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Why do dogs wag their tails as they do? Scientists find answer

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
November 4th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Some dogs wave their tails to their right, others to their left. Why is that? Scientists have now found out just how the movements of a dog's tail are linked to its mood.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Happy dogs wag their tails more to the right - which is from the dog's point of view, while nervous dogs have a left-dominated swish, previous studies have suggested.

It's been learned that dogs themselves can spot and respond to these subtle tail differences. As published in the journal, Current Biology, Professor Georgio Vallortigara says that "It is very well known in humans, that the left and right side of the brain are differently involved in stimuli that invokes positive or negative emotions.

A neuro-scientist from the University of Trento, Vallortigara says that "Here we attempted to look at it in other species." Just as in humans, the right side of the brain for dogs was responsible for left-handed movement and vice versa. The two hemispheres played different roles in emotions.

In order to research this theory, the researchers monitored the animals as they watched films of other dogs and then measured the pets' heart rates and analyzed their behavior.

"We presented dogs with movies of dogs - either a naturalistic version or a silhouette to get rid of any other confounding issues, and we could doctor the movement of the tail and present the tail more to the left or right," Vallortigara says.

When the dogs saw an otherwise expressionless dog move its tail to the right (from the tail-wagging dog's point of view), they stayed perfectly relaxed. But when they spotted a tail veer predominantly to the left, their heart rates picked up and they looked anxious.

Vallortigara said he didn't think that the dogs were intentionally communicating with each other through these movements, believing that the animals learned from experience what moves they should and shouldn't feel worried about.

"If you have several meetings with other dogs, and frequently their tail wagging one way is associated with a more friendly behavior, and the right side is producing a less friendly behavior, you respond on the basis of that experience."

These findings could give owners, veterinarians and trainers a better insight into their animal's emotions.

A visiting fellow at the University of Bristol's school of veterinary science, Dog behavior expert John Bradshaw says that this was not the first study to examine whether left and right were important to canines.

A University of Lincoln study discovered last year that dogs turn their heads to the left when looking at an aggressive dog and to the right when looking at a happy dog.

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