Thursday, 7 November 2013

On tail wagging and the scientific method

Great news folks! I am aware that things have been rather quiet lately on the Bouncing Bertie Boffin front. Well, fret not. The drought is over.

As an enthusiastic tail wagger myself, (see Waggly Wednesday) you can imagine how excited I was to learn that some chappies in Italy have published a scientific paper* on the topic of dog tail wagging and left/right asymmetries.

Yes of course this is a subject worthy of serious study. I mean not every one can be focussed on curing cancer or solving global warming can they?

Apparently it is already known - at least to a select group of researchers in Italy - that we pups are supposed to wag our tails to the right when we are happy and relaxed, like when our owner approaches with treats, and to the left when apprehensive.

And now we have this this new study, in which the (human) authors claim to have demonstrated, by measuring changes in heart rate, that us pups can read the messages implicit in the asymmetric tail movements of our fellow dogs.

Yes really. 


I hope you have spotted a degree of cynicism in the wording of my description of this research. 

Scientists are taught to be sceptical and always to rigorously and critically examine the evidence and I think that such an approach is appropriate here.  

I mean, so many questions immediately spring to mind don't they?
  • These dogs in the study, were they all Italian? If so, might there be an element of learned behaviour, what with living amongst a population of humans known to be such enthusiastic gesticulators?
  • What about yours truly? I tell you, all week since she read the paper, Gail has been carefully studying slow motion videos of me excitedly waving my not inconsiderable tail and as yet has failed to detect a bias to either left or right.
  • Should we be concerned about in-breeding in this particular research community, having noted that fully 50% of the papers cited in this new study are written or co-written by one of its authors?
  • Can we treat seriously a paper when, in the discussion section, it refers to work investigating dogs' responses to the tail-wagging of a life sized robotic dog replica? I kid you not. 
Well fellow canines, you will be thrilled to learn that together we can surely surmount the shortcomings of this research and make a significant contribution to science. 

All you need is a bag of treats (to induce an appropriate amount of happy tail wagging, obviously) and an observant human. 

Oh and you might like to remind your human that sound science requires an experiment to be repeated many times over, so they will need a BIG bag of treats.

Please report your results (left wag, right wag, or no bias either way) as comments on this post, and feel free to add any supplementary information you think might be relevant.

A full analysis of the data provided will be published on this blog in due course.

*Siniscalchi et al., Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different EmotionalResponses in Dogs, Current Biology (2013), 


  1. Ummmmm...Bertie? What if one's tail is docked?


  2. Hari OM


    Senor 'S' et al clearly have more time and money on their paws than thinking cells in their noggins. What about the up-down thumper wags that Jade used to give me when I correctly interpreted her choice of goodie? Howzzat for assymetric? Then there was the famous Jad-o-copter; the full tail spin!!

    Having now scoffed I must admit the following; among the pariah INDogs, tail communications were very visible and marked. Not along the lines noted above. However, if a puppy, say, was most concerned to make an impression after a misdemeanour, it would approach the elder dog with tail tucked and the HIND QUARTERS tending to a sideways position. It seemed to me that this was to ensure the other understood the supplication and that it was not pretending. The tip of the tail (underneath the bottom) would be wagging furiously.

    Now I do recall Jade at times doing this - usually when she had done something naughty. Mostly this gave her away, as I usually hadn't found out yet!!

    When she was happy though, trust me that tail went in all the known directions plus a few not placed on the compass.

    Left right fight or flight. Phsaw! What I want to know most now is.....W H Y??? which covers all possible questions!

    Looking forward to further reports and updates.
    Hugs and wags, YAM-aunty xxx

  3. Hang on. Did blogger eat my comment? Well, the gist of it was that this appears to be too complex for my momma since she forgets which is my right v. her right. I suppose doing a full 360 propeller tail doesn't help.


  4. Seems that Polish dogs clearly aren't as sophisticated as Italian ones. Left, right , it's all the same to them. They just waggle their tails all day, every day - we call it their ' metronome on steroids ' tail.action.

  5. Ha, love that Italian researchers took this time and not too surprised about it! My piggy tail wags, am I included I wonder? :-)

    1. Oh yes please. The more species the merrier!

  6. I just read about this in the NY TImes and I whlole heartedly agree with your criticism Bertie. Plus this paper is massively breed biased. What about the breeds with short or no tails. Pugs have those little piggy tails that sure do wag but not enough to give a clear left or right and then bulldogs have those tiny nubs that just sort of vibrate in place. So my feelings are this is not any sort of earth shaking discovery.

    By the way have you heard that your literary name sake is about to be resurrected. We may do a post on it. I personally am not pleased. The master, Wodehouse, already wrote 90 novels. Im not sure we need another by an imitator!

    urban hounds

  7. BOL I don't have much of a tail and what I do have goes round and round. Hmmm wonder what that means??? Am I confused??? Have a tremendous Thursday.
    Best wishes Molly

  8. Dear Director of the Science of Tail Wagging...first of all bravo excellent report.
    Bertie I am convinced that your tail wags 24/7 in happiness.
    When a cat enters the room with its tail up in the shape of a question mark, it means the cat is confident and happy. My ears are my 'beware/back off meter'.
    Hugs Madi your bfff

  9. Stella has a beautiful tail, with a long fringe on it, and when it wags, it looks like its going in all directions. Any dog would be proud to have a tail like hers.


  10. Well we think this is just one of those Silly Peeps thingy.

  11. My mom read that schmancy fancy article in the paper and started observing me. But right off she observed a problem: unless you catch the wag before the subject canine even starts it, that is, once the wagging has started, how do you know if it is right to left or left to right, since a continuous wag goes both ways? And what about my brother, Angel Jake, who had such a tiny tail that it was a blur from the start? Nevertheless, she plans to conduct the more scientific treat-induced tail wag experiment, and will report back soonest!

    Wirey love,

    Just Harry

  12. As a boxer, I'm afraid I don't wag my tail, so I don't know if I could pawticipate in your study. Boxers wiggle our whole bodies instead!

  13. What fun, spending all day making dogs wag their tails and getting paid to do it. I so want that job !
    Easy done with my little Cavalier King Charles, she wags her tail none stop, such a happy little girl.

  14. I read that in the paper and believe it is all bogus

  15. I love it Bertie, how you challenge us all to use the little grey cells! I wish I could confirm these findings but Horatio only ever wags his tail when it's a special dinner. Harris on the other hand gives a full 180* wag at everything... Go figure.

  16. We are going to run our own study to see if these results generalize to us Canadian dogs. Lee and Phod

  17. Hmm, I'll have to do the 'treat experiment' with Sookie and see for myself.

  18. We have been hearing a lot about this study too. We would like to offer our dogselves to research. We will need 4 plane tickets and accommodations in Italy. Also, a lot of tail wagging treats and some wine for the folks.

  19. First of all, I commend you for your newly resumed activity on the boffin front. I also share your skepticism, but at the same time I think we should cut these folks some slack... think about how doggy they must be. Not to mention that they DOGgedly pursue their research interests.

    We will run the experimental campaign you suggest and will report the results. We're also interested in measuring the energy it takes to wag a tail and how it could be harvested. Perhaps waggy energy could be used for frequency regulation in the smart grid?

  20. OK, remind me again--which side is the right?

  21. Bertie,
    I am just so glad SOMEONE'S picked up on this oh so serious topic. I knew that we wag our tails when we're sad, scared AND happy, but I didn't know there was a certain geometry to it. But your scientific questions do have a point. I think they should have thrown in a certain boffin WFT into the experiment for some wagglingly, bouncy results!
    I just like to sweep my tail in any direction, doesn't make a difference to me!
    Pippa :)

  22. Despite having a very active tail, my human taught me the "Tail" command so that every time she says "Tail" I wag my tail, but she failed to teach me to wag to the right or to the left. Now after seeing your blog post, I worry that when I see another dog (as I have been conditioned to wag my tail equally in both directions) that I might send the wrong signal! This hasn’t been a problem in the past, as most dogs just want to play, but now some may also have learnt about what the Italians are saying. Do you think my human now needs to train me to “Tail wag left” and “Tail wag right” so she can help me know what to do in awkward social situations? I await your advice.
    Woofs and (also maybe anxiously wagging to the left) your friend in NZ,