WHAT’S THAT LASSIE? TIMMY IS STUCK IN THE WELL!?

Guru Magazine - - Animal - Au­thor: Stuart Farrimond

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.

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