Understanding a dog’s wag

2015-09-24 06:00
Beagles naturally carry their tails in a nearly vertical position.
PHOTO: supplied

Beagles naturally carry their tails in a nearly vertical position. PHOTO: supplied

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A COMMON mistake dog owners make is to believe that a dog’s wagging tail indicates a happy state of mind or friendliness. Wagging can indicate satisfaction or well-being, but sometimes it may also indicate wariness, social challenges or even a warning. If critical safe distances are not respected, attacks may occur.

Like any other language, tail wags have a vocabulary and grammar that need to be understood. Until recently, scientists focused on two major sources of information; namely, the tail’s pattern of movement and its position. However, new data adds a third important dimension to understanding the language of the canine tail. Movement is a very important aspect of the signal. Dogs’ eyes are more sensitive to movement than they are to details or colours. So a moving tail is very visible to other dogs. Specific breeding has made some tails even more visible, such as tails with a light or dark tip, a lighter underside or a bushy shape.

The tail height can be considered to be a type of meter. A middle height suggests the dog is relaxed. If the tail is held horizontally, the dog is attentive and alert. As the tail position moves upwards, it is a sign that the state of mind is an intention to dominate.

As the tail position drops lower, it is a sign the dog is becoming more submissive, is not relaxed or feels poorly. The extreme expression is the tail tucked under the body, which is a sign of instinctive survival body language.

Different breeds carry their tails at different heights, from the natural nearly vertical position common to beagles and many terriers, to the low-slung tails of greyhounds and whippets. All positions should be measured relatively to the average position where the individual dog normally holds it tail.

Resultantly, there are many tail-movement combinations.

• A slight wag, with each swing of only a small distance, is usually seen during greetings as a tentative “Hello there”, or a hopeful “I’m here”.

• A broad wag is friendly: “I am not challenging or threatening you.” This can also mean “I am satisfied”, especially if the tail seems to drag the hips with it.

• Tiny, high-speed movements that give the impression of the tail vibrating, are signs that the dog is about to do something such as run or fight. If the tail is held high while vibrating, it is most likely an active threat.

According to scientists, it appears that when dogs generally feel content, their tails wag more to the right side of their bodies, and when they have negative feelings, the wagging is biased to the left.

Researchers at the University of Trieste in Italy, recruited 30 mixed-breed family pets and placed them in a cage equipped with cameras that tracked precisely the angles of their tail wags. They were then shown four different stimuli in the front of the cage: their owner, an unfamiliar human, a cat and an unfamiliar, dominant dog.

When the dogs saw their owners, all the tails wagged vigorously with a bias to the right side of their bodies, while an unfamiliar human caused their tails to wag moderately to the right. Looking at the cat, the dogs’ tails wagged again more to the right but slower and with restrained movements. However, the sight of an aggressive, unfamiliar dog caused their tails to wag with a bias to the left.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website at www.dogtorsteve.co.za

Advice is only dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets

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