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What the TAIL tells us

 Reviewed 11 March 2019 share-a-picture Or go to discussion?join-the-discussion dogphoto

==> Dogs' Native Language?

Dogs' Native Language is TAIL language!

In the MYGERMANSHEPHERD PERIODICAL German Shepherd Communication Secrets, we already saw that dog body language is the dominant form of dog communication, both of the GSD puppy and the adult GSD.

A great, if not the best, photographic guide comes from the impressive Brenda Aloff: Canine body language.

A large part of dog body language actually is dog tail language, ie what the TAIL tells us.

In this MYGERMANSHEPHERD PERIODICAL we will explore dog tail language.

Dog Communication
Systematization of Dog Communication

Dog tail language also is a very special, namely unique form of dog communication: It is the only form of communication between dog and human that is one-way communication.

Every other form of communication is two-way: Both we use it and our German Shepherd is using it. Only tail language we cannot use. But our dog's barking corresponds to our speaking.

Dogs communicate through their tail in a way that we can break down into the tail position and the tail movement. Once you are able to 'read', to understand, both a dog's vertical tail position and horizontal tail movement, you will understand all dogs MUCH BETTER.

Tail Language as Safety Measure

Understanding dogs' tail language also is a safety measure:

  • To visibly express their feelings and energy state is a genetic achievement of dogs: It allows dogs not only to communicate but to warn each other.
  • If you have children, allow them to study this MYGERMANSHEPHERD PERIODICAL as well, because it will make your children much safer: Children who grow up with a dog in the house naturally assume that they "know" how to deal with other dogs too. But often this is not the case, because they've had no chance to bond with other people's dogs as they were able to bond with their own dog.
  • If your children can't read other people's dog's tail language then they will assume behavior and reactions of the dog that may be very different to how that dog actually behaves and reacts! That's why after dog bite injuries the victims often say: "All of a sudden, without any indication, he BIT ME!" - No, there is nothing without indication, without forewarning, dog body language was the forewarning.
  • Tail language is the part of dog body language that's easiest to learn - that's why we feature this first.
  • If you have friends or relatives, you may want to let them know as well how to read every dog's tail language, so that they are much safer too.
  • And the same applies to yourself.

But note that dog tail language is only one form of dog body language, as you can see from the image above, Systematization of Dog Communication.

That's why tail language can only give us an indication of the dog's feelings and energy state, not necessarily 100% truth. Another reason is that eg a traumatized dog's tail language can be inaccurate to the extent of being misleading.

However, tail language generally is the best indicator of the dog's feelings and energy state, when you consider each form of dog body language on its own. Best is, of course, if you can 'read' all forms of dog body language together.

Understanding your own dog's tail language is less important, because once you've had your German Shepherd for a while you will have developed a level of rapport (mutual understanding) with your dog that no longer requires you to read your dog's tail language in order to understand your dog - although being able to do so is a benefit in any case.

Vertical Tail Position

Consider this:

  • Without using energy, the tail hangs down, due to gravity; to move and hold the tail upwards requires the dog to use energy
  • When the tail hangs down it is relaxed; when the tail stands up it is under tension
  • A tail that is high up and stationary means it is under enormous tension

Without further ado, this makes immediately clear:

  • Ideally, a dog would like to be relaxed with the tail hanging down, in order to save its energy for other action
  • The higher up the tail and the more stationary, the more energetic (or stressed!) is the dog
  • Although during play we may appreciate an energetic dog, we don't want a stressed dog because a stressed dog is dangerous: At some point a stressed dog will either 'collapse' and quietly lie down, or it will release its stress through hectic attention-seeking, digging, barking, or biting!

So, the higher up and the more stationary the tail is, the more watchful and careful we should be of the dog, because the dog is likely to show some erratic behavior: (S)he is already on high energy, (s)he is under tension! From this state, a dog can jump up or spring forward in an instant, quicker than we can stretch a leg.

The tail's position on a vertical axis helps us to identify 5 or 6 different energy states of the dog, and likewise 5 or 6 different states of how the dog currently feels:

1 Fearful Dog

Fearlful GSDUnder normal circumstances, the vertical tail position of a fearful dog is that the tail hangs down close to the dog's body, or is even curled inwards under the dog's body, such that you can hardly see it (and such that it is safe to the dog).


2 Calm Dog

Calm GSDUnder normal circumstances, the vertical tail position of a calm dog is that the tail is held below the horizontal and away from the body (and certainly not tucked under).


3 Excited Dog

Excited GSDUnder normal circumstances, the vertical tail position of an excited dog is within about 45 degrees around the horizontal, as highlighted in the image on the right.

A confident or even dominant dog will typically wear its tail higher up, ie above the horizontal, and a submissive dog will typically wear its tail below the horizontal.

The specific indicator of an excited dog's tail however is of course that it's wagging like mad. Normally, the tail will be moving horizontally from left to right and right to left. However, the tail of an excited dog may also be moving in what appears to be an '8', ie it may somewhat 'wave' around.

Briefly, the tail may even be moving up and down without horizontal movement - but this is rather an indication that the dog is undecided whether to be cheerful or alert, because (s)he is unsure what's coming up!

4 Confident and Dominant Dog

Confident and Dominant DogBoth a confident dog and a dominant dog will wear the tail above the horizontal, and rather stationary or even stiff. The dominant dog's tail may often point upwards, while the merely confident dog's tail will not.

Compare this image with the image above, and you can see exactly this!

Holding the tail up against gravity of course draws energy: Being dominant and upholding this perceived position is not easy.

Similarly, the mere fact that a dog feels the need to show its surroundings that (s)he is a confident dog means that (s)he isn't totally relaxed either.


5 Alerted Dog

Alerted DogWhen something upsets a dog, eg danger or simply a situation (s)he doesn't like, then a vertically upright tail is typically the first indicator that we face an alerted dog. The tail of a German Shepherd and some other dog breeds may even roll back inwards.

When a dog is alerted, this should alert us as well: An alerted dog is the opposite of relaxed. Something upset the dog, and as a warning the tail rapidly goes straight up or even rolls back. Or, something excited the dog, but (s)he doesn't quite know what to expect next and thus the tail moves upright to tell us or other dogs: "I am ready!"

A vertically upright tail draws significant energy from the dog. If you've ever tried to paint a ceiling, you'll know exactly what I am talking about: Holding any extremity up against gravity weakens us within less than a minute!

Holding the tail up fairly stationary or even totally stiff means that the tail is under significant tension - which merely is a reflection of the amount of tension in the dog's state of mind too!

This amount of tension, together with the continuous draw of energy, is what leads to the often sudden movement and erratic action of a dog in this state.

Note that, subject to the circumstances, every dog may be say, fearful, calm or confident in one moment, and say, excited or alerted in another moment. Just like humans, a dog may experience all these feelings and energy states within a matter of a few minutes.

Horizontal Tail Movement

Apart from the rather brief moments of vertical tail movement, the dog's tail typically moves or 'wags' horizontally from right to left and left to right. Under normal circumstances this indicates that you face an excited dog (see above under 3).

Of course, excitement draws energy too, but at the same time it releases tension. The moving tail 'wags' tension away. Same with us: When we get exercise, our tension fades away.

Horizontal tail movement or 'wagging' will last as long as the dog is excited. Conversely, any vertical tail movement is either instant (when the dog feels tension and the tail is moving up), or slower but nonetheless brief (when the dog is relaxing and the tail is moving down).

Crucial is at which height the tail is wagging:

The tail's vertical position together with the amount of horizontal movement (or 'waving' movement) gives a good indication of the dog's mood.

What the Tail also tells us

Dogs that rarely wag their tail horizontally but rather wear their tail stiff upright most of the time, are dominant dogs who think that they are the Pack leader.

Make sure that you memorize this Pack leader indicator for next week's master-piece-of-research Periodical! wink

Such a dominant dog is ALERT almost all the time. But this doesn't mean that this kind of dog is a good watch dog or guard dog: Typically, this kind of dog will ALERT its owner all the time! If a peanut is falling on the floor, and this dog hasn't experienced this before, it will alert the owner of the perceived 'danger'!

Being ALERT all the time means being on high energy all the time. This pent-up, unreleased energy puts enormous stress on the dog. That's why such a dog usually dies rather young.

Factors like these are such wonderful research subjects, and I'd LOVE to get even more dog database fields from our "post office" Mailchimp, eg to investigate what dog owners could do to extend the dog's life. But a) for subscribers we won't get more fields from Mailchimp (30 is their MAX), b) our freebie-seeking subscribers do not become a member (for members we can create unlimited data fields), and c) when a dog dies, the owner typically can't bear to be reminded of their dog through Periodicals or Site Membership. So, there won't be new insights for you or me. neutral

Applied Tail Language reading

The Tail Language portrayed above can be recognized in almost any situation that involves one or more dogs:

  • Whether there is a human being and a dog
  • Or there are two or more dogs without any human involvement
  • Or there is one dog ALONE!

You can study your own GSD's tail language by closely observing your dog, or you can randomly pick a dog video on Youtube to confirm that any dog is using tail language exactly the way described above (unless traumatized).

For example, see these short explained tail reading examples:

The next explained video makes dog tail language even easier to see and understand:


  • Dog tail language requires no training of the dog. A healthy (non-traumatized) dog will always make intense use of its tail, the way shown above. Tail language is hereditary.
  • Although you can train your dog to wag its tail horizontally on command, it is very hard - if not impossible - to train your dog to move its tail vertically in order to pretend the specific energy states and states of feelings.
  • Dog tail language requires no bonding with the dog. As you saw from the bullet points above, the presence of a human being or another dog is not necessary, even a dog that is ALONE will move its tail the way described above. Check out the second video again.

Is Tail Language conscious?

There is no question that the dog's TAIL serves the communication with others, both humans and dogs. The tail serves to communicate most of the dog's feelings, from pleasure to warning, and everything between.

But does a dog consciously use its tail for this purpose?

I wasn't satisfied with the answers that I could find. You may or may not be aware that there exists so much nonsense about dogs, both on the internet and in more traditional literature, that I refuse to copy what others are saying about this topic (and any other topic really).


For example, my friend Stanley Coren* writes in his bestseller(!) How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication:

"A dog will wag its tail for a person or another dog. It may wag its tail for a cat, horse, mouse, or perhaps even a butterfly. But when a dog is by itself, it will not wag its tail to any lifeless thing.

If you put a bowl of food down, the dog will wag its tail to express gratitude to you. In contrast, when the dog walks into a room and finds its bowl full, it will approach and eat the food just as happily, but with no tail-wagging other than perhaps a slight excitement tremor.

This is one indication that tail-wagging is meant as communication or language."

* When I see Stanley next I will tell him he's my friend smile

This is of course incorrect, as anyone with a dog should immediately notice:

  • A healthy (non-traumatized) dog does wag its tail even when the dog is by itself. A dog does not merely wag its tail when the dog knows it is being observed. A dog may even wag its tail during sleep! Ours did. Does yours too?
  • Further, as you saw above, tail wagging is only a (small) part of dog tail language anyway - which itself is a (small) part of dog body language - which itself is the major part of dog language - see the image at the top.

So again, the question is:

Does a dog consciously use its tail to communicate its feelings?

The answer is: No, a dog does not consciously use its tail to communicate its feelings - or at least this is highly unlikely (in science there are few, if any, absolute 'truths').

How I found out? And how you (and Stanley) can find out too?

Just two quick examples here:

  • When our earlier dog moved its tail during sleep it was like everything is during sleep: unconscious.
  • When you film your dog (any dog) with a bargain high-speed camera from a tripod or other safe location while no one is home and no one is near the house(!), you should (often?) be able to see in the footage that just before you come home, your dog may already wag its tail feverishly. - The dog either hears you in the distance or senses you; another field where more researchers are needed please!

In short, dogs do move their tail even when absolutely no person and no animal is present anywhere! Thus, it cannot be correct that "tail-wagging is meant as communication or language", like Stanley wrote in that particular book.

Therefore, I am convinced that a dog is (most of the time?) unaware of positioning and moving its tail in a way that allows other dogs and people to interpret this dog's feelings and energy state.

Both the position and movement of its own tail as well as observing other dogs' tails are unconscious genetic achievements that proved to be beneficial to the survival of individual dogs and therefore it survived in evolutionary selection.

The comparison with the human smile comes close, but I would argue that it is most plausible to compare dogs' position and movement of the tail with human facial expessions:

During evolution we lost our tail, but we gained a unique variety of facial expressions that allowed us to survive evolutionary selection. Contrary to the handshake, the hug, and the kiss, facial expressions allow us and others to understand and be understood at a safe distance!

Docked Tails

What about docked tails? Does docking a dog's tail impact on the dog's acceptance or status among other dogs, and/or its 'understandability' from a human perspective?

It seems so: A docked tail makes 'reading' its tail language much harder, at least from a distance, both for us and for other dogs. Although, from close-up, the 'stump' may actually often still give a good impression of where the tail's position would currently be and how the tail is moving.

However, research in form of systematic tests seems to be lacking here. - If you have several dogs and one of them has a docked tail (certainly not the German Shepherd, and hopefully none of your dogs), you may be able to shed more light on this topic?

But, by all means, don't dock a dog's tail for the sake of research: Docking a dog's tail (or cropping its ears) is inhumane - well, I mean it's incanine - it's against the dog's nature!



  • Tail language is part of dog body language - which itself is part of dog communication.
  • Tail language is easiest to learn.
  • Understanding dog tail language helps us and other dogs to better understand any dog.
  • The ability to 'read' a dog's tail also is a safety measure!
  • The higher up and the more stationary the tail, the more careful we should be.
  • The constituents of tail language are the tail's vertical position and horizontal movement.
  • With their tail, dogs express feelings and energy state.
  • The tail's vertical position indicates 5 or 6 different energy states.
  • Add the amount of horizontal movement, and you have a good indication of the dog's mood.
  • However, tail language alone does not give 100% truth. Dogs communicate through more than their tail.
  • An overall great book comes from Stanley Coren: How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication
  • But dogs do not consciously use the tail to communicate their feelings and energy state.
  • We can compare dogs' use of the tail with human facial expessions.
  • A docked tail makes it harder for us to understand the dog, and harder for the dog to be understood by other dogs!
  • When you have mastered your understanding of dog communication, the next level would be to integrate that into the tools you use for your dog training. The Dog Training Toolkit seems ideal to review and practice all dog training tools that are helpful in our daily dog training attempts.

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