A dog’s tail as emotional barometer

John Kelly
Columnist April 29, 2012

There are more than 300 bones in a dog’s body, but the most important ones are the dozen or so that are an extension of the spinal column. I speak of the tail.

The tail is a dog’s semaphore flag, its furry emoticon. It is a canine barometer. The tail may not tell you exactly what your dog is thinking, but it can give you a pretty good idea.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Every morning when I walk down the stairs from my bedroom, Charlie , our Labrador retriever, is waiting, his tail whipping back and forth in a black blur. He is happy — elated! — that the sun has risen once again and that the humans didn’t die in their sleep.

He was worried for a while. He heard My Lovely Wife’s alarm go off. He heard her hit the snooze button. He heard the alarm go off again. He heard two sets of feet pad across the floor, heard us grumble about the aches and pains that infiltrated our bodies as we slept. He heard us brush our teeth.

Charlie cannot believe we wasted valuable time brushing our teeth. What is dental health, he muses, when weighed against a dog’s empty stomach?


Charlie, our black Lab, greets us at the bottom of the stairs each morning, eager for breakfast. (John Kelly/WASHINGTON POST)

And then Charlie hears our door open, and he sees me atop the landing. His front feet are on the bottom step — at 11 years old, with a grizzled muzzle and aches of his own, he sees no need to climb the stairs — and his tail is wagging. It is an expectant, hopeful wag.

After breakfast, My Lovely Wife and I sit reading the newspaper at the dining room table. Charlie is sprawled on the floor. He can sprawl in various ways — left side, right side, stomach — but in each his tail is extended, ready for action at a moment’s notice. I think of it as a percussion instrument.

“Charlie,” I say.

There is a single whomp of his tail against the wooden floor.

Char-lie,” I say in a singsong voice.

Whomp, whomp.

By modulating my voice I can manifest in Charlie’s tail various movements. The trick is to get him to whomp his tail without making him rise up off the floor and come over to investigate.

My Lovely Wife does not like this game. She especially does not like it on mornings when it’s her turn to walk Charlie.

“You’re getting him all worked up,” she says. “I haven’t finished my coffee.”

After eating, going on a walk is Charlie’s favorite activity. (Charlie’s Top 5 Favorite Activities, in descending order: eating; going for a walk; sniffing; peeing; sniffing then peeing.)

Charlie digests his breakfast for a while then starts getting anxious. He watches us for signs that a walk may be imminent. In fact, we’ve stopped using the word “walk” entirely, since it’s one of a handful of English terms he’s come to understand.

“Is it time for his perambulation?” we’ll say. Or, “Whose turn is it to do the D?”

Today it’s my turn, and the sound of Velcro makes him snap to attention. I usually wear a brace on my wonky ankle when walking him and he associates that characteristic rrriip with the splendor of the great outdoors. A walk! We’re going on a walk!

The prospect of a walk — nay, the certainty — engenders Charlie’s greatest tail wag. It is practically a full-body wag. His hindquarters swivel back and forth as if he’s hinged in the middle. He does himself no favors with his excitement, his wag propelling his 70 pounds into me as I’m trying to put on my shoes, find his leash, gather doggy treats and poop bags. Give me space, Charlie, give me space.

I’m working at home, so I see how he spends his day. He usually wants to be near me, but one temptation is too great: When a parallelogram of sunlight moves across the floor of the study, he basks in it.

Before long, it’s time for an afternoon walk, then dinner, then bed. Charlie has spent most of the day sprawled: a puddle of black fur, as if he’s poured himself onto the floor. But his sleep is preceded by a careful trampling of his bed. He goes around and around in circles and then corkscrews himself down. He’s coiled himself as tightly as he can, like a mainspring in a watch, a poster in a mailing tube.

Where’s his tail? It’s stowed against his body. Come the morning it will be deployed again, wagging back and forth, beating ceaselessly against the current.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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