The Wag Of A Dog’s Tail - What’s Behind Tail Wagging?

The Wag Of A Dog’s Tail - What’s Behind Tail Wagging?

When it comes to a dog’s body language one of their actions most favoured by us humans is when they wag their tail. Whether it’s an all-in-one swish or a furious back and forth, the sight of a dog wagging its tail is known and loved by us all.

Researchers are now taking a closer look at this physical phenomenon, and they are coming up with some interesting findings, with some suggesting that we humans find it visually appealing, while others are suggesting that it’s the inherent rhythm of the action that we like so much.

Where It All Began: The Bond Between Humans And Dogs

The process of humans domesticating dogs is thought to of taken place somewhere between 15,000 and 50,000 years ago, and during this time a very strong bond has grown between the two of us, and it has been estimated that 48% of Australian households currently house a dog.

No doubt most of these households have witnessed the wag of a dog’s tail, and it is normal for dog owners to interpret this tail wagging as a sign of excitement, happiness, and contentment.

But the true meaning of this everyday action could have a deeper meaning beyond a basic expression of emotion, and researchers are looking to discover what might be the root cause of this physical movement, along with how it evolved, and what meaning we can attach to it, with several theories emerging.

Research And Theories

Dr Taylor Hersh, along with colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, have been researching tail wagging and have shared their findings in the Biology Letters of The Royal Society.

Utilising the research of previous studies, they posit that pups that have been reared by hand wag their tails far more often than wolf pups that have also been hand-reared, and that dogs wag their tail to the right as a response to a positive experience - such as coming into contact with their owner - and wag their tail to their left, when they wish to physically withdraw from a situation, such as when they encounter a threat or danger.

Extrapolating on this, Dr Hersch says that through the examination of these behaviours it can be suggested that a dog wagging its tail may have links to the domestication process which began many thousands of years ago.

Further Thought And Investigation

In the domestication context, the meaning of a wag of a dog’s tail is an interesting aspect, though questions do remain, including why some breeds of dogs wag their tails more than others.

The domestication process may be the answer, with previous research suggesting some genetic traits in dogs, such as their ability to be tamed or apparent docility, were a strong reason for humans choosing to invest in this coupling, and the tail wagging theory certainly can be grouped with this, but their could be other explanations.

Silvia Leonetti, who co-authored the Royal Society article, mentions a theory that humans selected dogs for domestication due to the rhythmic stimulation that tail wagging provides.

As such, the team behind the research are now recommending more investigations into tail wagging, with new research using advanced and non-invasive technologies, and focusing on groups of multiple dogs, along with dog and dog and dog and human interactions, which could shed further light on the various meanings of this physical action.

Another Point Of View

While this field of research opens many possibilities, as with anything new, there will be differing opinions as new theories are put forward. Dr Juliane Bräuer, of the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology, has suggested that certain dogs selected for domestication due to their tail-wagging may have been chosen by their human counterparts for reasons other than rhythm.

And Dr Holly Root-Gutteridge, a researcher at the University of Lincoln, has said that tail wagging was more likely to be a social signal that dogs had adapted, because humans find dog’s that bark irritating.

Dr Root-Gutteridge notes that wolves also wag their tails, and use this action as a social signal, although data on how this occurs in a native, natural context is limited.

Humans are a “highly visual species and may appreciate the rhythm… though I’m not sure we’re really responding” says Root-Gutteridge of tail wagging, and she suspects that early humans saw tail wagging as an easy to identify and positive signal given by dogs, which allowed for a form of communication between us, much like how humans can communicate basic messages through hand signals.

A Dog Wagging It’s Tail - It’s More Than It Seems

As can be read, there could be something much deeper occurring when it comes to tail wagging. So much so, that this communication between us and our canine companions may have connections that go back many thousands of years, including the domestication process, which began the wonderful friendship that now exists between the two of us and which we continue to enjoy today.

For more reading on the behaviour of canines check out our 8 interesting facts about dogs here.

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