As a dedicated dog photographer with years of experience, the safety and comfort of my models and owners are the highest priority and show me that are key to the best results of a photo session. Working with dogs I’ve learned to recognize and respect the subtle signs of their feelings, which often go unnoticed.
One such experience unfolded during a photo session where the dog I was taking pictures of showed signs of discomfort. Signs that I would have never noticed with less knowledge and years of dog photography. This observation led me to a fascinating realization about canine behavior.
We all know that humans have a dominance of the left hemisphere of the brain (in most people) if we are right-handed, then 90% of the left hemisphere is primarily responsible for our language skills, including understanding speech, speech production, reading, and writing. For lefties, it’s still 70% of the left part of the brain for those aspects of human communication.
The cerebral duality, however, is not unique to humans. The canine brain, though different in size and some functional aspects, also exhibits a hemispheric division.
Talk to the tail – ‘cause the hand ain’t listening!
Despite a whole bucket of TikTok’s and Reels which want to make us believe, some dogs can talk – they just can’t. But that doesn’t mean they can’t communicate. On the contrary: their vocabulary is even quite extensive.
And here comes the interesting part. Not only does the tail play a decisive role in a dog’s communication – but as does the human brain, the dog brain also observes the so-called concept of lateralization: Different sides of the brain are on average more or less responsible for certain aspects of a dog’s neurological processes.
Latest research suggests that certain cognitive and motor processes are predominantly controlled by a certain side of the brain and differences in how the left and right hemispheres process stimuli like sights, sounds, and smells.
Tails of joy: Waging sadness, wagging happiness!
What’s different though in dogs is how the brain converts all the electrical nerve signals of the hemispheres into something, which can be registered by other consciousnesses, meaning, by other dogs or us humans.
While we primarily speak, a dog’s toolset of communication instruments is way more diverse and even more subtle. And the tail does play a decisive role.
What is tail wagging?
Tail wagging in dogs is much more than just a sign of happiness. It is a complex form of communication. Your dog can express a range of emotions and intentions through various tail movements. However, in this blog post, I am focused on the meaning of the direction of the tail wagging.
A groundbreaking study by the Italian neuroscientist Dr. Giorgio Vallortigara and his team (published in “Current Biology) sheds light on this- and revealed something fascinating: the direction of a dog’s tail wagging can indicate its emotional state. Wagging more to the right is usually associated with positive feelings, while a left-biased wag suggests negative emotions.
So, is there any connection between the brain and the direction dogs wag their tail?
The study investigated the reaction of dogs to various stimuli (owner, unfamiliar human, cat encounter, and approaching of an unfamiliar dominant dog) and how these influenced the direction of their tail wagging. This study played a significant role in understanding the connection between the tail-wagging predominant direction, correlating brain hemisphere activation, and emotional response in dogs.
When a dog feels positive emotions like happiness or excitement, the left hemisphere of the brain, associated with positive responses becomes usually more active. This activation causes the dog to wag its tail rather more to the right side.
In contrast, when a dog experiences negative emotions such as anxiety, fear, or aggression, the right hemisphere of the brain, which is linked to negative emotions, becomes usually more active. This results in a left-biased tail wag.
As professional dog photographers, we should all have at first the safety and comfort of our models in mind. A deep understanding of the way dogs communicate, especially in – from the dog’s perspective – unusual and unfamiliar photography sessions, significantly benefits daily interaction with our models and enhances a dog photographer’s work.
It can offer insights into their emotions and help us lead to more effective and empathic interactions.
We can interpret their comfort level and avoid any aggressive encounters, giving them some space to get comfortable.
We can quickly adapt our approach, avoiding distress situations by reading these subtle cues.
It is not only about technical knowledge that we need to bring with us as skills; it is about creating a connection with the model, ensuring their comfort, and capturing the essence of their positive emotions. All of these contribute to getting the best results and stories from our session and making it an existing yet positive experience – for our furry loved ones.
P.S. I have not forgotten all the breeds I am working with, which have short or no tails. Dogs communicate through a variety of other body language signals and behaviors such as ear position, facial expressions, body posture, and vocalization. It’s important to become familiar with the full range of their body language and vocal cues to understand their emotions and needs effectively. And, of course, assessing all those signals in the correct context.
Vallortigara, G. & Versace, E(2013). “Current Biology Vol 17”