A few years ago, dog trainers and behaviorists renewed their love affair with tail-wagging, constantly checking to see whether dogs were wagging their tails higher to the right or to the left. Our awkward attempts at positioning ourselves to observe this behavior were surely entertaining to others. Why were we so eager for the information conveyed by these asymmetrical tail wags? Because they indicate dogs’ differential use of the left and right hemispheres of their brains and are, therefore, a window into their emotions.
The study of asymmetrical tail wagging that prompted our collective interest (Quaranta et al. 2007) found that differences depended on what inspired the wags in the first place. Dogs wagged higher to the right when greeting their guardians. The same right-side bias was seen in response to unfamiliar people, although the wags were lower overall. In response to cats, there was little wagging, but it was still higher to the right. In the tests, the only stimulus to which dogs’ wags had a left-side bias was an unfamiliar, confident dog.
Left or Right?
Asymmetrical tail wags reflect the way the two sides of the brain process information and affect the body. The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body and the left hemisphere controls the right side. When dogs wag their tails to the right, they are engaging the muscles on the right side of their body more actively than those on their left; this demonstrates greater involvement of the left hemisphere of the brain.
The left hemisphere is activated when the brain is processing positive experiences associated with emotions such as happiness, affection and excitement, as well as anything familiar. The right hemisphere takes precedence when processing sadness, fear, other negative emotions and novel things.
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This link between emotions and sides of the brain came to light in studies of humans. Ahern and Schwartz (1979) found that people who were asked questions that elicited either positive or negative emotions responded in accordance with this principle. They looked to their right (showing left brain hemisphere involvement) in response to questions that elicited positive emotions, but looked to their left (showing right brain hemisphere involvement) in response to questions that evoked negative emotions.
Individuals—canine or human—who favor the left paw or hand more often use the right hemisphere of their brain, while right-pawed and right-handed individuals have a more active left-brain hemisphere. Studies have shown differences between right-pawed and left-pawed dogs. They have also revealed that dogs who are ambilateral—who don’t have a paw preference—are different in predictable ways from dogs who strongly prefer one paw over the other.
Lateralization research, an active area of study, informs our understanding of emotions and behavior. Though dogs and people are common study subjects, similar patterns have been found in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and primates and other mammals.
We now know that the significance of brain lateralization, handedness and paw preference extends far beyond matters of scissors and can-openers (people) and learning to shake (dogs). There are strong links between paw preference, the strength of that preference, and the behavior and emotional life of dogs.
Determining Paw Preference
In humans, we identify hand preference based on which hand a person uses to eat, write and so forth or by seeing who keeps their arms tucked in tight when eating at a small round table. (It’s the lefties, because they are used to colliding with the righties next to them if they don’t act to prevent it.) In dogs, most determinations are based on the “Kong test,” in which dogs are observed extracting food from a Kong. Every time the dog uses a paw to stabilize the Kong, the observer records which paw was used. If the dog uses both paws simultaneously, that is also recorded. From these data, researchers determine a dog’s paw preference as well as the strength of that preference. There are approximately equal numbers of left-pawed, right-pawed and ambilateral dogs, which is different than the preponderance of righties in humans.
Our dogs’ paw preferences provide insight beyond knowing which paw is used to steady a Kong. Batt et al. (2009) reported that being right-pawed was associated with lower arousal and calmer responses to novel stimuli and strangers. Schneider et al. (2013) found that dogs who were left-pawed exhibited more stranger-directed aggression than dogs who were either right-pawed or ambilateral. Many potential guide dogs fail their training—usually for behavioral reasons—and Tomkins et al. (2012) documented higher success rates of right-pawed than left-pawed dogs in training programs.
Strength of Lateralization
In addition to the effects of paw preference on emotions and behavior, the strength of those preferences also has an effect. Branson and Rogers (2006) demonstrated that dogs without a paw preference were more reactive to loud noises than dogs with a paw preference.
Batt et al. (2009) showed that dogs with stronger paw preferences were bolder and less cautious than dogs with weaker paw preferences. They were more confident, less prone to arousal and anxiety, quicker to relax or become playful in new environments, and exhibited calmer responses to novel stimuli and strangers. It turns out that we humans are similar to our best friends in this regard: People with weak hand preferences are more likely to suffer high anxiety levels and are more susceptible to both PTSD and psychosis than those with a strong handedness.
Just as being right-pawed predicted guide-dog training success, dogs with a strong lateralization (either left or right) and a low rate of using both paws in the Kong test fared better in these programs (Batt et al. 2008). The authors hypothesize that this may be because strongly lateralized and right-pawed dogs are less likely to experience high reactivity and distress responses, which are detrimental to success as a guide dog.
In studies of sensory processes and lateralization (Siniscalchi et al. 2008, 2010), dogs were simultaneously presented with identical stimuli on both their left and right sides while eating from a bowl. The direction in which they turned their heads indicated which side of the brain was involved in processing and responding to the stimulus, revealing the dogs’ emotional reaction to it. Dogs consistently turned to the right (involving the emotionally positive left-brain hemisphere) in response to the social cues of canine isolation or disturbance calls and canine play vocalizations, but tended to turn left (showing the activation of the emotionally negative right-brain hemisphere) when they heard thunder.
Dogs also turned left in response to images of cats and snakes but not to images of dogs. With repeated presentations, there was a change toward right-turning behavior, indicating that the left side of the brain and its associated positive emotions were involved. This suggests that novelty may be a factor in fear and other intense negative emotions that tend to be processed by the right side of the brain.
To understand the role of lateralization in processing olfactory stimuli, it is essential to know that each side of the brain processes the information received on the same side: the right nostril goes to the right hemisphere, the left nostril goes to the left hemisphere. Dogs started to sniff novel but non-aversive stimuli (food, lemon, dog secretions) with their right nostril and then shifted with repetition to using their left nostril, showing a change from negative to positive emotions. When presented with adrenaline and sweat from their vets (really!), dogs demonstrated a consistent bias toward the right nostril, suggesting that their emotions started, and remained, negative in response to these odors (Siniscalchi et al. 2011).
Our understanding of lateralization has potential to improve our dogs’ quality of life, our relationships with them and even our success in training them. We may be able to reduce stress by approaching dogs from their right side in exams, during greetings or in any stressful situations. We can quickly see how dogs react emotionally to a variety of stimuli by attending to which way they turn, and we can observe the asymmetry in their tail wags to ascertain their emotional state. It’s possible that we can even minimize the development of noise phobias by placing dogs whose lateralization suggests vulnerability in quieter homes. We can minimize the substantial investment of time and money spent on training guide dogs by training only those dogs who have the greatest chance of completing the program.
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Love and understanding compound one another with our dogs, and lateralization is a case in point. A dear dog friend of mine is strongly right-pawed; it was pitiful to watch him attempt to learn to give a left high-five, or use his left paw to hold his Kong when he briefly had a bandage on his right paw. I used to find how hard it was for him to do anything with his left paw somewhat comical. Now I understand that this trait is part of the package that makes him the unflappable, happy, don’t-care-about-the-power-tools-running-all-day-during-the-kitchen-remodel, playful and exploratory, nothing-fazes-him kind of dog I love so much. I’m honored and overjoyed that when he greets me, his tail wags are as one-sided to the right as the rest of him.