Wag This Way: Left or Right Offers Insight

tail wagI just got back from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers conference, where one of the seminars I presented centered on the lesser known aspects of canine body language. Among other things, I discussed a study from Bari University in Italy about tail wagging.

The study involved 30 mixed breed dogs between the ages of one and six. There were 15 intact males and 15 non-oestrus females. These were family pets, by the way, whose owners had agreed to participate. The dogs were put into narrow box-like structures with cameras that would track not only which direction their tail wagged, but the precise amplitude. There was a slat at the front of the box through which the dog could see out. (Imagine one of those movies where the character knocks on a door in a seedy neighborhood and the doorkeeper slides the slat open to ask for the password.)

Each dog was presented with a stimulus for one minute, rested 90 seconds, and then saw another stimulus. (The test lasted 25 days with 10 sessions per day.) There were four different stimuli: the owner, an unfamiliar person, a cat, and a dominant unfamiliar dog, who happened to be a large Belgian Malinois. The results were interesting, to say the least. The dogs’ tails wagged to the right for the owner (that’s the dog’s right, by the way), the unfamiliar person, and the cat. Predictably, the widest wag was for the owners, the next widest for the unfamiliar person, and the narrowest for the cat. But when presented with the Malinois, the dogs’ tails wagged to the left.

Why would that be? We know that the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa. The anterior of the left hemisphere is associated with feelings of love, attraction, and safety, so it makes sense that a dog’s tail would wag to the right for their owner and others for whom the dog felt positive feelings. The right anterior hemisphere, however, is associated with fear and withdrawl, among other things. When the dogs saw the dominant Malinois, those left directional tail wags were telling a tale, and it wasn’t a happy one.

The study is fascinating enough on its own, but now the researchers have published a new study in the journal Current Biology. Building on the directional wag theory, they wondered whether other dogs would be affected by a dog’s tail wagging to the right or to the left. Would they know the dog was feeling friendly, or not wanting to be approached? As it turns out, yes, they did! They found that dogs who viewed a dog wagging to the right (the warm, fuzzy, left-hemisphere activated response) would show a relaxed response. In dogs who saw a left side wag (produced by the negative/withdrawl brain function), though, there was increased anxiety and even an increased cardiac response.

The research team posits that the directional tail wags might effectively be used to advantage during vet visits or that dummies could be used to elicit positive responses from dogs. Interestingly, during the seminar where I mentioned the tail wag study, I also discussed what I call the Robodog Study, where a robotic dog was used to gauge the response of other dogs to a short or long, wagging or still tail. Canine body language is such a fascinating subject, and these studies only touch on, well, the tail end of it. You can check out the DVD of my full day seminar Talk to the Paw: Understanding What Dogs are Saying—and What We’re Saying to Them here. In the meantime, watch your dog’s tail when he meets new people and other dogs; you just might learn a little bit more about his likes and fears!

13 Responses to Wag This Way: Left or Right Offers Insight

  1. Ann says:

    That is fascinating, but I have two breeds whose tails curl over their backs and are covered in long fur! Very hard to distinguish which brings up the issue – can other dogs tell the difference when my dogs wag a certain way?

  2. nivaladiva says:

    Love this! I just heard about this study on NPR too. Fascinating to be able to understand our pooches better. I’ve been watching my Ruby’s tail a lot lately. Ha! Thanks for this post.

  3. Joe says:

    Fascinating article, thanks Nicole. I will watch my dog more closely with that. Though it seems like her tail wags back and fourth all the way to the left and right so I think it may be hard to distinguish with her. But I will certainly keep my eyes open for that.

  4. Matthew (a different one) says:

    curious how (or if) they defined what made the Malinois “dominant” by supplying a definition of dominance/dominate. Or did they just assumed Malinois = dominant. Also, was it the same dog every time?

    Everything I have learned about what goes into figuring out if dog A or B is dominate over the other indicates there needs to be a resource involved, and repeated encounters so data can be collected to find a pattern of who “wins” the resource more often when both want it. Resource changes, length of absence (which could invalidate previous data if the absence is of a significant time) from each other, changes in health, age, mood etc can all affect who ends up “dominant” in the next encounter.

    Also, it is becoming accepted that there is no such thing as an inherent trait of “dominance” (there is an exception to this statement, but it doesn’t apply to dogs). you can’t breed for it, you can look at a dog and say “oh, this dog is dominant” just looking at it etc.

    all of which could (and I haven’t read the study yet) call part or all their conclusions into question.

    simply placing the subject dog into a confined space and having them faced with another dog doing????? could cause a change in tail waging verse it being a responds to the other dog being “dominate”. what was this “dominant” dog doing? was it sending off signals that made the other dog nervous? what was it’s behavior, body posturing etc, etc

    I will have to read the actually study, but I strongly suspect that while the left biased tail wag is a valid observation, the explanation of what is happening is probably flawed IF they relied on a fuzzy or incorrect definition of dominance.

    • Jerry I says:

      Mathew, I had intended on asking Nicole about the dominance statement. I always have trouble with that concept. I personally do believe in a dog being able to have a “dominant” personality. It doesn’t mean they are dominant with all dogs, but normally take that role. Otherwise there is no such thing as a personality trait because few dogs, any animal, can maintain a trait 100% of the time.

      Still I recognize it is an individual situation each time. It is a muddy word.

      Thank you for an excellent post.

      • Matthew says:

        Jerry, the largest problem/confusion with the word dominance is that in the dog world…”everyone” has their own definition. for the world/term/idea to have any value we all need to be on the same page.

        If I was to say Dog A was dominant over Dog B, that should mean something to you. a picture of a specific situation/enter action should come to mind that is same as the one in my head. right now, the odds of that happening are pretty near zero.

        The dog world is all over the place with this word to the point the word has come to have almost no meaning or value.

        The thing is, it’s not “our” word to define. The word “belongs” to biologists and ethologists, who them self are “struggling” to define and make it a useful term. Carlos Drews in 1993 wrote a very good paper that helps take a giant step in that direction. If you are interested check it out. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4535117

        Dominance is an attempt to label a relationship between individuals in a specific context. Example, Dog A and Dog B both want the bone. who wins the bone more often than not is the dominant dog in this relationship…. when it comes to bones. but to determine that you have to observe repeated encounters and collect data on who wins more often. the dominate label could change to the looser of the bones when it comes to…plush toys. it is NOT a fixed state in all situations.

        Dominance isn’t a breed trait, it’s not something you can select for, you can’t just look at a dog and say Oh, Dog C “dominant”. there is no degree of dominance, it’s not a personality trait etc. It is a description of a relationship between tow individuals when they must compete for a mutually desired/needed resource that is limited. any dog has the ability to be dominant over any other dog given a range of factors.

        One more problem with dominance. when you gain an understanding of what biologists/ethologists are trying to say with the word and you start accepting their definition, it does leave some voids in the dog world that had previously been “explained” by “dominance”. we humans are uncomfortable with this because it leaves huge areas of dog behavior and social structure that suddenly needs a new words to explain and label and to understand anew. Some people have a hard time with that. Me, I find it exciting.

    • Matthew says:

      I have read through both studies now. My suspicions were correct. They do not define dominance at all. So we have no idea what they mean by it. They only say ” … the [malinois] degree of dominance was established by a professional dog trainer through specific behavioral tests”. They sit a paper at this point that costs $31.50 if you want to read it. I did buy this paper and am going through it, but simply doing some searches on the world “dominance”, it only comes up twice in the paper and at first look does not appear to clear anything up or explain dominance, and in once instance references “rage syndrome” in relation to dominance. so, some highly suspect use of the word/term.

      Why is any of this “side” discussion relevant? because in the study the only instance of a left bias wag reported was with the “dominant” malinois. But I would challenge the implied conclusion, that “dominance” had anything to do with a left bias tail wag when meeting an unfamiliar dog.

      Since the right side of the brain controls fear and withdrawal, I would suggest that confinement box, maybe signals given off by the mailinois, or simply new dog = caution all could provide a more useful interpretation of the left bias than dominance would.

      I could absolutely see these studies being taken and a basely leap such as, Dog A meets Dog B, Dog A’s tail has a left bias, thus Dog B is “dominant”. While this does seem to be implied in the studies, it is an unsupported leap/claim/conclusion.

      To be useful in the real world, I think additional observations and work needs to be done. But I agree with Nichol, fascinating stuff.

      I also like how the second study wraps it’s self up…” opens a window to the objective investigation of the emotional life of animals…” science has always been uncomfortable with emotions in animals, maybe at the very least they can finally move forward without the fear of being accused of anthropomorphism as a blank response to any suggestion that animals might be feeling an emotion that is in common with humans.

  5. Very interesting! I am always amazed at how much there is to learn still!

  6. Rebekah says:

    How interesting!! makes me feel better, knowing that my “problem child” Bruce always wags his to the right.

  7. Frank Hashek says:

    Interesting piece, I will have to watch this, as I work with rescues and prefer to help the dogs with issues, because so few people are willing to take them on. It always helps to have more knowledge. It also raises the question of “left pawed” or “right pawed” dogs. Do dogs have a prominent side like humans and how would that play into their body language? The “dominant Malinois” is kind of a red flag though. I assume that is the characterization given by the study. Still, that is not an absolute, as my own pack of family dogs and various rescues have shown me over the years.

  8. lexy3587 says:

    what a cool idea! I’m going to have to pay more attention to the direction of Gwynn’s wags 🙂

  9. Sacko says:

    I am with Ann. I have two dogs with docked tails and one with it constantly curled up. I know my docked girls are at a distinct disadvantage. I am curious how other dogs deal with docked and upright tailed canines.

    Does anyone have any knowledge of studies done on the tail disadvantaged?

  10. Nice post! I just heard about this study on NPR too. Fascinating to be able to understand our pooches better. I want to leant more. Does anyone help me to learn more?

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