Dog tails and coyote tales
Dixie and I have been taking advantage of the welcome break in the rain this month, getting out in both the early morning and the evening for long, slow neighborhood walks. We are looking forward to spring. Winter has brought many consecutive days of rain, including continuous heavy rain, which is unusual here in Portland, Oregon.
We are used to occasional heavy rainstorms with strong winds, particularly on the east side of town where the Columbia River Gorge winds blow, and it is common to have a few consecutive days with considerable rainfall throughout the various climate zones here. The norm is a series of intermittent showers throughout the day, not continuous rain, and certainly not day after day for weeks.
The month of January this year broke rainfall records. It was the rainiest January Portland had seen since 2006, triggering landslides and floods. We had rainfall on all but one day in January. When the month closed out, we had the highest rain totals since March of 2017, a total of 7.39 inches.
Typically, November and December are pretty wet, with January through March not far behind, but this winter has been unusual. A sudden burst of record-breaking rainfall one day in early February closed part of Interstate 84 and flooded the forest along the Salmon River, overflowing the wetlands in the Wildwood Recreation Area, 32 miles east of Portland. Water rushed through the wetlands like river rapids, just a few inches below the boardwalk. I had never seen anything like it.
Without good rain gear from head to toe, a walk in the rain can be miserable: everything gets wet; clothing sticks to your skin; mud sticks to your shoes; hair sticks to your face; your hands get cold; your face gets cold; you can’t see with rain coming at your face; bouncy rain and puddles obscure pavement contours and rocks on dirt trails and nature paths; your feet get wet and cold; wind and rain create low visibility; and you hurry along to get out of the rain and into shelter.
With good rain gear, properly fitted from head to toe, a walk in the rain can be magical: everything is peaceful because no one else is around; few walkers and dogs are out and about; you become aware of each rain drop and the sound of them all; you notice changes that rain causes on the path; cascading water run-offs look and sound amazing; large puddles create beautiful reflecting pools; raindrops on puddles form concentric circles of little waves expanding outward; water droplets glisten like diamonds on branches and twigs of trees and shrubs; wet surfaces bring out fascinating colors and contours of rocks; water and light bring out a variety of greens from emerald pine to fluorescent moss; occasional sunshine peeking through trees and clouds creates rainbows and misty magic; and everything smells so good. Slowing your pace to ensure you don’t slip and fall makes you more mindful of the beauty and wonder around you.
Dixie and I have good rain gear. I love a walk in the rain, and Dixie has grown to enjoy it also. Although walking in pouring rain is not her idea of fun, she does not mind getting damp and she wears her rain jacket without complaint. But enough is enough, and we have had enough this season.
Early this past Thursday morning, at about 5:30 a.m., Dixie and I seized the opportunity for a rain-free walk. It gifted us with a new coyote encounter on Glenwood Drive, outside our home in Glenwood Place. We had never seen a coyote so close to our front door.
It was before sunrise, cool and quiet, with streetlights creating a mellow mood to greet the day. We were coming back from our slow, meandering walk in the neighborhood and saw Coyote ambling up the drive to our home. Looking relaxed in the place, Coyote was perhaps hunting for food or just passing through, happy to be out and about. She appeared to feel right at home and not to mind being seen.
Dixie and I stopped and watched her. When she reached our building, Coyote stopped, turned her head to the right, and looked up toward our front porch and door. She then shifted her gaze to our east-facing bedroom window, calmly surveying the territory, seemingly unaware of us on the other side of the drive.
After a few seconds, she turned and stared at us with an easy, affable expression. Beautiful in her long, thick, brown and silver winter coat and bushy tail, she wore a crescent of black and white hairs like a shawl draped across her silver-toned back, below her shoulders. Blinking at us, indicating that she neither perceived a threat nor presented a threat, she turned her gaze forward and trotted sprightly along up the drive.
Almost two weeks ago, on a hike along the Salmon River, Dixie and I encountered a magnificent coyote when we came around a bend on the forest trail. Standing about ten yards in front of us, she looked at us as if to say, “Hello, I’ve been expecting you.”
Perhaps she had heard us, caught our scent, and stepped out of the trees to greet us, or perhaps she had been walking the trail with us. I considered backing away a few yards, with a plan to turn and walk back around the bend, stop, turn around and stare, walk on, turn around and stare again, and so on, pulling Dixie away with me or picking her up if necessary. After all, we were the intruders in coyote territory, and it was highly unusual to be so close to one. Assessing the situation, I decided to stop walking, stay still, and observe.
What a spectacular creature this Salmon River coyote was. Like the Glenwood Place coyote at home on Thursday, she was wearing her signature lush winter coat, with a striking red in her exquisite coloring. Assuming a regal stance, she stared at us attentively, with perhaps a hint of concern, but she remained calm and so did we. She didn’t scratch dirt, mock charge, bark, growl, or yip, as coyotes sometimes do around intruders. Nor did she exhibit any signs of wanting to withdraw or flee. I had my iPhone out, so I took a quick photo.
With Dixie by my side, being quiet and still, I again considered how to leave the area without making Coyote uncomfortable. I remained cautiously at ease, maintaining eye contact with her for several seconds, feeling awe and great fortune to have this encounter. Coyote suddenly broke our eye contact, turning aside from Dixie and me. Then just as suddenly, she turned back and looked directly at me as if to say, “Well then, I’ll be going now.”
Without hesitation, I spoke aloud to her, “Thank you. You are beautiful.” Dixie lifted her paw and wagged her tail slightly. Coyote received us warmly, her regal stance relaxed and her face gentle. She trotted down to the river, and we walked on ahead.
When we encounter Coyote on our walks and hikes, it is usually an abrupt stumbling upon each other, like strangers interrupting each other’s relaxed solitude on a trail. My initial response is usually surprised concern. Coyote and I turn toward each other, our heads frozen for a moment, and we have a brief communication to assess each other and our intentions. My primary concern, of course, is always Dixie’s safety. Coyotes are wild animals; it’s important to keep Dixie close to me on her leash in case anyone does something unexpected.
Dixie, however, reacts to Coyote with no real concern that I can detect. She usually stands cautiously still at my feet with her ears alert, her tail relaxed, her mouth calmly closed, and her paw lifted in respectful greeting. She neither withdraws nor approaches. She neither crouches down in fear nor stands on her hind legs, her front paws against my legs, begging to be held. She doesn’t even look up at me. She calmly stares at Coyote with what feels like respect – not fear, aggression, competition, submission, or excitement (I have seen all of those Dixie expressions with other animals). And Coyote generally responds in kind. It’s as though each of them simply allows the other the space and time to be present in the moment.
This past Thursday morning, however, in the time and space of our morning routine at home in Glenwood Place, in our own territory, Dixie expressed herself differently. Contrary to her typically shy self, she was bold! She raised her tail to a medium height – lower than horizontal but some distance from her legs – and wagged it vigorously, moving it slightly more to the right than to the left. With her ears loose, she looked excited and playful. She was happy, the way she is when she sees me or another familiar person and dog friend on our neighborhood walks.
What had changed? What was it about Dixie on this day, in this place, with this coyote? Coyotes are as unique as humans in how they look and behave. I marvel at their variations, especially their facial features. I think one could get to know and recognize individual coyotes by their faces.
Did Dixie know this coyote? Dixie has a pretty solid recall. Did she recognize a friend? Did she hope to make a friend? Although “friend” would not scientifically be the correct term, Dixie clearly felt something special with this wild animal, at least something positive if not familiar.
I could feel Dixie’s excited quivers travel up through the leash into my hand. She could not have been more excited if I had said the word treat. Actually, I doubt even that would have distracted her.
Dixie took a few steps forward, tail wagging, ears alternating between relaxed and loose to erect and slightly forward, and eyes focused on Coyote. Although Dixie did not tug on her leash, I kept a good grip on it. I watched as she blinked her eyes, briefly averted her stare, turned her head slightly to the side, and then looked back at Coyote.
Everything about Dixie indicated positive feelings about this encounter, including happy anticipation. There was nothing ambiguous about her communication. She wanted to approach. My inclination was, as always, to stay put.
Coyote looked at Dixie with the expression one gives a playful youngster: amusement at their uninhibited presence and their lighthearted communication and their desire for attention. I swear Coyote smiled before she gave us a friendly blink and continued trotting up the drive, pausing every few yards to look back at us. We watched as she continued to Sacramento Street and turned left toward the Summerplace community, a distance of approximately 500 feet.
During this surprise encounter, Dixie’s tail movements transformed from a vigorous wagging biased slightly to the right, indicating her excitement; to a broad tail wag that pulled her hips from side to side, indicating her happiness; to a slight tail wag with small symmetrical swings, indicating her friendliness; and finally to a relaxed tail held some distance from her legs, indicating her contentment and satisfaction. When Coyote was out of our sight, Dixie pranced across the drive, bounded up the steps of our entryway, and hurtled herself up the steps to our front door.
Once inside our home, she dashed happily into the living room, grabbed a squeaky toy, and ran circles from the living room to the dining room to the kitchen and back around. So much energy! When she stopped running, she crouched into her play bow position, thumping her tail broadly from side to side, and talked to me, inviting and coaxing me to play with her.
Getting down on all fours with as much spring and bounciness I could muster and then sitting cross-legged on the carpet, I tossed Mr. Owl squeaky toy down the hallway. Dixie raced after it and retrieved it, leaping into my lap to be close to me and to be petted. After several seconds of biting Mr. Owl toy to make it squeak as rapidly as possible, Dixie dropped it and nudged it to me with her nose, like a child rolling a ball. I tossed it again, Dixie raced, retrieved, and leapt into my lap again.
We played this familiar game for several minutes before I needed to complete my morning chores and head out for work. Seeing Dixie go nuts on Mr. Owl squeaky toy and watching her communicate with Coyote were wonderful pleasures.
When it comes to Dixie’s behavior, I have learned to pay attention to her tail movements and ears. She definitely exhibits a side bias with her tail wagging. I watch for slow movement to the left when we encounter an unfamiliar dog or a dog she does not like. A slow wag or tail thump more to the left than to the right generally signals she is about to withdraw or make an aggressive move.
With her body sloped forward, her tail horizontal and wagging slowly to the left, her ears stiffly up or flat against her head, and her hackles raised, she draws her mouth back briefly in a deceptive grin, growls, wrinkles her nose, curls her lips, exposes her teeth, and, if the other dog does not mind her boundaries and back off, she snarls and lunges. I warn people, but some are convinced that their “oh but my dog is friendly” unrestrained dog will make an instant friend out of Dixie. Not likely. Dixie takes her time making friends.
I have talked with Dixie’s veterinarian about her behavior, including her tail movements. Part of my curiosity about her tail relates to history with my beloved Shetland Sheepdog, named Pasu, who died in 2017. As an adult dog, he had to have his tail amputated, leaving a two-inch stub. A week prior to the amputation, he had had surgery to remove a hard, rapidly-growing cyst located high on his tail – a cyst that had increasingly become irritating to him when he would sit down; it had not responded to non-surgical treatment. Because the cyst removal surgery had not been successful in restoring blood flow to the rest of his tail, his tail had to be amputated.
I remember how concerned I was for Pasu afterwards. First and foremost, I was distressed about him being in pain. In addition, I felt so sorry for him that he had to lose his long, beautiful, fluffy tail – a tail that he had exercised frequently with joyful exuberance. I was concerned about his feelings and his ability to communicate the important things he had always communicated with his tail. Worried about Pasu’s welfare and the lifelong impacts of having his tail amputated, I asked his veterinarian about this after the post-surgery bandages were removed.
“I know that dogs communicate with their tails,” I said. “How will this affect Pasu? Will he be okay not having his tail?”
The veterinarian replied, “Pasu will be fine. He’ll adjust. It’s amazing how well dogs adjust – even to losing a limb, let alone their tail.”
“But how will he feel?” I asked, to which the vet responded dispassionately, “If Pasu wants to wag his tail, he’ll wag his tail.”
Feeling somewhat dismissed, I stopped asking questions. But I still wondered what having a two-inch stub of a tail would mean for Pasu as a whole being. Of course I knew that the removal of Pasu’s tail would not affect his remarkable sense of smell and hearing any more than a missing talon would affect an eagle’s acuity of sight. What I didn’t know was if it would be a major impediment to his interactions with other dogs and people. Nor did I know what other capacities and functions besides communication might be dependent upon a dog’s tail and thus impaired by the lack of one.
I also wondered about Pasu’s consciousness of all this. I wanted to understand him and his situation so that I could protect him and comfort him. I explored the matter briefly and then let it go, taking care of him the best I could for the rest of his life. He was a good dog – sweet, playful, loyal, protective, smart, curious, brave, hard-working, communicative, adventurous, loving – and my best friend for 14 years.
When I recovered enough from his loss to love another dog, I found my little Dixie. I adopted her in late July of 2018, a year and five months after Pasu died. Dixie is a rescue who was originally brought to Madera County Animal Shelter in California as a stray. After two weeks of not being able to reunite her with her people, Madera County transferred her to Oregon Humane Society here in Portland. Our no-kill shelter has a partnership with Madera County to help find homes for the high volume of dogs that they cannot place; it’s called the Second Chance Program.
Two weeks after Dixie arrived in Oregon, I adopted her and brought her home. A Miniature Pinscher / Chihuahua mix, she’s an 11-pound, short-hair dog, whose colors remind me of a fawn. Her spirit of adventure, curiosity, and playfulness; her love of togetherness; her affectionate, sensitive, and expressive nature; her sweet acceptance of my joy in dressing her in t-shirts and sweaters; her readiness and excitement for a walk, a hike, or a ride – these characteristics make for a wonderful companion. She’s a brave, trusting little dog. I love her very much.
Motivated to provide Dixie a safe and loving home, I wanted to understand the affects that her having been a stray living hard on the street and a rescue living in an animal shelter might have had on her confidence and security. I wanted to know how I might best support her, so I talked with her veterinarian.
Dr. Daugherty is a kindhearted, easygoing, gentle man, almost 30 years younger than I, who treats both Dixie and me with warmth and caring. Always happy to see us, always generous with his time, always eager to hear of our adventures and see a few photos, always ready to share a fun story of his beloved chihuahua who died a few years ago (a dog Dixie reminds him of), and always willing to answer my questions, Dr. Daugherty is a gem. Another Oregon transplant who grew up in Ohio, he and I share good stories. I trust him.
In seeking advice about how to help Dixie with her sometimes aggressive social behavior and separation anxiety, I described to Dr. Daugherty all I had observed about her behavior, including her tail movements. Interested and eager to help, he introduced me to a few theories that he thought might be helpful in understanding Dixie’s behavior, emotions, and communication, with the caveat, however, that with dog behavior there is no such thing as an ironclad explanation.
Of the theories he shared, those related to Dixie’s tail movements were most fascinating. A dog’s tail is important in the body language of their species. How a dog holds and moves its tail expresses a wide range of both positive and negative emotions, moods, and intentions that are daily significant to the dog’s welfare. Particular movements provide important cues to other dogs and people.
Turns out, dogs commonly exhibit what Dr. Daugherty referred to as a tail wagging “side bias” when confronted with different situations around other dogs and people, familiar and unfamiliar. He explained that when dogs encounter positive situations, like greeting their person, dogs will often wag their tail slightly, or even pronouncedly, towards the right. When dogs encounter negative situations, like being threatened by an unfamiliar or aggressive dog, dogs will often wag their tail slightly, or pronouncedly, towards the left. Dogs also wag their tail more vigorously in positive situations than in negative situations.
This side bias phenomenon can be explained in part by a dog’s brain. Tail wags biased to the right are controlled by the left hemisphere, and tail wags to the left are controlled by the right hemisphere. The left side of the brain controls approach responses, and the right side of the brain controls withdrawal responses. As Dr. Daugherty explained, tail wagging conveys emotionally important information and could be the reason for the noticeable side bias of Dixie’s tail wagging. Through her tail movements, Dixie is giving other dogs, other people, and me cues about how she feels.
Dr. Daugherty also provided interesting information about short tails versus long tails. Dogs communicate with each other through their tail wagging and respond to each other’s various tail wagging cues. Studies show that dogs are more likely to approach dogs with long tails when they exhibit tail wagging behavior. They are less likely to approach dogs with short tails, even if they exhibit the same wagging behavior. This may be because it is easier for them to interpret the social cues expressed by a longer tail compared to a short tail. Furthermore, dogs tend to respond more favorably and less aggressively to long wagging tails. Therefore, dogs with short tails may experience more aggressive attacks than dogs with long tails. That got my attention.
In addition to communication, a dog’s tail has other critical functions: balancing themselves during complicated movements, like making sharp turns when running or navigating uneven surfaces when climbing rocks; stabilizing their spine and supporting their back muscles; providing successful and hygienic defecation; minimizing rectal problems; supporting their pelvis; and covering their nose to keep warm when they are curled up in the cold. Obviously, a dog’s tail is not a dispensable appendage and should not be removed unless medically necessary.
Unfortunately, Pasu’s surgery was medically necessary. Fortunately, there was never any indication from Pasu that his tail stub was a source of nerve pain or other distress. Dogs are expert at masking pain, but Pasu never seemed preoccupied with his tail stub. I never saw him gnaw at it or lick it obsessively, and I did not notice any adversities related to the functions listed in the previous paragraph. He still liked to have his rump rubbed. He still loved to run, turning on a dime with amazing speed and grace. And, as the vet had said, when Pasu wanted to wag his tail, he wagged it.
That said, however, I do recall, when taking him to dog parks after his tail amputation, that other dogs approached him more aggressively with his short tail than before when he had his long tail. And they would run right toward his rear end, sometimes two or three dogs at once, an experience which clearly distressed him. He would race back to me as fast as he could and wrap himself around my legs. I would ask people to call off their dogs and try to put myself between Pasu and the dogs. I always thought their behavior had something to do with smell, not the length of his tail. I didn’t know his tail stub had made him more vulnerable to aggression from other dogs.
All in all, the information I gained from Dr. Daugherty left me content that I was doing right by Dixie and had done right by Pasu. It made things clearer.
Dixie is doing much better now with other dogs and people, and I am doing better with my communication with her. She has made good friends. Although she still has her moments of fear and aggression, I can read her cues better and take preventative action sooner to avoid upsetting other dogs and their people, to keep Dixie feeling safe and secure, and to let Dixie know that I, too, am safe and secure.
This past Thursday’s memorable encounter with Coyote, followed by Dixie playtime, was a beautiful way to begin the day. I went to work with a calm and joyful stillness rather than a busy mindset of productivity and achievement. It was difficult to sustain that stillness throughout the day, though, as the noise and chaos of work and other stimuli around me interfered. Enjoying the evening after work with a human friend was a beautiful way to end the day, and I was reminded to make time and space for those encounters also.
I cannot explain the mystery of coyotes showing up in my life and in Dixie’s world in the frequent and gentle, non-threatening ways they do. I don’t go looking for them. I stay out of their known hideouts and territories, especially after dusk, out of respect for them. Their places. Their time. So, when I do see one, out in the open, it is a real treat for me. I appreciate and am awed by each encounter, and that is all that matters.
Composed March 6-8, 2020 – after two coyote encounters, one on February 22 in Mt. Hood National Forest along the Salmon River, and another on March 5 on Glenwood Drive in Glenwood Place, Portland, Oregon.