One benefit of the Covid-19 pandemic (come to think of it, its the only one that comes to mind) has been additional time to closely observe our pets. After all we can only watch so many movies, read so many books, and discuss so many topics with our quarantine mates. Dogs especially can provide great distraction from our circumstances, although I likely look pretty strange trailing my dogs around watching and trying to interpret their tail wags.
Since dogs cannot speak, they communicate in different ways than humans. Dogs use their general body language, posture, bark, eyes, ears, muzzle expressions and especially their tails to signal their emotions and intentions and do this for both humans and other animals. Tail wags also signal how a dog feels about its environment. Parenthetically, did you know that dogs don’t wag their tails when alone, just like humans (for the most part) don’t speak when by themselves. So tail wags have meaning, but what do we really know about this oftentimes overlooked behavior?
John Gilpatrick has divided tail wags into five categories. The first is “The High and Tight” tail wag. Heather Luedecke, a certified dog behaviorist, says a tail held high signifies that the dog is about to move into a new situation. A dog with a tail held high and firm likely has apprehension. If the tail is held looser, the dog likely is feeling playful.
The high and tight tail has best been demonstrated to me by Little Jack Kerouac, our rescue dog. He reliably demonstrates the high and tight tail whenever a UPS or FedEx truck arrives with a delivery. Little Jack streaks to the window, glares out the window not only with a high and tight tail, but with hackles up, and begins barking furiously. Little Jack really doesn’t like delivery people!
A second dog tail position according to Gilpatrick is “The Sweeping Broom.” Such a tail position is when a dog has its tail hanging low and stiff. Essentially this is the reverse from the high and tight tail to a lower held and stiff tail. As the dog relaxes, the tail will begin to move back and forth in a broad wag. Heather Luedecke says such positioning communicates that the dog means no harm and is demonstrating social appropriateness. This is an invitation to slowly approach the dog and scratch or sniff, depending on whether you are a human or a dog, In general a small tail wag indicates a welcoming gesture, while a broad tail wag indicates overt friendliness.
The third tail position of significance according to John Gilpatrick is the “Loosey Goosey” tail wag. A loose tail wag is a positive sign and means the dog is relaxed. The speed of the loosey goosey wag also may have meaning. A higher speed of tail wag usually means a heightened level of excitement. This, however, varies among dogs. Barrios points out that older dogs are sometimes less expressive with their tails than are younger ones. Experience allows dogs to better interpret what is going on around them just like it does for humans.
The fourth tail position of significance described by Gilpatrick is “The Charlie Brown.” Think of Charlie Brown’s dejection just after Lucy has moved the football. The Charlie Brown position is when a dog’s tail tucks up underneath its body. This positioning according to Luedecke describes the dog as feeling upset, frustrated, or anxious. Such a dog should be given space or else separated from whatever environment has prompted the tail positioning. Also when the tail of a dog moves from a neutral position to a lower one, this demonstrates a submissive attitude. We’ve likely all observed this tail position in a dog when it is being disciplined or else has been caught doing something that is forbidden.
The fifth and final tail position described is “The Shorty.” Not all dogs have long tails. Among these breeds with short, stubby tails are Pugs and English Bulldogs. In addition tails are cropped in Australian Shepherds, Cocker Spaniels, Rottweilers, and Yorkshire Terriers. Some 62 breeds of dogs are recognized by the American Kennel Club as having cropped tails. Dogs with short tails have increased difficulty communicating with other dogs as naturally they are harder to read. As such these dogs with short tails may demonstrate more distance-increasing behaviors such as growling, barking, or biting more quickly than do longer tailed dogs. One has to pay special attention to the stubby tail of one of these breeds and interpret as much information as possible.
What About Directional Tail Wagging?
An interesting experiment was carried out on dogs wagging their tail predominantly to the left side or right side. A neuroscientist, Giorgio Vallortigara and two veterinary doctors (Angelo Quaranta and Marcello Siniscalchi) conducted observations on thirty dogs who were each held in a cage equipped with cameras. These authors published a paper describing their findings in Current Biology. The conditions studied were when their owners approached, when an unknown person approached, when a cat was introduced, and when a dominant dog was presented.
The experiments revealed that when the owners approached their pets, eager tail wags showed a bias to the right sides of the dogs’ bodies. When approached by an unknown person, the dogs showed a moderate bias to the right side of their bodies but with less vigorous tail wagging. The approach of a cat created a slight bias to the right side of the dogs’ bodies, showing a heightened sense of interest in the dogs. The approach of an alpha dog gave rise to a bias of tail wagging to the left side of the dogs’ bodies. The predominant left sided tail wag indicated negative feelings. So in general a right sided predominant tail wag indicates positive feelings and a left sided predominant tail wag indicates negative ones
In illustration of tail wagging directional bias can be seen with Bella, our female Border collie. Bella turns out to be strangely jealous of my affection for Trudy, my wife. This jealousy becomes obvious whenever Trudy and I approach and hug. When Bella sees this happening, she races toward us, barking with a left side predominant tail wag. Her display indicates she is feeling negative, that is jealous about my showing affection for Trudy. Bella is clearly a one person dog. Fortunately Bella’s tail has a broad sweep to it, rather than a stiff, high held angry positioning. I interpret this as while she doesn’t like the female competition, she isn’t angry enough to signal aggressive behavior toward Trudy.
Our dogs communicate not only with dogs and other animals, but also with us. We humans need be aware of what their tails are signaling to us. Are they friendly, fearful, submissive, happy, playful? Those tail wags in our dogs are important not only for clearing objects off low lying tables, but also for telling us of their feelings, fears, and level of excitement. Wag on dogs!