A Dog’s Tail

From a young age, I enjoyed reading, especially works that exposed me to new ideas. I loved comic books, like Superman and The Fantastic Four. Later, I discovered science fiction. I especially liked collections of short stories because the length of these stories made them suited to consider “what if” questions. I also liked fairy tales and mythology. Later, when I reached the mature age of 12, I explored the great works of fiction. My brothers must have had to read these kinds of books in high school because used copies were on their bookshelves. I probably would not have chosen many of these books for myself, but they were there. After I read a few dozen pages, I was hooked, even when I did not fully understand them.

When I found a book by an author I really liked, I tried to read every book the author wrote. In high school and college, I read books by Dostoevsky, Camus, Hesse, Sartre, P. K. Dick and many others. But, in my late twenties, I stopped reading fiction. I restricted my focus to works of nonfiction, where I thought my time would be more productively spent. For several of those years, I concentrated on reading essays about nature.

During this time, I discovered the works of Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel prize-winning ethologist. He was a funny guy, although he was once a member of the Nazi party and later served time in a Soviet prison camp. His work focused on animal instincts and how those instincts were expressed in behavior. He was a great story-teller. In one story, he wrote about a huge fish tank in his office area. The tank was so large that divers had to clean the interior glass walls. My memory is hazy, but I think there was some kind of balcony that overlooked the tank and provided the ladders the divers used to get in. One day, while studying the fish, Lorenz dropped his keys, which sank to the floor of the tank. He decided to retrieve them. Not wanting to get his clothes wet, he took them off and climbed down the ladder. Unfortunately for him, at this time a colleague was giving some wealthy sponsors a tour and they entered the building only to discover a surprising new form of aquatic life…a naked Konrad.

In the same book, Lorenz writes about how animals can learn to identify the start of a sequence of actions and respond quickly. He had trained a bird to take a treat from his hand as he walked in the field. The bird, flying overhead would see him reach for his pocket, thus starting a sequence of events, and then swoop down, grabbing the tidbit from his hand the moment the treat was shown. Well, one day, Konrad was again feeding the bird, but he needed to go to the bathroom. Not thinking, he unzipped his pants, which the bird noticed, so it came swooping down. No need for me to finish the story; you know what happened. It was as painful to him as his underwater encounter with his guests was embarrassing. It’s funny to read about the mistakes of brilliant people and learn something new along the way.

Studying nonverbal behaviors in animals tells us a great deal about our own nonverbal behaviors. Every animal has instinctual ways of behaving. We can infer a great deal about how animals think if we piece together their behavioral cues. Many species are able to communicate verbally and nonverbally with each other. Quite a few studies have been conducted on communication by gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, whales and crows. If we watch these kinds of animals closely, we can get insights into what they are thinking and feeling. Veterinarians have to be good at reading animal behavior since the animals they treat can’t say where it hurts. We too can learn to read animal behaviors.

To learn more, do informal observations of your cat, dog, iguana, hamster, bee hive, fish, parrot, iguana, snake, or ant farm. All animals have behaviors we overlook until we study them closely.

If you have a dog, for example, have you noticed that there are different kinds of tail wags? The dog’s tail is quite expressive. Interestingly, dogs do not wag their tails when alone. The tail is used to communicate to other living beings.

We know what it means if the dog’s tail is between its legs. What if the dog’s tail is held high? The vertical tail, Stalen Coren states, indicates dominance. What does it mean if the tail is moving in a circular motion? How about straight back and forth? How does the speed of the wag fit into the picture? Keep asking these kinds of questions. Classify behaviors.

Do not assume a dog wagging its tail is happy or friendly. Some wags signal the dogs is preparing to bite. Some tail wags involve the butt. Some wags are just a slight movement at the tip of the tail. Some wags are more to the right than to the left. Does it make a difference? Apparently it does. Once you get past seeing how the tail is moving, you can look at body posture, the hair on the back, the ears, the mouth, and the eyes. Studies have shown that dogs are exceptionally good at reading these behaviors when they see other dogs. They are skilled nonverbal communicators.

Of course, dogs also bark, howl, growl, and whine. But, please note, there are different kind of vocalizations. We say, “shut up,” perhaps, to all of them, but they have unique meanings in a given situation.

When we put the verbal and nonverbal signs together, we can get a pretty good sense of the emotions being expressed. We just have to watch closely, understand the context, and find the patterns. It’s the same way we learn to accurately read nonverbal cues in people. People’s expressions are just more complex. Or, so it seems.

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