Russell’s dog Betty is a pretty smart dog, by dog standards. She knows the basic commands, like “sit” and “hang on!” — the latter of which inevitably is used when she is trying to charge down the outside steps as we are heading out for a walk while I am trying to lock the front door. And she clearly recognizes her name and words like “walk,” because the mere mention of the “w” word causes her to start leaping around with a pure, energetic ecstasy rarely seen in canine or human.
And Betty is a friendly, sensitive dog, too. She’s a jumper who likes to greet her human friends with a set of front paws to the midsection, and she’s an inveterate tail-wagger, too. Her full-fledged tail wag is impressive — the kind that can sweep glasses, magazines, and other bric-a-brac off the coffee table and send Betty’s hindquarters twitching back and forth like she’s being manipulated by some uncontrollable invisible force.
But sometimes the brainy part of Betty and the wagging part of Betty get mixed signals. Typically this happens when a human being is directing some kind of communication to Betty that is of uncertain meaning. The statement might be something along the lines of: “Betty, the weather app on my phone says it’s very cold out today, so I’ll need to bundle up.” Betty hears her name, and sees that the human is looking at her and apparently directing human speech at her, which I suspect she finds immensely flattering, but exactly what is being communicated is a bit of a mystery. And, because Betty is by nature a polite dog, she wants to acknowledge the statement through some kind of response — but what is the right response?
Betty deals with this personal quandary by giving a quizzical look accompanied by what might be described as a tentative wag of her tail. It’s not the all-out wag, to be sure. It’s hedging, and usually consists of only one twitch, or perhaps two, of the tail. The combination of look and wag says: “I hear you, and know you are talking to me about something, but I’m not quite sure just yet so I’m reserving my full judgment and all-in reaction until more evidence is presented.”
I admit, I get a kick out of the tentative wag response. In fact, sometimes I’ll talk to Betty just to get the uncertain wag. It’s one of the things that makes it fun to have a dog around the house.