==> Dogs' Native Language?

Dogs' Native Language is TAIL language!

What the TAIL tells us

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.

This is what a Top dog expert says:
Find out more: Click to save vet cost, training cost, and your nerves!

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

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. :-|

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 German Shepherd, 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/understand:

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  29 Site Comments, ZERO SPAM Add one


    Very interesting and I appreciate learning more info about dogs, the more you know, the more you see, etc.


    I like your scientific, analytical explanation of dog behavior.


    Those of us who believe our dogs are "family" also need to be reminded sometimes they are not human. This kind of insight is invaluable. Thanks


      I love the info on the tail language! I was always curious as to the secret language in the tail positions. I'm happy Ramsey shows exactly the positions you described; and that he is usually calm or excited for play!


    Once again, you have given us valuable information on how to relate to our dogs better. Every bit of knowledge helps us have the best relationship with our dogs.
    Thank you again.


    Another brilliant, valuable insight! Thank you Tim!


    Great information that goes right along with what I've tried to observe with my own dogs. I agree with you that the dog's communication with the tail is unintentional.


    Thank-you for your info. Kai and his "Wife" often walk out of the house together with their tails held "high" searching the property. I always thought this meant they were happy that I let them out to chase the squirrels :).


    my almost 6 month old german shepherd pup swallowed a small razor blade today. Had him xrayed and vet said there is a 1 cm piece of the blade that can be seen. how serious is this? she said we can watch for couple of days to see if it comes out in stool.....very worried. any suggestions?


      Joel, I'd be very worried too! What do I write in all puppy related books, incl. the FREE New Puppy Checklist? Lock all such items away! Now is too late to fret, but maybe this can remind other dog owners.

      If the vet said based on an x-ray, it's in a position where it's safer to leave it for now, (s)he'll be right. Often items get out with stool (I haven't heard of a razor blade though, as it's not particularly "smooth" to press out!).

      Let's hope your pup will fully recover!


    Thank you so much for the information on a dog's body language with their tail. I learned a few new things by reading this! I do have Boston Terriers as well as German Shepherds, and they have a naturally short tail stub. Usually they will curl their hips up and down a bit corresponding to their "tail" movement.


    Very interesting. Unrelated subject...I can't figure out again how to update my dog info on the website. Can someone help me? And I finally got a Kindle so I can down load some GSD books, yea.


      Sure Ray: Under each email is a link "update subscription preferences", when you click that you can change/add to your dog's profile data.

      Note that you did not need a kindle, no one needs a kindle: Every book's product page shows a huge button on the right: "Free Kindle Reading App". I was reading with that for a year before I took the plunge to get a kindle device.


    Actually, that's what I did, I should have specified. Someone told me there was a Window's 8 app. Back to the tail subject. My family cracks up at me because I am so into my dogs tail. He's 4 months now, and it is 18 inches long. I just look at him, and it starts to wag, it's so funny how it whacks everything in it's way.


    What a valuable piece of information. thank you!!!


    Thank you for this information! I am going to watch my dogs to see 1) who thinks they are the pack leader and 2) to see if they are confident dog/puppies.

    Thank you for all the information you provide us - it is very helpful!


    Thanks Tim for this info.
    I have observed Matt's tail movement now and then, and now have an excellent tool to understand his tails movements means. Sure will help in understanding why he does what he does at times. My Matt seems to be a happy camper, but still the pack leader challenge. I am struggling with that, but every day is an improvement. I know I spoil him making things a bit more difficult for myself.


    I would just like to say thank you for the insight and to say that I agree 100% with you that tails emote a variety of language and feelings. Just like when someone is concentrating, or mad [without sound], our faces emit a language to others without us physically suspect to faking it; so why would you think a tail posture would suggest otherwise and be indicative to only conversational and not genetic reasons? My Harley knows when he is going to be told he's a good boy or (scolded) before I say anything, because he can now read my facial features :)


    I have had many dogs in my many years and all of them had upright tails. I have been concerned about my GSD "Nani" (it's Hawaiian for Beautiful) because her tail is usually down and slightly turned up at the end. This web page has erased those concerns, thank you.


    Thanks ever so much for your periodicals. I read every one of them and am learning so much. I acquired my GSD at 2-1/2 yrs old, so what went on before I got her is unknown. I am the fourth owner. She had been bred at least twice by the breeder, then sold, then sold again...the reason was the dog didn't get along with other dogs. I have worked on this and all is finally turning out the right way for she knows I'm her pack leader. I love her and would even like to have another GSD, but right now my other dogs (lab and yorkie) are at least 13 yrs old, so I don't feel this is a good time to bring another dog into the home. Again, thanks for such wonderful information.


    I would like to thank you for this information
    I just would like to add that one of the problems between cat and dogs is their tail language
    we know our dogs are wagging their tails when they are happy , while cats are wagging in the state of high agitation and when they are ready to attack
    so this causes one of the most difficult issues between cats and dogs ong others
    thank you again for this periodical and are eagerly waiting for the next one


    Thank you so much for the great and very useful information Tim! I'm learning so much thanks to you. I still have so much more to learn but I'm determined to make this a great life for Gracie. After reading this I'm afraid I may have a dominant dog on my hands but I know we can change that. Thanks again!


    Fantastic article, this will be so useful to me in helping read Ruby's body language more. Thank you :)


      Welcome Marika! Now stay engaged, post about Ruby's experiences and development for everyone to learn from :-)


    Great information thanks


    I have noticed with my three GSD's that you are totally correct on the role their tails play in predicting their feelings. My main concern is how to limit the damage caused by three rapidly constantly wagging tails, I've had to replace glass from curio cabinets, and assorted plates, cups and drink glassware, not to mention the bruises from being beaten by their happy cudgels. A 120 pound GSD has a proportional tail that seems are directly connected to the position of their ears, and I can directly attest to the adage of being so happy that it hurts!

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