Or, take tails. Dog tails come in a spectrum of shapes and sizes. Are they important for dog-dog communication? Humans certainly take note of tails; when asked to assess dog behavior, we pay an inordinate amount of attention to the tail (possibly because we do not have one). Does a Labrador look at a Corgi and think, “Umm, excuse me, sir. I’m having a hard time understanding you. I believe you’ve misplaced your rear-end thing.” For another species commonly found lounging around our homes, tails are highly relevant. While a graduate student studying with noted ethologist John Bradshaw, Charlotte Cameron-Beaumont found that cats more readily approached, and approached in a friendly manner, a cardboard cat silhouette whose tail was in the “tail-up” position as opposed to those cat silhouettes with their tails down. Tails play an important role in cat-cat greetings (good luck, Manx).
When the dog researchers explored how dogs respond to other dogs’ tails, they pulled out the big guns: a model robot dog resembling a Labrador Retriever. Apart from its tail, the “dog” was motionless. The researchers found that when the robot dog had a long wagging tail, it was approached more than when it had a long still tail, which as you probably assumed, suggests that the tail conveys emotional state, and that wagging is more inviting than not wagging. When it came to short tails, the story changed. There was no difference between how the robot dog with a short/still and a short/wagging tail was approached. It appears that the longer tails were most effective at conveying emotional information, and since short tails are hard to read, they might not be read at all.
For Herman, the implications are obvious. “When you dock tails, it takes away part of their communication signal. It’s the dog version of Botox. Ear cropping falls in the same category. Dobermans with cropped ears ostensibly look alert to other dogs. They can’t be read [accurately] because they can’t change.” It’s difficult to derive cues and information from cropped ears. If anything, their constantly alert position could mislead other dogs.
E’Lise Christensen, DVM and boardcertified veterinary behaviorist in New York City, agrees. “I think cosmetic alteration could affect communication with other dogs. It certainly [has an impact on] assessments by owners, because they forget to look at the stump of the tail for movement and tension. Ears that are too cropped mean owners have to look for muscular movement at the skull level rather than the pinna, the outer part of the ear, where we customarily look. Flat faces make it more difficult to read small muscular movements.”
Herman suggests that taking note of a dog’s morphology can give owners a better appreciation for their dog. “It’s hard for other dogs to see that a Chow is really stiff, simply because he is [engulfed] in a ball of hair. It can be helpful for pet dog owners to recognize that what dogs have or do not have at their disposal could add confusion to dog-dog communication. This appreciation could help owners empathize with their dog, instead of blaming their dog or feeling angry for the dog’s behavior.”
Hibbard reminds us that the issue at hand can be twofold. “If you can’t see the ears, that’s one problem. But if you can see the ears but the dog uses them wrong, that’s another problem.”
It’s All About Us
No dog story is complete without the human element. Could morphology play a role in the way dogs and humans interact? Dogs excel at being in sync with us, whether on the agility course or when they’re trying to figure out if we’re going into the bathroom versus the kitchen (a.k.a. Mecca). But sometimes, dogs are out of sync, which gives rise to television programs like Animal Planet’s Bad Dog.