The case of the wagging tail

I am working with a couple and their very aggressive dog. His displays of fear and aggression which constitutes barking, growling and lunging are quite sobering, and I really take them seriously. De-escalating the situation is part of what I need to do as well as making sure I don’t get bitten.

We are giving the dog a break away from the interaction and I ask if they have any questions.

The couple asks me what to make of their dog who is growling at people while wagging its tail.

Ah!  The case of the wagging tail!  I explain to them the following:

Dogs communicate by use of their body language as well as verbal communication. We really don’t know what the dog is feeling but we can infer by close observation of the body language and verbal communication in the form of barks, growls, whining — each of these with their own subtlety depending on the situation what the dog’s emotional state might be.

Behavior is always context specific.  Dogs (or any living organism for that matter) do not behave in a vacuum. Also, behavior or behaving is more like a movie than a “still” shot. Which means that is fluid and changing, sometime very rapidly.

Another interesting thing to observe in order to ascertain the emotional state of the dog, is to pay close attention as to what happened just before a change in behavior.  Say an open and relaxed mouth to a close now tight mouth. Will you approach this dog?  Hopefully not!

So by now, you could probably draw some conclusion as to what to do about a wagging dog tail that is accompanied by “not so friendly” communication such as growling and lunging.

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Here are some thoughts:

The tail is one of the most misunderstood behaviors in dogs.  No, it is NOT true that a wagging tail means the dog is friendly. Again, we should not isolate the tail from the rest of the dog’s body in ascertaining motivation.

There are however, some generalities when it comes to body language that can be helpful in determining how we should proceed.  We want loose relaxed body and body parts. For example:  open mouth with no signs of stress on the muzzle, blinking eyes, relaxed ears that support the natural fold of the ear for that specific breed, the dog’s stand and body weight distribution and yes a relaxed tail one that also follows the natural conformation for the breed.  Here is one of the problems of cropped body parts such as ears and tails, they really interfere with natural dog communication.

So if you follow my suggestion of looking at the dog’s entire demeanor and not only the tail, you will begin to notice some consistencies in how the body is carried and how the dog behaves.

Now, say that you are looking at a dog and so far the dog is overall relaxed.  But suddenly the tail becomes erect, tense and begins to sway gently from side to side.  What should you make of this?

What I would first suggest is to notice if there has been a change in the environment and the environment could be something external or an interaction with a person.  It does not necessarily mean that the dog is ready to “attack” but it could be that the dog is now busy assessing the change in the environment: safe or unsafe?  Questions dogs are always asking!

Secondly, I notice that the dog went from relaxed to either attentive as described above to aroused – an autonomic response from the nervous system that could indicate several things:  flight or fight or I am soooo happy to see you!

In either case, what I would do is become more observant and wait for more information as the dog’s body language continues to change. This all happens in a matter of seconds, rarely minutes.

Depending on what I perceive, how I will react.  If the dog is feeling threatened I will make sure I stop doing what I am doing in order to stop making the dog feel threatened by me.  Regardless of what my intentions are, the dog is feeling threatened or afraid.

As I change my own response and that could also be giving the dog more distance which in my professional opinion is a VERY smart and kind thing to do!  Or I might simply make my own body language less threatening by looking away-instead of staring, breathing, relaxing my body by bending a knee, for example.

I wish I could tell you that a tail that does “x” means “y” but I can’t! What I can say is that we must look for information in a more nuanced way that is also more global. As for my clients and their dog my message to them was that they must make sure their dog is removed from these interactions as clearly his message is one of wanting to create distance between the people he is now encountering and himself.  Remember, the dog’s tail is wagging BUT he is also growling and lunging.  OMG.

To make things even more interesting we must keep in mind that animals feel ambivalence or are conflicted a lot of the times so this is also another possibility for my client’s dog.  It is as if the dog is saying: I would love to interact with you and make friends but I am really scared. So pleazzee give me some room, some time, etc.