San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The tail of the dog

“If you want a friend in Washington, get yourself a dog.” Few quotes pack so much emotion into a dozen words. But why a dog, and not a cat or a canary? Why, because a dog is the ultimate symbol of selfless, unquestioning devotion. What more heartwarming sight than the furiously wagging tail when we return home after a bruising day?

So how did this come about? All vertebrates have a tail, even us, though we discarded most of it when we came down from the trees; but few are tail waggers. Then virtually all carnivores have rectal scent glands by which to mark territory or establish identity, but we have no way to detect it, excepting only the skunk, whom we don’t find attractive. It seems that only the wolf, from whom the dog is descended, was smart enough to find out that the glands could be stimulated and the scent more widely distributed by vigorous tail wagging to demonstrate solidarity, goodwill and a sincere desire to be accepted in the pack.

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

We humans developed other means of social ingratiation, including exhaled pheromones, the handshake and the “glad to see you” mantra, and the occasional shower, and we remain unresponsive to the dog’s chemical signal. However, in the process of domestication, we came to interpret the tail wagging as a sign of pleasure in our company, while at the same time the dog learned that it got him a reliable food supply, and wagged all the harder. Conversely, when reprimanded, the dog tucks his tail between his legs to shut off the scent glands and confirm a breakdown of the bonding process. Curiously, the “hangdog” look actually excites our compassion and often leads to an immediate restoration of the bond; certainly we could never believe the dog capable of deceitfully calculating this outcome.

So in the end what we truly like about the dog is his willingness to take the first step in establishing a relationship. We can never be sure that the spider, the snake or the hungry tiger are willing to be friends, because they keep their thoughts to themselves when we meet; so purely for self-protection we assume the worst and strike before we are stricken. But even the guard dog, trained to assault strangers, gives notice of his intentions by barking up a storm.

A few TV advertisers have figured out that the sight of an enthusiastic tail wagger does more to melt down our normally defensive approach to the sales pitch than the conventionally curvaceous model and is, you might say, sex-neutral. Thus we may expect a substantial expansion of the technique as others take up the challenge, and shapely young ladies looking forward to a modeling career will have to find an alternative occupation. I regret this development, as I would as soon look at a pretty ankle as a vibrating tail, but in deference to my wife I would die rather than admit it. But then I don’t have the strength of character of even your meanest mutt.

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