Tag Archives: Dog communication

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!

I Have A Dog Who Answers The Telephone

Please excuse my absence from the blog, as Trudy and I were on vacation. The time away allowed time to contemplate some questioning feedback I received regarding recent stories posted about Little Jack Kerouac. You see some readers did not fully accept that Little Jack dictated his back history and all I did was merely write it down. Oh you of little faith.

I did too dictate my story

Such feedback made me think about other ways in which my dogs communicate, ways which hopefully everyone can accept. Now surely others have witnessed their dogs barking to go outside, to take a walk, to be petted, and in the case of my dogs, to go for a ride in the pickup. Yes, my dogs, especially Little Jack and Buddy, are quite insistent about nudging me out of my chair about 5:00 pm to go for a ride or to take a walk.

Bella, our female Border collie has her own idiosyncrasies. She communicates. She really does. She does thisĀ  by barking when Trudy or I don’t hear the telephone. Perhaps like many seniors our hearing is not the best. Trudy has graduated to the honest stage of wearing hearing aides while I simply deny my hearing loss and soldier on. Bella on the other hand has tremendous hearing. We say she has “dog ears.”

Bella, our little helper
Photo by Ramsey

If we fail to hear the land line or a cell phone ring, Bella will begin to bark. I’ve noticed she doesn’t bark for the first couple of rings. Presumably she waits to see if we hear it or not. Only when we don’t respond by the third or fourth ring does she become insistent that we answer the phone. Her initial barks cease and she begins to howl. I’ve never heard her howl except when we fail to answer a telephone, but believe me she is quite effective in mobilizing her humans to answer the phone. Bella can sound just like a hound dog. She’s become a regular little phone helper.

Now this behavior fits well with Bella’s helping personality. She likes to have a job and likes to prove useful. For some time she has helped out Buddy when he wants to go outside to do his business. You see, Buddy will stand quietly beside a door to go out. We don’t always observe him. Only rarely will his urgency cause him to scratch at the door to draw our attention. Bella, on the other hand, seeing Buddy waiting patiently beside the door will begin to bark. Her bark is persistent and loud. It’s hard to miss.

Bella and Little Jack guarding the ranch from the pickup

She also likes to accompany Buddy when we put him out, just in case I suppose. Buddy has actually become fairly dependent on Bella’s going out with him, as otherwise he is hard to push out the door. So you see beside answering our phones, Bella also serves as door monitor.

They say you have to give a Border collie a job, or else it will become self-employed and never productively. Well, I’m here to say some Border collies (read Bella) find their own jobs and are helpful. Who would have thought we would have a dog that answers the phone or monitors doors?

Do your dogs communicate with either you or any other dogs? I would love to have your feedback. Please leave your experiences in the comment section.