Telling Tails of Aggression

March 24, 2008 at 9:48 pm 9 comments

This week’s Misguided Science Award goes to researchers at the University of Victoria who used a robotic dog to study how long versus short or docked tails affect canine behavior. 

The study concluded that dogs approach a dog with a docked tail more cautiously than they do a dog with a ‘complete’ tail.  According to one researcher, this could make a dog with a docked tail more aggressive. 

Their findings were based on a series of observations regarding how dogs at a dog park approached the robotic dog when it was fitted with a long or short tail.  The robotic tail wagged on some trials and stood up stiff in others. 


First, I am absolutely flabbergasted that anyone would consider that dogs’ reactions to an obviously fake, robotic dog represent valid data on dog-dog behavior.  I am certain that even the most sheltered, apartment-dwelling city dogs innately understand the difference between real and robotic dogs.  And in most cases they’re not going to react the same way to a robotic dog that they will to a real one. 

Second, it does not appear that the group conducted an initial study of how dogs with long and short tails (remember, not all short tails are artificially docked) wag them in different situations.

I’ve spent a lot of time watching dogs interact with each other.  In my experience, short-tailed dogs don’t just wag their stubby little tails when they’re happy and excited.  They typically wiggle the whole rear half of their bodies. 

Tail-wagging doesn’t always indicate happiness or friendliness.  Generally speaking, it indicates arousal.  The soft, slow wag of a lowered tail can indicate calm interest.  The rapid, loose wagging of a tail held at mid level (combined with a butt wiggle in a short-tailed dog) may indicate excited, friendly anticipation.  Rapid, stiff, wagging of an erect tail generally indicates intent arousal – and may precede an aggressive response. 

So, when robo-dog wagged what was very likely a short, stiff, erect, electronic tail he may have been communicating a weird, artificial kind of aggressive intent.  I don’t find it the least bit strange that dogs avoided robo-dog or behaved in an antisocial manner toward him if that was the situation. 

When robo-dog wagged a long tail at mid-height (especially if that long tail was constructed in a way that allowed it to flex as it wagged) he communicated an odd but friendly demeanor.  I would expect confident, social dogs to approach a ‘thing’ that behaved that way to investigate it.

In neither case do I believe that the dogs studied mistook robo-dog for a real dog.

As you can probably guess based on what I’ve written here, I don’t for a minute believe that having a short or docked tail predisposes a dog toward behaving aggressively toward other dogs. 

I have a different theory.  Check out the video below for frightening footage of a short-tailed dog demonstrating some extremely aggressive behavior:

Did docking his tail make this Airedale wire-haired fox terrier violently aggressive – or was it an owner who forced the poor beast to listen to death metal music that sent him over the edge?

Studies have indicated that listening to classical music, panpipes and whale songs may have a calming effect on dogs.  Is it then a stretch to suggest that exposure to gangsta rap, death metal and the music of Richard Wagner could turn them to violence?

Are the vicious pibbles and rockwilders we hear so much about in the media innately hostile beasts – or have they been ruined because their owners exposed them to too much teevee violence and musical mayhem?

It’s food for thought…. 

Entry filed under: behavior science, cynicism, dog, dogs, pit bull, pit bulls, pitbull, pitbulls. Tags: , , .

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Caveat  |  March 24, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    I’ve wondered about the docked tail thing for awhile but not in the terms described above.

    I’ve thought more about how it can put a dog at a disadvantage when trying to communicate. Same with cropped ears – the ears indicate a lot about how a dog is feeling.

    I considered that very short tails, such as on Dobes, Boxers, Rotts, etc, may deliberately mask intent – so that an intruder really has no way of knowing whether the dog is friendly or not. Of course, it also leaves less to grab in a fight.

    Interesting post. I have a feeling my dogs can tell a robot from a real, living thing. Maybe the researchers can’t, so they figured it would fool them.

    Sounds like a pointless study.

  • 2. EmilyS  |  March 25, 2008 at 12:34 am

    well, this study may very well be stooopid, but I can tell from my own dogs that they don’t immediately understand that a stuffed, or statue, dog isn’t a dog. General shape and appearance do attract my dogs, and they always want to go up and sniff (the butts) of these odd creatures that don’t smell right. My puppy was very upset once that a stuffed dog didn’t want to play with him, despite his repeated playbows and barks.

  • 3. ruthellen  |  March 25, 2008 at 2:24 am

    In the video – its a wire fox terrier — not an Airedale. 🙂

  • 4. A.D.A.  |  March 25, 2008 at 10:02 am

    A dog’s hearing is super sensitive and that video was sheer CRUELTY exposing the Wire-haired Fox Terrier to that noise. The decibel levels would be considered detrimental to human hearing let alone a dog’s with far more sensitive and extensive frequency levels. The dog was on a leash preventing getaway and the only mechanism it had to stop the sound was to attack. That was not responsible ownership of a dog.

    Regarding docked tails, what is frequently overlooked is that on a dog/wolf/fox’s tail are supra-caudal glands about one third of the way down from the base. These “scent” glands emit secretions and it is believed that they are part of the tail wagging communication system. On examination of a dog’s tail the hair is coarser and often thinner in the area of the scent glands. When docking takes place it is often just above this level thus depriving a dog of this likely communication aid.

  • 5. ramin  |  March 25, 2008 at 11:47 am

    Hmm… If heavy metal etc. should have an effect on canine aggression, then our four retrievers should be terrors of the neighborhood by now.

    The last three evenings (or nights for most people 😉 have been spent watching heavy metal concerts on TV with four retrievers sleeping peacefully in front of the TV. In fact, they sometimes choose to sleep in front of the subwoofer.

    As a heavy metal fan I really find it hard to believe that a type of music alone could have an effect on behavior. Certainly there are situations in which different music triggers different emotional responses (in humans and possibly in dogs), but the type of music can’t be the cause alone. Or maybe I should start attributing inane-pop music as the reason for aggression? 😉

    In fact I have a hard time believing that music alone would trigger a very strong response in a dog since only one sense is in play and the signals received probably aren’t very clear.

  • 6. Caveat  |  March 25, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    I suspect the Wire Fox has been encouraged to perform this ‘trick’ and the music was overlaid for the video.

    I used to like loud rock music (Stones, Hendrix, and blues and my old Rott would just sleep in the same room. It would depend on the individual, I guess and what you call music :>)

  • 7. jan  |  March 25, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    I agree that this is a totally flawed “study.” Just the sort of thing the media and misguided animal rights types love to run with. Our Old English Sheepdog wagged her whole rear end and my Poodles with docked tails express themselves very well. And all of them knew the difference between a real dog and a robotic one.

  • […] the ways an artist proposed to use technology to improve the lives of dogs and another about how researchers used a robotic dog to try to study how docked tails might affect dog-dog interactions.  I still don’t agree that […]

  • 9. Jessica  |  September 28, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    I know my dogs love to dance to techno music . . .

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