Dear Sara, my dog has never really been around little kids. The other day we met a toddler when we were out walking. I said he could pet her because her tail was wagging, but then she snapped at him! Now I’m worried because she’s so unpredictable. What can I do?
It’s a common misconception that a wagging tail means that a dog’s friendly, but that’s just not the case. Dogs wag their tails for a variety of reasons. It may be helpful to think of a wagging tail as a smile. When people smile, usually it’s because they’re friendly or happy. However, people can also smile for other reasons. Sometimes a person might smile because she’s nervous. Sometimes someone may smile at you for less-than-friendly reasons.
In the same way, dogs may wag their tails when they’re fearful, uncertain, or even aggressive. A wagging tail is a social signal, but it’s not necessarily a friendly one. When a dog wags his tail, he’s telling you that he plans to interact with you in some way, but not how he plans to interact with you. He may want to greet and lick you, or he may want to bite you so you go away!
Rather than just looking at your dog’s tail to determine his feelings about a stranger or situation, take a look at all of the body language cues he’s giving you. If he’s wiggly with soft crinkly eyes and a relaxed face, he’s probably okay. If he’s stiff, backing away, or has a tense face or hard round eyes, he’s telling you that he’s uncomfortable in that situation and needs more space. When introducing your dog to others, always let him approach them. If you have any concerns about fear or aggression, contact a Certified Professional Dog Trainer ASAP.