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Tail Wagging and Head Turning, What Dogs May Be Saying

Tail wagging and head turning in dogs

Tail wagging is a characteristic behavior of dogs that can mean a variety of things both to people and to other dogs. Here are some of the findings about tail wagging and head turning from new and previous studies.


Whenever Jamie, my little mixed terrier, greeted me after I returned home from work, his tail wagged in circles. I did not need a dog behaviorist to tell me my dog was happy to see me, but there are other things tail wagging as well as head turning that can tell us what our canine companions are thinking.

In a new study published in Current Biology as well as several previous reports, scientists have revealed what they have discovered about tail wagging and head turning behaviors in dogs. These movements communicate a lot not only to humans but between dogs as well, and once we better understand this body language, we will hopefully all get along better.

Newest tail wagging study
In the latest study, researchers at the University of Trento were interested in learning how dogs respond to the tail wagging behaviors of their peers. Rather than present the studied dogs with real canines, the scientists showed films of other dogs to the study participants.

When the dogs were shown an otherwise expressionless dog that wagged its tail to the right (from the point of view of the dog moving its tail), the study dogs tended to stay calm. However, when a filmed dog moved its tail to the left, the study dogs became anxious and their heart rates increased.

According to the study’s lead author, neuroscientist Georgio Vallortigara of the University of Trento, the dogs may have learned how to respond based on their experiences with other dogs and how they wagged their tail.

Previous dog wagging study
At the University of Victoria (Canada), a research team had a different experience with tail wagging. The dogs in this 2011 study were presented with a robotic dog that was made to wag its tail on the left and on the right.

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Of the 452 individual interactions with the robotic dog, a significantly greater number of dogs approached the robot without stopping when the tail wagged to the left while the dogs were more likely to stop when the tail wagged to the right.

If you are thinking, isn’t this the opposite of what the researchers found in the new study, you are right. Vallortigara suggested that because neither study utilized real dogs as the waggers, the real dogs may not have recognized the robotic or filmed dogs as canines.

Dogs and head turning
Several studies have explored head turning behaviors in dogs. One at the University of Bari in Italy found that dogs were more likely to turn their head when presented with a threatening stimulus on the left than they were to a threat presented to the right side.

This suggests the right side of the brain in a dog is more responsive to threats than the left side, just as the right side of the brain in humans is associated with left-handed movement and vice versa.

In another study, 46 dogs were tested to see which way they would turn their head when presented with meaningful sounds (dog barking, cat meowing, the command “sit” and a neutral word). The researchers found that the dogs responded by turning their heads to the left for the three stimuli, suggesting activation of the right side of the brain.

Why are these findings significant? Because they help animal behaviorists better understand what makes dogs tick, and the information can be used, along with future findings, to improve communications between dogs and pet parents and aid in solving dog behavioral problems.

Artelle KA et al. Behavioural responses of dogs to asymmetrical tail wagging of a robotic dog replica. Laterality 2011 Mar; 16(2): 129-35
Reinholz-Trojan A et al. Hemispheric specialization in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) for processing different types of acoustic stimuli. Behavioral Processes 2012 Oct; 91(2): 202-5
Siniscalchi M et al. Dogs turn left to emotional stimuli. Behavioral Brain Research 2010 Apr 2; 208(2): 516-21
Siniscalchi M et al. Seeing left- or right-asymmetric tail wagging produces different emotional responses in dogs. Current Biology 2013 Oct 31. DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2013.09.027

Image: Pixabay