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Published: Saturday, 11/9/2013

COMMENTARY

A wag’s tale about tails: The secret language of dogs

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST
Marilou Johanek. Marilou Johanek.
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They know something. They sniff. They lick. They scratch. They sit. They lie. They beg. They bark. They wag.

But what are canines really communicating through their body talk? New research by a team of Italian scientists suggests some translation can be found in the tail.

According to a study published recently in the journal Current Biology, neuroscientists at the University of Trento discovered that the direction in which a dog wags his or her tail indicates positive or negative emotions.

It’s a right brain, left brain thing. It’s also, I suspect, a subtle thing. Detecting the precise orientation of a swishing appendage undoubtedly required painstaking observations.

Establishing what emotional responses wag the dog, evoking happiness or dread, was a notable accomplishment. But once that dogged pursuit of knowledge was satisfied, researchers made no bones about their intention to uncover the meaningful relationship that directional tail-wagging has in the dog-eat-dog world.

Sorry.

The scientists ultimately learned that the direction of tail wagging does matter. Dogs wag their tails for more than to please a beloved master with an ecstatic greeting.

They set their tassels flying for more than a treat. More than the promise of a walk. More than a ride in the family car with the window down.

The study found that pooches whip their tails from side to side in direct response to each other. No one knows that better than other dogs.

Researchers watched dogs watching dogs. They measured the corresponding physical reaction between dogs, which ranged from cool as a cucumber to pounding heart rates.

The tails were a tip-off. The innate transmission of vigorous tail wagging in opposite swings spoke volumes.

Fido can transmit tail-wagging signals to Rover or Roxy. Canines can figuratively tweet their feelings with left or right tail wagging. Does the National Security Agency know about this?

A few years ago, Georgio Vallortigara, the director of the university’s Center for Mind/​Brain Sciences, broke scientific ground by discerning that dogs have lateralized brains, just like people.

Their cerebral systems are hard-wired for right brain, left brain, just like us. The two hemispheres play different roles in doggie emotions the same way they do with animated or anxious homo sapiens.

Who knew pooches could impart this kind of information to each other? Dogs, apparently. To them, a tail wag to the right — from the perspective of the dog doing the wagging — indicates that other four-legged friends are cool.

A wag to the left indicates there could be a dogfight. The unspoken code of tail-swishing canines has been broken.

But Professor Vallortigara doesn’t think dogs telegraph messages intentionally to other dogs. He submits that the species exhibits its lopsided tail wagging from learned experiences about what dogs should and shouldn’t stress about.

Still, what if something deeper is going on? What if more dogs than not are like Brian on Family Guy, secretly nursing cocktails and writing best-selling novels?

What if tail wagging is the tip of tenacity in a dog’s life? I have a Lab who’s smart as a whip. Should I be worried? What does he know and when did he know it?

Is there more to his right-wagging, ear-flattening, head-lowering neurotic pacing than meets the eye? Is he writing a column about me now?

Imagine a mutt with a mind of his own who could articulate what he’s saying when his tail goes one way or the other.

Dog: You treat me like a dog.

Beloved Master: Let’s go throw a ball in the backyard.

Dog: Is this fun for you?

Beloved Master: Drop the ball.

Dog: When I feel like it.

Beloved Master: Good dog.

Dog: Squirrel. Tree. Later.

Beloved Master: Come here!

Dog: Let’s christen that shrub.

Beloved Master: Bad dog.

Dog: We done here?

The pup lounging near my laptop just shifted with a heavy sigh. I swear his right-brain activation is producing a left-side tail wag.

Does he know about the tail wagging research that deciphered how he interacts with his own kind? Does he know that neuroscientists are on to the meaning of his tail movements?

The Italian study aimed to find out whether other dogs could interpret those meanings. It did. They can. They know something.

Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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