The Fascinating World of Tail Wagging in Dogs

We often associate a wagging tail with a happy dog, but recent research has revealed that tail wagging is not solely an indication of joy. Dogs use their tails as a powerful means of communication, expressing a wide range of emotions to other animals and their human companions. Veterinarians have long suspected that tail wagging can convey more than just happiness. For example, even nervous or defensive dogs may wag their tails, which can be easily misinterpreted and lead to potentially dangerous situations.

Understanding the Language of Tails

Dogs wag their tails to convey various emotions, including happiness, nervousness, feeling threatened, anxiety, submission, and excitement. The position and speed of the wag can often reveal the underlying emotion.

When a dog is relaxed, its tail rests in a natural position that varies depending on the breed. Some dogs have curly or stiff-looking tails, while others have long, droopy tails. However, when emotions come into play, tail wagging begins.

If a dog is scared or submissive, it may tuck its tail down and wag it timidly between its legs. We are all familiar with this apologetic and guilty-looking posture that dogs adopt when they’ve been scolded by their owners.

On the other hand, dogs that are alert or excited hold their tails higher than their natural position. A rapidly wagging high tail often indicates a dog’s happiness or excitement. This behavior is commonly observed in the park or during playtime when dogs adopt a playful stance with their hindquarters elevated, wagging their tails enthusiastically as they ask us to throw a ball or play chase. This high-tail wagging can also be seen when we return home after a long absence, as dogs express their joy and relief at our presence.

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A curious dog who is interested in its surroundings will often hold its tail straight out. Conversely, an aggressive dog will have a stiff, vertical tail.

The Complexity of Tail Wagging

Recent research has shown that the direction of tail wagging can communicate complex emotions to other dogs. By studying the behavior of “observer dogs” who were watching other dogs wag their tails, scientists discovered that dogs convey positive emotions by wagging their tails slightly to the right, while wagging to the left signals more negative emotions.

Interestingly, observer dogs exposed to images or silhouettes of dogs wagging their tails slightly to the right exhibited a lower heart rate and a relaxed posture. Conversely, when exposed to a dog wagging its tail to the left, the observer dogs had an increased heart rate and assumed a defensive posture. Some even had their hair standing on end when encountering a leftward wag!

Research in other species, including humans, has shown that the left side of the brain controls positive emotions, while the right side controls negative emotions. Strangely, in all animals, the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, and vice versa. Therefore, it is believed that the direction of tail wagging corresponds to different emotional responses dictated by the brain’s “hard wiring.”

Tails: More Than Just Communication

It is essential to remember that dogs do not use their tails solely for communication purposes. Tails also play a crucial role in balancing and stability. Watching a dog turn at high speed in slow motion reveals how it uses its tail to maintain stability. Additionally, a dog’s tail acts as a rudder when swimming in water. It is intriguing to consider whether the use of tails as a means of communication evolved after their primary functions of balance and stability, or if communication was the primary driver of tail evolution.

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In conclusion, it is vital to remember that a wagging tail does not always indicate a happy or friendly dog. While tail wagging is a sign of a dog’s interaction with its environment, it is imperative to seek permission from the dog’s owner before approaching or petting. Misinterpretation of tail wagging can lead to unpleasant encounters, especially for children. Let us all ensure that children understand they should only touch a dog when given permission by the owner.

Dog wagging tail

Karen's Kollars

Source: Adapted from Original Article