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Dog tail-wagging as sign of happiness

And how to find your dog's belly-button

You’ll often see a tail wag as a threat before a fight.
  • You’ll often see a tail wag as a threat before a fight.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Dear Matthew Alice: Why do dogs wag their tails when they are happy? And where is my dog’s bellybutton? — Dave R., La Jolla

Uh, Dave, dogs sometimes wag their tails when they’re pissed, so we’d better clear up this mystery before some Dobie takes a chunk out of your butt. All in all, there may be no animal that does more communicating than a dog. Virtually every bit of its body is involved at one time or another in some message-sending task. Pack animals need those skills to send and receive bulletins about social status, mood, and sexual condition. Smell is the main communication tool, and since most of a dog’s scent-producing glands are in its back end, you can understand why dogs are so interested in that particular area — in other dogs and in humans, too, even though our hindquarters aren’t quite as information-packed as the dog might expect. When a dog takes a dump on your lawn, he’s left not only a messy annoyance but an open letter to all other dogs about who he is. The feces are coated with excretions from anal scent glands. But dogs also send messages with their voices, ears, eyes, mouths, body posture, even their hair, and their tails. You might consider the tail more or less a backup system to facial expression.

Scientific observers of dog behavior contend that a dog’s wagging tail actually signals an emotional conflict of some kind. Puppies don’t wag their tails until they’re between 25 and 40 days old, around the time they start asserting their individual personalities and start playfighting with others in the litter. We mostly pay attention to human-dog interactions and observe tail wags when the animal is happy to see its owner but also slightly apprehensive because of its lower status in the dog-owner pairing. If you watch dog-dog interactions, you’ll often see a tail wag as a threat before a fight or in other conflict situations. The act of tail wagging squeezes those message-bearing scent glands and sends a smellogram to the other dog to let him know what’s up.

Your dog’s bellybutton has healed to a nearly invisible scar so you may not be able to find it. To get an idea of where it’s located, lie down on your back, bring your knees and hands up to your chest, and reach down and find your own bellybutton. Your dog’s will be in roughly the same location if you can get him to lie on his back. But since your body posture has just told your dog that you are now low man on the social ladder, he probably won’t ever listen to another thing you say.


A little more old business, first about my cavalier disregard for Basic Anonymous Truthseeker’s request for “a good word that rhymes with orange.” Well, when y’all get huffy, at least you’re creative about it. I guess. Two submissions offered the same solution to BAT’s rhyming dilemma. Jan Tonnesen, popular bookseller/musician about town, the bearded eminence at Wahrenbrock’s Book House, was mercifully brief in his reply. But Billy Johnston of scenic Clairemont Mesa, owner of a little emporium called Tub Scrub Diving (“Our Business Is Going Under”) submitted some poetry: “To save your face and possibly your job, I made up the following limerick so you wouldn’t be relieved of duty due to inability.” Billy’s obviously been to the family mansion on Alice Acres. He’s described it to a tee.

Mat’s House

There once was a witticist named Mat,

Who lived in a paltry glum flat.

Everything in it was orange.

From the windowsill to the door hinge.

So there. Mat, is the answer for BAT.

I can’t say that “door hinge" fits either of BAT’s criteria; it’s neither good nor a single word. But, then, remember our motto here at Queries R Us: “Hey, what do you want for free?"

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