are raised, the lips are pulled back but the tail is moving briskly - this might look like a dog that cannot decide between being mad or being approachable.
The bad news is that a tail is a much more complex communication feature than it seems.
Generally speaking, a fast moving tail reliably only conveys one thing: Excitement.
And this excitement can be both "positive excitement" (such as when the owner is returning home) and "negative excitement" - which is stress - for example when meeting an unknown dog or having a stranger come to the house.
A wagging tail always needs to be seen in the context of the dog's whole body and the situation he is in.
If your dog's hackles are raised, he is growling and his tail is wagging, this is not a good sign! You should interrupt his actions and remove him from the situation before he takes it upon himself to escalate it.
If your dog's tail is wagging, but his body is stiff and his eyes are "fixed" on a target such as another dog, this also does not suggest he feels friendly and relaxed. Do not continue to push your dog through an interaction if he acts like this. It will probably not go well.
Throughout my career, I have been called to countless dog fight and dog bite cases which could have easily been prevented by not assessing a dog's state of mind solely by its tail. Do not make the same mistake as those owners!
Always watch your dog's entire body language and disposition - never judge a dog by its wagging tail alone, or you might set yourself and your pooch up for a potentially dangerous confrontation.
A proactive dog owner is a safe dog owner.
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