I read an article recently which articulated deeper subtlety in the language of a dog's tail wag. Namely, a wag with a bias toward the dog's RIGHT indicates acceptance and that it's okay to approach and a wag with a bias to the left of the dog's body is negative and a signal to keep distance.
I mean, color me WTF. I'm not too many years into understanding fairly obvious signs, like "As soon as you let me off this leash, I'm going to bite a lawyer."
I read this article a week or so ago and since then I have been attempting to study my dogs' tail wags. My (brief, limited) findings, in general,
Jai wags constantly, her entire back half meets her entire front half.
Jack wags slow and low, no detectable bias.
Pat swishes his tail a bit then rams you with his head and side of body. The tail is just a brief turning indicator.
Scout wags the very tip of her long flowing tail. It's more like a rattlesnake rattles.
Biz doesn't really wag. She waves. High and arched. Maybe a bit more to the left. I don't believe this is a Stay Away attitude as much as Biz is always on the ready for action and tail wagging seems like a leisure activity.
The bias is not easy to discern. I mean, it's not like they stop wagging at the center point. It's very nuanced. Tail wagging is not the first social cue I suck at, to be sure, but it's in a realm I normally feel safe – a social environment where everyone eats on the floor without talking. Where the most important things are smelled or tasted, not discussed.
AND, now I'm feeling a little SHEEPISH about what my dogs might be READING in ME…
I mean, if they can spot a slight tail shift to the left at 500 paces, how have I ever thought I'd been fooling them all this time humming a happy tune while nearly peeing myself on the way to the post? If nothing else, I'm sure they can SMELL my sweat.
It's pretty clear that while I have other issues to work through on the field – timing, depth perception, that some of my favorite words can get me DQ'd….one of the biggest and most difficult obstacles I have is my own EMOTIONAL state and, now, in how many ways I am transferring that to my dog. Holy Right Brained Shit.
In practice vs trial my dog can be a completely different animal. Delusions are built upon the kind of work Jai does at home – she has feel, she is fast, she is very intelligent, she loves to work sheep. She rarely grips and she can work up close and at a great distance. At a trial, often she looks like I've dropped her off at the 40 yard line of a pro-football game in play and asked her to score the winning touchdown. She stands there wagging and licking her lips, as if to say, "Did you forget that I don't have thumbs? Again? This is big and scary and nothing is shaped right."
I think that we did fairly well at the Trailing of the Sheep SDT this year because I didn't think it was possible to get through the course, so I mentally excused myself from the pressure and just ran my dog without expectation or stress of failure. The sheep were very difficult, R/Ts and DQs were outnumbering scores, I had a dog drug hangover from the night before. Jai got through the course, I felt pretty relaxed, and we earned our first Open points by coming in 6th.
The concept that our emotions affect our dogs, that our verbal communication is the least important, is nothing new. Anyone who lives with a dog realizes this, to some extent.
I used to try to occasionally sneak out of the house to go for a run. Alone. I had SHOES on the FRONT PORCH a day ahead of time, clothes in the car. I'd tiptoe around, I'd pretend I was picking up, cleaning, meandering closer and closer to the door….and the moment I even looked in a door-ward direction, I'd have every dog in the house standing there, staring and wagging ( I assume to the right), whining and ready to go. Every time. Yet if I was really just cleaning the house, even going in and out of the front door to get the mail, take garbage out, etc., no dog ever more than lifted his/her head from a nap.
That always flummoxed me. That and how Scout bends spoons with her mind. Both are examples of how forked we are.
Trying to work as a team with your dog, you really begin to understand the depth of this silent physical language. Our trainers tell us from day one – your dogs pick up on your energy, good or bad. What is surprising, and I think increases the complexity 1000 fold, is how much more subtle, physically, they are, and how hard it is for (some of) us to transition to that communication world. I barely pick up on a vigorous hand gesture from a livid human, let alone a slight tail posture.
Visualize your perfect run, Lavon has told me before going to the post. Picture every part of it and how it should look. Watch enough runs so that you know the pressures on the field, you see how the sheep are moving, you understand the places where you will be challenged. Picture in your mind how you will help your dog in these places. KNOW your run before you run it.
It sounds so new-agey and contemplative. I've only ever tried this, sort of, once (and Jai and I did have a decent run), because I am just too jittery and scattered leading up to my run to picture anything in sequence. I prefer to spend my time in the porta-potty and looking at the running order over and over. (Plus I think I know WAAAAY more about running a dog than Lavon. When I was telling him about the tail wag thing, he asked, "Which part is the tail, again?")
(ha ha ha…not really. But he does call their feet 'soft-shell hooves' and when asked how his dogs are bred, usually answers, "By humping…")
(No. He doesn't.)
I have often wished he'd say the secret to a great run was animal sacrifice. "Kill a chicken on a full moon before each trial."
I love my chickens. BUT I don't need a great run. I would just like a score more regularly. So…maybe animal inconvenience. I could yell at my chickens. Make fun of their unfortunate molting,
"I can see your yummy parts!"
….But now I can see why this pre-run ritual of Lavon's makes sense. It is calming. It forces you to concentrate on the mechanics of what you are about to do so that this is present in your mind when you walk to the post and send your dog. Your mind and your emotions are more centered on the function and communication, rather than freaking the fuck out and worrying about peeing yourself.
Anyway, this wagging thing really highlights the complexity of the subtlety in communication between human and animals in a way that is both intriguing and OHSHIT-afying. I'm sure you can get a dog around a course without understanding the intricacies of what they are telling you and what you are telling them, and what you are both telling the sheep, but it won't ever be what it can be, which, for me, is the whole point to having sheep, trialing, and trying to discern a bias in my dog's wag.