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The Wags of the Dog

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

Dog tail-wagging research
by Otto Didact, Improbable Research staff

Detail from the study "A Vicious Cycle: A Cross-Sectional Study of Canine Tail-Chasing and Human Responses to It, Using a Free Video-Sharing Website."

Human Responses to Canine Tail-Chasing
“A Vicious Cycle: A Cross-Sectional Study of Canine Tail-Chasing and Human Responses to It, Using a Free Video-Sharing Website,” Charlotte C. Burn, PLoS ONE, vol. 6, no. 11, 2011, e26553. The author, at the Royal Veterinary College, North Mymms, Hertfordshire, UK, reports:

Tail-chasing is widely celebrated as normal canine behaviour in cultural references. However, all previous scientific studies of tail-chasing or ‘spinning’ have comprised small clinical populations of dogs with neurological, compulsive or other pathological conditions; most were ultimately euthanased. Thus, there is great disparity between scientific and public information on tail-chasing. I gathered data on the first large (n = 400), nonclinical tail-chasing population, made possible through a vast, free, online video repository, YouTubeTM.... Approximately one third of tailchasing dogs showed clinical signs, including habitual (daily or ‘all the time’) or perseverative (difficult to distract) performance of the behaviour. These signs were observed across diverse breeds. Clinical signs appeared virtually unrecognised by the video owners and commenting viewers; laughter was recorded in 55% of videos, encouragement in 43%, and the commonest viewer descriptors were that the behaviour was ‘funny’ (46%) or ‘cute’ (42%).

Detail from the study "Asymmetric Tail-Wagging Responses by Dogs to Different Emotive Stimuli."

Asymmetric Tail-Wagging Responses by Dogs
“Asymmetric Tail-Wagging Responses by Dogs to Different Emotive Stimuli,” A. Quaranta, M.
Siniscalchi, and G. Vallortigara, Current Biology, vol. 17, no. 6, March 29, 2007, pp. 199-201. (Thanks to Marie Estock for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, variously at the University of Bari, Italy, and at the University of Trieste, report:

Here we report some unexpected and striking asymmetries in the control of tail movements by dogs: differential amplitudes of tail wagging to the left or to the right side associated with the type of visual stimulus the animals were looking at....

When faced with their owner, dogs exhibited a striking rightsided bias in the amplitudes of tail wagging. A similar striking bias was observed when dogs were shown an unfamiliar human being, though with an overall decrease in the amplitude of tail wagging. When faced with a cat, dogs showed very reduced tail wagging movements, but still there was a slight bias favouring the right side. In contrast, when tested alone or in the presence of an unfamiliar conspecific, dogs showed a left-sided bias of tail wagging.

Further detail from the study "Asymmetric Tail-Wagging Responses by Dogs to Different Emotive Stimuli."

Dogs with a Wider Angle of Wag Are at Risk
“Risk Factors for Tail Injuries in Dogs in Great Britain,” G. Diesel, D. Pfeiffer, S. Crispin, and D. Brodbelt, Veterinary Record, vol. 166, no. 26, June 26, 2010, pp. 812-7. The authors report:

Data were obtained from a stratified random sample of veterinary practices throughout Great Britain, and questionnaires were sent to owners of dogs with tail injuries and owners of a randomly selected sample of dogs without tail injuries.... Two hundred and eighty-one tail injuries were recorded from a population of 138,212 dogs attending 52 participating practices.... Dogs with a wide angle of wag and dogs kept in kennels were at significantly higher risk of sustaining a tail injury. Dogs with docked tails were significantly less likely to sustain a tail injury.

Left/Right Tail-Wagging in Dogs Looking at Video of Dogs

Detail from the study "Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs."

“Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs,” Marcello Siniscalchi, Rita Lusito, Giorgio Vallortigara, and Angelo Quaranta, Current Biology, 23, no. 22, 2013, pp. 2279-2282. The authors report:

Left-right asymmetries in behavior associated with asymmetries in the brain are widespread in the animal kingdom [1], and the hypothesis has been put forward that they may be linked to animals’ social behavior [2,3]. Dogs show asymmetric tailwagging responses to different emotive stimuli [4]—the outcome of different activation of left and right brain structures controlling tail movements to the right and left side of the body. A crucial question, however, is whether or not dogs detect this asymmetry. Here we report that dogs looking at moving video images of conspecifics exhibiting prevalent left- or rightasymmetric tail wagging showed higher cardiac activity and higher scores of anxious behavior when observing left- rather than right-biased tail wagging.

Further detail from the study "Seeing Left- or Right- Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs."

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The article above is from the July-August 2015 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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