5 February 2024
When a dog excitedly wags its tail, what’s the real message behind that enthusiastic motion? Tail-wagging in dogs, far from being mere expressions of happiness, represents a complex form of communication that scientists are gradually unraveling.
A recent review article in Biology Letters, aggregating insights from over 100 studies, aims to shed light on why dogs wag their tails and what these wags signify.
Many animals possess tails and employ them for various purposes like balance and pest removal. However, a comprehensive study spanning four years, covering over 40 species, uncovered that domestic dogs engage in tail-wagging more than any other species. Notably, dogs start wagging their tails at a younger age and more frequently than their close relatives, wolves.
Tail-wagging as a form of communication likely originated as a specialized trait in dogs. One theory states that tail-wagging might not have been directly selected by humans during domestication but could have emerged as a byproduct of selecting dogs for docility and tameness. These behavioral traits could have been genetically linked to tail-wagging.
Another hypothesis suggests that humans, known for their affinity for rhythmic stimuli, may have subconsciously favored dogs that exhibited more tail-wagging. While the rhythm of tail-wagging hasn’t been quantified, humans seem naturally drawn to it.
Tail-wagging is more intricate than it appears. Scientists believe that tail carriage and speed, measured in beats per minute, may play a role in differentiating messages such as “I’m delighted to see you” from “I might attack you.” Though observed in traditional dog behavior literature, this differentiation hasn’t yet been thoroughly quantified.
An interesting revelation is the asymmetry of tail-wagging. Dogs often wag their tails more to the right side of their bodies when approaching something they like and to the left side when signaling a desire to withdraw. Astonishingly, dogs can discern these asymmetries in other dogs, affecting their reactions.
Contrary to the common belief that tail-wagging solely conveys happiness, research indicates that the relationship between tail-wagging and emotions is more complex. For instance, a study involving shelter dogs unveiled that cortisol levels, indicative of stress, exhibited variations depending on the dogs’ life history. Dogs admitted as strays experienced reduced cortisol levels after being petted, whereas owner-surrendered dogs didn’t display the same decrease. Although both groups wagged their tails more when petted, stress levels fluctuated differently.
Future research endeavors are poised to delve into the neural mechanisms governing tail-wagging. Scientists aim to determine which parts of a dog’s brain control distinct aspects of tail motion. Is tail-wagging a behavior dogs can partly control, akin to our ability to regulate breathing, or does it resemble blushing—an involuntary response? Investigating how rhythmic, communicative, and abstract thinking areas function in a dog’s brain holds tremendous potential.
Intriguing and multifaceted, tail-wagging in dogs extends beyond a mere greeting. It is a sophisticated mode of communication that continues to captivate scientists and dog enthusiasts alike. As research deepens our comprehension of this tail-telling behavior, we gain greater insights into our four-legged companions.