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Wagging tail means more than you think

By Kathy Antoniotti
Beacon Journal staff writer

Whether you realize it or not, your dog is trying his best to talk to you. Being nonverbal doesn’t mean he can’t communicate with you.

It must be frustrating for a dog to realize that his owner is clueless to the conversation indicated by changes in his facial expressions and body language. After all, he learns many of your words and responds to them.

The fact is, dogs have a fairly sophisticated means of communication with other canines.

By honing your observation skills and learning what they are saying with their body language, you can be part of the conversation and understand when he is telling you he is uncomfortable, frightened, sick, happy, sad or playful.

Contrary to that old nugget of wisdom, we know that a barking dog does indeed bite. We learned, many times the hard way that if a dog pulls back his lips and shows his teeth he is warning us to back off. We know that if he leans back on his haunches, shows his teeth and growls, it’s a good indication that he is ready to attack whatever he perceives as a threat.

One of the hardest things for owners and strangers to learn about an animal is that a wagging tail doesn’t always indicate a happy dog that is willing to let you enter its space.

An extended tail in a vertical position, even if it is wagging, means something totally different than a lowered tail or one that is moving with such enthusiasm that his butt wags in concert.

A recent study looks more deeply into what the dog is feeling when he wags his tail and suggests that even unconsciously, dogs send messages to you and each other by the direction their tails are wagging.

According to a study published in November in the scientific journal Current Biology, dogs wag their tails according to what is going on in their brains. The study’s lead author, Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trento in Italy, said activation of a dog’s left brain will cause its tail to wag to his right and activation of the right brain will cause the dog to wag its tail to his left.

In an earlier study, Vallortigara demonstrated that when a dog likes what is going on around them, such as being in the presence of its owners, it will wag its tail predominantly to the right. If it sees something threatening, such as a strange, dominant dog, it will wag its tail mostly to the left.

In other words, if your dog is in the presence of another dog, his tail will indicate if he perceives the other animal as a threat or a friend. That movement is either a warning or an invitation to the other animal.

Beacon Journal photographer Karen Schiely, who owns three dogs, and I attempted to test Vallortigara’s theory on our own pets and discovered that all five animals did indeed wag their tails to the right when they appeared to be relaxed. Neither of us wanted to put our dogs in an uncomfortable situation, so our experiment ended there.

But Vallortigara’s second study determined that not only did the dogs react this way when another dog was near, but also 43 dogs continued to behave the same way when they were shown a video of a dog silhouette wagging its tail mostly to one side or the other, or not wagging at all.

The animals, equipped with heart rate monitors, showed an increased heart rate that suggested a negative response and a higher degree of stress when the dog’s tail wagged to the left or not at all.

When the dog’s left brain was engaged by the video of a dog silhouette wagging its tail to the right, the dog’s response indicated the dog was inviting the other animal to approach.

The study concludes that not only do we have the opportunity to better understand what our dogs are thinking and feeling by the wag of their tails, but also dogs read each other in the same fashion.

Try this simple experiment and discover for yourself what your dog thinks about that yappy little barker across the street.

Other pets in the news:

Pups and Pages — The Stark County District is sponsoring a program for children in grades K-5 that encourages kids to read aloud to a dog, or maybe a bird. The program is offered at various locations at 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays. The dogs are licensed therapy dogs and will be accompanied by their owners. Kids may choose a book from the library or bring their own to read aloud to the dogs. Registration is requested and may be made online at or by calling 330-452-0665 or any SCDL location.

Low Cost Spaying and Neutering — Cats Having Alterations Professionally Inc. (C.H.A.P.) will provide low-cost mobile spay and neuter surgeries for cats and kittens Feb. 1 at 180 E. South St., Akron. Kittens need to be 12 weeks old, weigh at least 2 pounds and be in good health. Services are available for family pets, friendly strays and feral cats that do not have AIDS or feline leukemia. Cost is $45 per male cat, $60 per female and $70 for pregnant felines. Low-cost vaccines, flea/tapeworm/ear mite treatments, also nail trimming and ear-tipping for feral cats will be available. Registration is required at 330-724-6181.

Snow Bowl — The Akron Zoo is signing up teams for the Snow Bowl, which will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 8 at Stonehedge, 580 Cuyahoga Falls Ave., Akron. Five-member teams can sign up for bowling times of noon, 2 and 4 p.m. The 10 a.m. shift is sold out. Entry fee is $300 per team. The team that finishes closest to its predicted score will win. Sponsorships are also available and different levels earn incentives such as grand raffle tickets and zoo admission tickets. Money raised helps support the zoo’s conservation and education programs and the feeding and care of the zoo’s 700 animals. For more information, call 330-375-2550, ext. 7230.

TNR Training — Cripple Creek Ferals and Friends will hold a TNR (Trap/Neuter/Return) training class from 1 to 4 p.m. Feb. 1 at Cutler Real Estate Meeting Room, 203 Applegrove NE, North Canton. Instructors will teach common misconceptions about feral cats, local resources and the proper way to do TNR and share ideas with others and network. The room meeting room is in an area that is not handicap accessible. No registration is required but an RSVP is appreciated. For more information, visit or find the group on Facebook.

Kathy Antoniotti writes about pets for the Akron Beacon Journal. She is unable to help locate, place or provide medical attention for an individual animal. If you have an idea or question about pets, write her at the Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640; call 330-996-3565; or send an email to


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