Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Tale of the Tail

by Joanna Campbell Slan

Every morning when I come downstairs to the kitchen, the welcome party begins. Rafferty and Vicky greet me at the foot of the stairs and wriggle their bodies with joy. Since Raffi only has three legs, sometimes he falls over with the urgency of his effort. Our recently refinished wooden floor is slick; his singular back leg loses purchase. But when that happens, he pops right back up again and continues the love fest.

I plop down on the bottom stair to pet them. Our purebred Bichon Frise Vicky has a dense coat, a fancy pedigree, and a beautiful confirmation. She is perfectly formed. Rafferty is bigger, and his heritage is mixed. When the Humane Society rescued him, they discovered matted fur cut off the circulation to his right rear leg. The Small Paws volunteer who gave him a foster home had to have Raffi's hind leg amputated four months before we adopted him.

Often people don’t notice he’s missing a leg. In fact, last fall we took the dogs to my son’s soccer games, and a little girl on the sidelines pulled her finger out of her mouth long enough to say to my husband, “He’s only got three legs.”

David feigned surprise. He bent down to examine Raffi’s undercarriage. He looked back up at the child and said, “Wow! He had four when we left the house.”

When the groomer added “THREE LEGS” to poor Rafferty’s intake card, I couldn’t help but ask, “Is that so you can identify him or so no one back there thinks she lopped one off by mistake?” (I mean, really. Hello? Can we talk? I don’t write invasive personal notes about them in my checkbook. Geez.)

Reduced to three support struts, Raffi uses his tail to help him balance. As he climbs the long flight of stairs to our bedroom, it rotates like a propeller. Vicky shows a lot more restrain with her tail use. She wags but selectively. She’s exuberant in the morning, ecstatic if going for a ride, and otherwise restrained unless she wants something from her “daddy” David. She is, after all, a princess. She is the daughter of an English champion, and buddy, she knows it.

Last week (April 24, 2007) The New York Times reported a study of “asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli.” The original research appeared in the March 20 issue of Current Biology. The authors are Giorgio Vallortigara, a neuroscientist at the University of Trieste in Italy, and two veterinarians, Angelo Quaranta and Marcello Siniscalchi, at the Univerisity of Bari, also in Italy. According to the reporter, Sandra Blakeslee, “When dogs feel fundamentally positive about something or someone, their tails wag more to the right side of their rumps. When they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biased to the left.”

On the other hand, maybe the dogs have an Italian accent?

(Okay, just kidding. I followed up with my own highly unscientific research. The cooperative subject, Rafferty, is displayed above!)

PS Linda will be back on Thursdays next week. I'm just filling in.

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