Your Dog's Tail Wag Can Tell You Exactly How He's Feeling

Dogs know a left-sided wag from a right and may use the distinction to communicate their emotions.

By Nsikan Akpan on October 31, 2013 12:05 PM EDT

Dogs know a left-sided wag from a right and may use the distinction to communicate their emotions.

Dogs know a left-sided wag from a right and may use the distinction to communicate their emotions.

Some people are known for wearing their emotions on their face...turns out the same is true for dogs and their tails. New evidence shows that dogs adopt the emotions of other canines by reading the directions of their tail wagging.

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Dogs have a reputation for an surprising range of compassion, at times resembling empathy, while their attachment to an owner can rival the infant-caregiver bondIn 2007, Italian researchers found the somewhat unsurprising result that a dog's tail wagging is connected their emotional state. Positive emotions, such as when an owner returns from work, is associated with a flick of the tail to the right, while anxious feelings, like seeing an unfriendly dog, caused a swish to the left. This investigation, however, stopped short of examining whether dogs use tail wagging to convey emotions to each other.

For their latest study, the same team showed 43 pooches a video that displayed a dog shaking its tail to either the left or right. In some cases, a silhouette of the filmed dog was used to eliminate any cues other than wagging. Seeing a dog wag its tail to the left, previously linked to negative emotions, accelerated the heart rate of the dog watching. The viewing canine also appeared more anxious, according to a human observer who did not know the details of study. In contrast, watching a dog whose tail moved right had no impact on heart rate or observed anxiety. It's hard to say if this bona fide communication, but it may symbolize a mental reflex.

The prior study found that each brand of tail wagging corresponded to brain activity in one-half of the mind. A right wag paired with increased activity in the left hemisphere and vice versa. "The direction of tail wagging does in fact matter, and it matters in a way that matches hemispheric activation," said Giorgio Vallortigara of the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences of the University of Trento, whose findings were reported today in Current Biology.

Knowing that tail wagging stimulates emotions in dogs could be useful owners who need an easy way to cheer up a sad pet. "It could be that left/right directions of approach could be effectively used by vets during visits of the animals or that dummies could be used to exploit asymmetries of emotional responses," said Vallortigara.

Source: Siniscalchi M, Lusito R, Vallortigara G, Quaranta A. Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs. Current Biology. 2013.

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