Tag Archives: dog behavior

Wagging Dog Tails

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.

Little Jack with tail held high and still. May signal a degree of apprehension

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.

Notice How Little Jack’s and Bella’s broad tails wags are blurred due to their excitement

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.

Meet the “loosey, goosey tail wag of our neighbor dog, Coco. She is the friendliest dog I’ve met and almost constantly demonstrates such a tail position and loose tail wagging while Little Jack has his tail held high and tight, likely signaling some degree of apprehension due to the larger brown Labrador Retriever

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!

Dog Lessons on Living

Forty years of practicing medicine and having lived long enough to acquire some gray hair have allowed me to observe people dealing with illness and impending death. These challenging periods prove difficult for sure , but I believe our pets can help to cope with and even model helpful behaviors that benefit their owners. The mindfulness of the pet owner becomes necessary in order to learn these pet-assisted lessons.

At our house we’ve had two experiences that I wish to share that have brought me to this conclusion. Our Border collie, Buddy, unfortunately injured himself many years ago while leaping over a cattle guard. I found him shortly after the accident, dragging his paralyzed hind limbs. We were to learn that Buddy had ruptured a disc that had extruded into the spinal canal and traumatized his spinal cord. After evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation Buddy slowly recovered. He now has the reasonable use of his hind legs and moves about without any assistance. For this we are incredibly grateful.

Buddy had always loved to run and herd cattle. His racing around the ranch with his tongue flapping deliriously and with a goofy look plastered across his muzzle has for me defined unbridled enjoyment. With time he has regained the ability to both run and herd, although not with quite the same proficiency as prior to his injury. Nevertheless, Buddy still loves to ride in the pickup, watch the cattle, and when needed to jump out of the bed of the pickup and do a stint of herding.

It strikes me that Buddy during his convalescence never gave up on himself, nor did he permanently abandon his valuable role as chief herder on the ranch. Despite lingering weakness, he continues to carry out his job with typical Border collie passion and enthusiasm. A job for a Border collie is vital. As the old saying goes, “If a Border collie doesn’t have a job, he’s liable to become self-employed.” Trust me, when this happens it’s never a good thing!

Buddy sleeps more now following his injury

Our second pet-assisted experience resulted with our Shetland Sheep dog (Sheltie), Taffy, and occurred years ago when we lived in Lubbock. Taffy’s favorite activity and what she most anticipated was her evening walk. She would become so excited when we presented her leash for our walk. Unfortunately Taffy eventually fell ill and was diagnosed as having cancer. While we knew the cancer would eventually take her, we were given the encouraging, if incorrect, prognosis by her vet that she had at least weeks if not months to live.  Despite Taffy not feeling well, she still agitated quite demonstrably at the end of each day for her walk.

Taffy during her healthier days

I distinctly remember her recruiting us that last night. Trudy and I dutifully leashed up Taffy and began a slow trek around our block. Taffy seemingly sniffed  every tree we encountered and observed the goings-on in the neighborhood with her eyes glistening with excitement. Unfortunately despite her wanting to, her energy gave out a third of the way around the block. She simply was unable to muster the strength necessary to walk any further.

On recognizing this I reached down to gather our sweet dog in my arms and then continued our walk around the block. Taffy gazed out from the crook of my arm and noted the happenings of her final trip around the neighborhood. Later that night she died peacefully in her bed. I like to think Taffy died  happy having made one more glorious trip around her block.

The thing is, Taffy continued to do what she most enjoyed despite her serious illness. Her willpower and determination continued despite her substantial depletion of energy. It seems to me that a broader and more personal message exists for pet owners much like the messages both Buddy and Taffy have given us.

I will continue discussing this topic in a subsequent post and plan to give a few human examples. These people-related corollaries will come from my book, Carrying The Black Bag.

Please share your thoughts as to what you may have learned from your pet regarding illness or impending death.

TO BE CONTINUED