The Power of a Wagging Tail

Last week Rayna and I (Lucy) moved into the next phase of our training (puppy classes are now complete). One of the skills required in the first level is for me to be able to prompt her to wag her tail. Huh? [The premise is that it shows social engagement, specifically with me]. Sounds easy enough except that Rayna doesn’t wag her tail as readily as some other dogs do. This has made me consider what a wagging tail means.

Without going into all the nuances of tail wags, I am limiting a wagging tail here to mean what we understand as the “I’m happy to see you” wag. I began to pay close attention to when Rayna wags her tail – I learned that she wags her tail when greeting a new person or animal into her environment, particularly if she is feeling comfortable and fairly confident. A novel stimulus is likely to invoke a wag from Rayna.

Relaxin' RaynaAs I stated above, we presume a wagging tail to mean the dog is happy to see us. They are outwardly expressing their happiness in that moment. But does that mean the dog is a ‘happy’ dog? Are ‘tail-waggers’ happier dogs? If a dog doesn’t wag its tail as readily, is it less happy? Specifically, is Rayna unhappy if she doesn’t wag her tail as readily someone like Carlie?

More observation and reflection revealed that tail wagging is simply one outward expression of how the dog is feeling at that moment – “I’m SO HAPPY to see you!” There could also be sparkling eyes, a lolling grin, jumping and bouncing around, etc. All are momentary outward expressions of an internal state of being, in this case, happiness.

One trainer suggested that if I want Rayna to wag her tail more, I need to mark the behavior and reward her for doing it – this will increase the behaviour. Interesting! I can reinforce and increase someone else’s expression of happiness simply by rewarding them in a meaningful (to them) way. I have the power to increase happiness around me by responding and encouraging more of it in others.

This confirms for me that happiness is expansive – we really can make more of it if we intentionally set out to do so. Being happy and expressing it freely has a positive effect on those around you. At some point all of these outward expressions of happiness will shift the internal state of being to match the environment. Who doesn’t feel uplifted and loved with a greeting that says “I’m SO HAPPY to see you!”? And who can resist responding with our own variation of “I’m SO HAPPY to see you too”?

Take a few moments to consider your own life. Are you happy? How do you express it? Do you reinforce happiness in others? How? Do you encourage it in yourself?

Back to Rayna. I feel fairly confident that overall she is a happy dog (which makes me happy too). I have noticed that Rayna demonstrates her happiness in multiple ways (some more endearing than others). Sometimes that includes wagging her tail. Now I just have to get her to do it on cue…

Happiness … pass it on!

submitted by Lucy Martin