The Telltale Tail
I have to admit that I have rarely been able to read other people. Dogs, that’s another matter entirely. Unlike we human beings, what’s in their hearts or brains shows up in their countenance, few filters.
There’s a lot to be learned from watching our canine companions as they run through their gamut of emotions. Curiosity—the ears perk up and sometimes there’s also a tilt of the head. Frustration—digging in their bedding. Excitement usually shows up in jumping, running in tight circles and sometimes even a bark or two.
Love is the most fun to observe. At least it is in my Annie. She shows her love in a combination of behaviors. She gives me that stare with the droopy ears while she has planted herself directly in front of me. If I am seated, she also seeks out my lap. Getting as close as possible seems to be the main objective.
Regardless of what dogs are feeling, in addition to signs in all manner of behaviors, I have found that the best indicator of what my Annie is trying to communicate shows up in her tail. Fortunately I have a breed that has a significant tail, even though I believe hers was slightly docked when she was a pup. I have learned her tail language, which has averted many a mishap.
On most breeds a wagging tail indicates excitement, usually of a good nature. Annie is no exception. But the moment her tail goes down, I watch to see how far it goes. If it is loose and straight down, she is in a “we’ll see” mode. If and when I see her tail curls under her bottom, I am immediately alerted that she is either unhappy or afraid, which is the same thing to her. A scared dog is a scary dog. That’s when I go on alert, and I hop into action to defuse the situation before she does something we will all regret.
It probably sounds tedious, but it actually is relatively routine these days. Having little children living in the house has certainly heightened my vigilance to watching my Annie for what she is experiencing. Lest some of you wonder if I just let her run amuck, endangering herself or others, without behavior modification efforts, au contraire. I continue to work on her using whatever techniques I can glean from a variety of experts.
But I say all this to get to a very basic personal issue. Not to be crude, but it would be way cool if our human interactions were so transparent. There are those among us who are well versed in body language who can educate us on getting a better read on each other, but it still feels more like mysticism than science. And I am not just talking about women and men being able to understand each other, even though that is often the issue more in the forefront. I wonder how many disasters we could avoid walking into if we could better read our fellow human beings.
I remember a scene from a movie that was popular some years back. The man was describing his perception that women of that country actually exhibited behaviors the opposite of what they were saying and feeling. His female acquaintance countered with something like there should be facial expressions corresponding with the specific emotion. The man seemed to find it more intriguing that the women pouted and showed disdain when she was wanting to encourage male advances.
This just illustrates how complex human beings are. We don’t just rely on instinct as our doggy friends do. What we tend to develop is defense mechanisms, as well as picking up on some cultural norms for behavior. I am not unaware that even four-legged creatures can learn from their experiences such that they act more defensively once injured, but even then their body language, and especially their tails, are clearly warning those around them.
The end result—no pun intended—with people, however, is we cannot be sure how to interpret the behavior we observe. I think humans got the short end of the stick when we got the ability to think, only when it comes to personal interactions. I have tried to imagine a world where what people really thought was transparent to all those around them.
What if we couldn’t help ourselves from exhibiting anger and rage, and even love and excitement? I guess that would take people to a whole new level, and I don’t necessarily mean a higher one. I think we would find ourselves in need of some basic behavior modification much as we use on our canine friends.
The hard part is to feel an emotion, and even exhibit signs of it, but have enough self-control to not act on it, if it invades another’s space. I think that is how we operate now. Much of our energy goes into hiding our true feelings from others until we can be sure they share those feelings. This is especially true of the two strongest emotions—love and hate.
Having taught high school for many years, I have been privy to countless conversations between these kids concerning their interactions with their classmates. When they were concerned about someone they did not like, their solution was usually just to stay away from the person. They were more frustrated when circumstances threw them into close contact with the subject of their hatred. Mostly they tried to figure out how to not let the person know how they felt, which has its own set of problems.
When it came to love and dating, there seemed to be a little dance they would do. Regardless of gender, they would ask their friends what they thought about the situation. They would often get a friend to ask the other person if he or she would be open to the advances of the other. Many times the conversations were about big social events in the school community such as proms. My point is that there were rarely any open conversations with the sought-after one, but rather this circuitous, “If I ask her, will she say yes?”
I saw a movie entitled He’s Just Not Into You. I thought the title was pretty funny, but the circumstance is far from it. Since we humans don’t tend to just say what we think or are feeling, we are left to watching signs very much as telling as our canine counterparts. The bottom line is that if a person is avoiding you, he or she is saying there is no interest. If you get close enough to have a verbal exchange, watch for whether the other person volunteers information and asks you questions. If the person only responds, even if nicely so, that is the signal to move on. If you are sending out feelers, pay attention to the reaction.
In a way, it seems sad that we have to do this little dance to understand others. I have thought in a perfect world we should be able to see what the other person is thinking and feeling at any given moment. But on the other hand, how invasive would that be? How hurtful could that potentially be? We can, however, send and receive signals, and perhaps do a better job of interpreting them.
We are driven by more than the instinct animals also possess, but our goal is the same. We want to be appreciated. We want to be respected. We want to be accepted. And that causes my Annie to wag her tail.
(originally penned in 2015)
If you liked this … you’ll love “Phoenix!”
Deep thoughts & Beautiful art.