The Canine Circle Tail Wag

It’s considered the friendliest tail wag of all
By Karen B. London PhD, November 2017

There is a lot of information contained in the movement of your dog’s tail, which is why tail wags can mean so many things. The speed, amplitude, and looseness of the tail are all informative when assessing a tail wag, as is the height of the tail. The complexity of the tail wag is immense, and while many people unfamiliar with dog behavior think that a tail wag means a dog is friendly and happy, dog savvy people all know that this is an inaccurate and oversimplified interpretation of the tail wag.

However, there is one particular type of tail wag that means what most people think a tail wag means—that the dog is happy or friendly (or both). That type of wag is called a “circle wag” or, less commonly, the “propeller wag” or “helicopter tail”. Both terms are quite descriptive and mean that the tail is rotating at the base and that the tip is moving in a broad circle. I love to see circle wags because they tend to indicate such friendly, happy dogs.

Most often, dogs will do circle wags if they are particularly overjoyed to see someone special, especially someone they haven’t seen recently. Many videos of reunions between military people returning from deployment and the dogs that stayed behind feature circle wags. Some dogs have this level of enthusiasm—and the corresponding circle wag—every time they greet members of their family no matter the length of the absence.

Even though a circle wag is typically interpreted (and properly so) as a sign of friendliness and positive emotions, I’ve often wondered if even that isn’t an oversimplification. My inquiry stems from observations of a dog named Bugsy who I had many years ago. He loved to play with most other dogs and generally had good social skills when off leash with them. However, I had to work very hard to manage him around toys or food because his natural inclination was to be possessive of anything he considered valuable, and to act aggressively towards a dog or a person around his treasures. Additionally, until I put him through our Feisty Fidos program, he would bark, growl and lunge whenever he saw a dog while he was on a leash. To add to his list of issues, he exhibited signs of fearfulness in a lot of different situations.

Bugsy would move his tail in a circle wag when charging at other dogs who came onto our property when I lived on a 150-acre farm in Wisconsin. He would bark and stiffen—not signs of friendliness by any stretch of the imagination—but when he reached the dog, he would initiate play after a tense greeting. It is one of the few times I have seen a dog exhibit a circle wag when not in an obviously friendly or happy mode, but he really did like playing with dogs, so maybe he was anticipating that. My guess is that he was in an ambivalent state—open to the possibility of a friendly encounter, but nervous about the other dog at the same time.

Some dogs wag their tails in circles regularly, perhaps in response to any positive experience. Other dogs only do it at specific times, such as when greeting their best dog buddy, when their guardian comes home after being away all day or when they realize that it is time for a walk. Does your dog circle wag? If so, in what context?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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