TAIL WAGGING : The Dog’s Form Of Communication

Tail wagging is the dog’s form of communication. And it is as nuanced as a smile. Just as no one smiles in private because a smile is a social gesture, the tail wag is also only done in front of an audience – human, dog or any other species, even ant. A moving ball may seem alive enough sometimes to be responded to. Tail wags are not just meaningless shakes of a limb. They have a vocabulary and grammar – like any language. There is a pattern of movement and position…


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Dr Stanley Coren is a psychology professor and Director of the Human Neuropsychology and Perception Laboratory at the University of British Columbia. He is internationally known for his research on dogs. His research on the tail wagging of a dog is fascinating. The smile of a human can be interpreted in so many ways – a broad grin could be pleasure but it could also be insincerity. Turned down at the corners it could be sadness or resignation, showing only the upper teeth could be pleading, it could be a grimace of pain. There are so many interpretations but the average human knows how to read each one.
Tail wagging is the dog’s form of communication. And it is as nuanced as a smile. Just as no one smiles in private because a smile is a social gesture, the tail wag is also only done in front of an audience – human, dog or any other species, even ant. A moving ball may seem alive enough sometimes to be responded to. Tail wags are not just meaningless shakes of a limb. They have a vocabulary and grammar – like any language. There is a pattern of movement and position.

In most animals including birds, frogs, humans, the left brain is associated with love, safety, calm, serenity and a slow heart rate. The left brain controls the right ride of the body so the movements show on the right side. The right brain is connected with withdrawal, fear, depression, energy expenditure, a rapid heart rate and an affected digestive system, so the movements show on the left. Happiness in dogs: right wag. Unhappiness in dogs: left wag.

The height at which the tail is held is extremely important. Middle height means the dog is relaxed. If it is held up horizontally the dog is attentive and alert. If it continues to move up and becomes vertical, the dog is threatening and saying that you need to back off as he is the boss. But if it moves down the dog is becoming more submissive. In fact the lower the tail, the more it means that the dog is not feeling well, or is worried, or it is surrendering to you. Tucked between its legs it means total fear and surrender. (As someone who runs an animal hospital, another interpretation is, when it is tucked between the legs, the dog has an injury in its anal/vaginal area.)
Of course there are dialects here, as there are in human language. Beagles carry their tails nearly vertically, naturally. Greyhounds carry their tails held very low. So the interpretation has to be done in respect of how the dog normally carries its tail. Movement is very important because dogs respond to movement faster than to colours and sizes. The speed of the wag indicates how excited the dog is. The breadth of the wag shows whether the dog’s emotional state is negative or positive.
Here are some combinations that Dr Coren describes:

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  •  A slight wag-with each swing of only small breadth-is usually seen during greetings as a tentative “Hello there,” or a hopeful “I’m here.”
  •  A broad wag is friendly; “I am not challenging or threatening you.” This can also mean, “I’m pleased,” which is the closest to the popular concept of the happiness wag, especially if the tail seems to drag the hips with it.
  •  A slow wag with tail at ‘half-mast’ is less social than most other tail signals. Generally speaking slow wags, with the tail in neither a particularly dominant (high) nor a submissive (low) position, are signs of insecurity.
  •  Tiny, high-speed movements, that give the impression of the tail vibrating, are signs the dog is about to do something – usually run or fight. If the tail is held high while vibrating, it is most likely an active threat.”

Now come to the direction. According to neuroscientists who collaborated with veterinarians at the University of Trieste in Italy, and the University of Bari, when dogs feel positive about something or someone, their tails wag more to the right side of their rear ends, and when they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biased to the left. In experiments, “When the dogs saw their owners, their tails all wagged vigorously with a bias to the right side of their bodies, while an unfamiliar human caused their tails to wag moderately to the right. Looking at the cat, the dogs’ tails again wagged more to the right but more slowly and with restrained movements. However the sight of an aggressive, unfamiliar dog caused their tails to wag with a bias to the left side of their bodies.”
In most animals including birds, frogs, humans, the left brain is associated with love, safety, calm, serenity and a slow heart rate. The left brain controls the right ride of the body so the movements show on the right side. The right brain is connected with withdrawal, fear, depression, energy expenditure, a rapid heart rate and an affected digestive system, so the movements show on the left. Happiness: right wag. Unhappiness: left wag.
If your dog’s tail is cut to a short stub you and he are going to have problems in communication. Firstly, other dogs will be suspicious of your dog because they cannot see the tail positions and so have no idea what to expect. Some actually will snap and growl at your dog. Trainers will confirm that dogs with cut tails are twice as likely to have aggressive encounters as dogs with normal tails.
To add to the problem dogs designed for guarding like like Dobermans, Boxers and Rottweilers have their tails cut. But even gentler dogs have a problem. According to the Scientific Journal Behaviour, researchers of the University of British Columbia designed a robot dog, medium sized, looking like a Labrador which is a non aggressive dog. It could be fitted with a 12 inch long tail or a 3.5 inch short stubby tail and this tail’s movements could be remotely controlled. When the long tail started wagging, other dogs approached it in a friendly manner. When the tail was upright and motionless (threat), other dogs avoided it, which meant that dogs were reading the signals. However when the short tail came on, the other dogs were very guarded and approached hesitantly whether or not the stub of a tail wagged or not, which means they had problems with the message.
Docking a tail is like cutting off a human’s tongue. Perhaps even worse, because a human may communicate with his hands and eyes or write, but a dog is then cut off from all his species forever.

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