WHAT’S THAT LASSIE? TIMMY IS STUCK IN THE WELL!?
In show business, they say that you should never work with animals or small children. The reasons are obvious: they are both unpredictable and you never know exactly what they are thinking. Children grow up and learn to communicate via spoken and written language, but animals remain an enduring mystery for owners – to the extent that my neighbour recently told me she was hiring a ‘dog whisperer’ to help her understand her puppy. I’m highly sceptical of such techniques and I tried not to let my cynicism show – but I could soon be eating humble pie. That’s because a team of researchers from Italy have now shown that you can tell how a dog is feeling…from the way it wags its tail. All dog owners will know that – contrary to popular belief – dogs wag their tails both when they are happy and when they are scared. In 2007, an Italian team of researchers, led by Prof. Angelo
Quaranta, started to find out why. They studied the way a dog’s tail moved and published evidence to show that the direction the tail is wagged reflects the dog’s emotional state. A right-handed wag means a dog is happy – for example, when the pet’s owner returns. A left-handed wag means the dog is anxious – for example, when an unfamiliar dog approaches. They deduced that when the tail wags to the left, the right side of its brain is highly active, whereas a right-wagging tail indicates that the left side of the brain is dominating. In the research team’s latest work, published in late 2013 in the prestigious Current Biology journal, they demonstrated that these left and right tail movements actually form a type of language between dogs – they can literally ‘read’ each other’s wagging tails. The Italian team made this discovery by observing dogs that were themselves looking at other tail-wagging dogs. Studying a group of domesticated dogs, they tested each dog by showing it a video clip of another dog wagging its tail (either to the left or to the right). Monitoring the dog’s pulse rate through a wireless heart monitor and recording its behaviours, they realised that each dog became more anxious when it saw a dog wagging its tail to the left, and remained calm when looking at another dog wagging its tail to the right. So, not only do these findings reveal that dogs communicate to each other in subtle ways, it also offers dog owners an insight into their pets’ psyche. But don’t start watching tail movements and hiring out your services as ‘dog whisperer’ just yet: the scientists looked at slow motion recordings of each dog to work out which way the tail was wagging – but the jury is still out as to whether the human eye could spot a left-beating tail from a right-beating one. But who knows: perhaps we could calm our pets by playing a video of a dog wagging its tail to the right. Or maybe, with a little tail-watching practice, we could all understand a dog’s emotions just a little better. Because, let’s be honest, it’s never nice to find out that you’ve been barking up the wrong tree.