Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?

(Last Updated On: July 28, 2020)

Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?

Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?

If you’ve ever been remotely close to a dog before, you’ve definitely seen them wag their tails because something got them super excited. Maybe you’ve never considered it before, but it probably does have a functional purpose. As far as assumptions go, that might not be a bad one, many strange quirks serve functional purposes. But let’s investigate a potential functional purpose. Why do dogs wag their tails (other than because they’re excited)?

Do Tail Wags Even Mean Happy?

Well, maybe your dog only wags their tail when they’re happy. But we do know that tails are really important for canine communication–just like cats, for the more feline-aligned. 

In the same way that we have to learn language, tail behavior isn’t something puppies are born knowing. It’s something they figure out with the rest of their litter and their mother. At first, it’s just a simple mechanism to get the attention of the dogs around them. Stuff like “hey, I’m hungry.” That’s why puppies don’t really start getting into tail movement until about 6 weeks of age.

Dog vision is also more attuned to picking out movements than minute shifts in posture or facial expression (though these are also important for dog communication). Tails move a lot, and dogs with tails do attract quite a bit of visual attention. Maybe they’re bushy or have a different colored end. 

Because tails are so important to dog communication, it would be remiss to assume it’s used for only one thing. It would be like us only moving our heads to nod and say “yes” and never shaking them to say “no.”

Tail wagging can mean anything from excitement to aggression. While holding their tails between their legs as a sign of anxiety, a slow tail wag can indicate this as well. Heck, sometimes a very fast tail wagging can be a sign of aggression.

For those who have been around multiple dogs, you know that some dogs like to keep their tails up, down, or somewhere in between. So just remember that tail communication is relative to whatever a dog’s “neutral” tail position is.

So yeah, tail wagging isn’t always a happy deal.

Dog Brain Asymmetry

Turns out, the subtleties in direction can also indicate how a dog feels. That’s because dogs, like us, have a whole left brain/right brain thing going on. Left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and the right side of the brain controls the left side–just like us.

Which means when the left side is dominant, a dog’s tail will wag to the right and vice versa. The left side of a dog’s brain is more associated with positive emotions while the right side has all the negative bits. A happy dog, then, will wag their tail to the right and an upset one to the left. 

By that extension, dogs are left/right pawed. You can find out which paw your pet prefers by doing the Kong Test. Have fun figuring that out with your furry friend. 

*Author’s Note: My dog didn’t like the Kong Test, and now he drops it all the time hoping food will come out. Send help.

Do Dogs Talk to Themselves?

So we’ve established that tail wagging is like talking for dogs. We’ve also established that dogs wag their tails to tell us they are excited, not because they are excited. Taking that a step further, humans talk to themselves quite a lot. Reasonable then, to ask, if dogs wag their tails when they’re excited on their own and whatnot.

Turns out, most dogs don’t wag their tails on their own. So… Dogs don’t talk to themselves. Which means, generally speaking, your dog is doing stuff to either communicate with something, or they’re trying to reach out to something. 

That something is probably you because you left them at home while getting groceries, but that’s far less exciting than a ghost or something.

Tail Wagging and Butts

While we can’t really pick up on dog pheromones, other dogs can. If you’ve ever seen a dog sniff the butt of another, you’d know that dog butt pheromones communicate a lot. 

For those who haven’t put two and two together, yes, dog tails are close to their butts. Which means yes, dog tails can spread these pheromones through wagging. 

Which is why some dogs put their tails between their legs when anxious, it helps reduce the scents being dispersed by their tails.

So yeah, your dog is also sending their butt scents everywhere then they wag their tails. Functional purpose, we told you we’d get there.


We’ve been talking about a lot of dog tails, but what about other animal tails? Look at some here.

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Kyler
About Kyler 222 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle. He currently spends most of his time hitting the university grind while drinking black coffee like water.