If you’ve ever seen a dog tuck their tail between their legs, you may be wondering what’s behind this behavior. Though many people attribute this to fear or anxiety, dogs use their tails to express many different emotional states. The English language has adopted the term “having their tail between their legs” to mean someone who is feeling ashamed or guilty. Just what does it mean when a dog tucks their tail between their legs?
What are Some of the Reasons Why Dogs Tuck Their Tails Between Their Legs?
There are many different reasons why a dog might put their tail between their legs. Though it is true that some dogs do this as a natural reaction to feelings of fear or guilt, these are not the only possible causes for dogs engaging in this behavior. Other reasons why a dog might put their tail between their legs include:
- A display of submission
- To stop inappropriate/uncomfortable social behaviour from another dog
- To prevent another dog from attempting to mate with them
- To protect their genitals
Does the Positioning of a Dog’s Tail Mean Something?
The way a dog chooses to hold their tail can tell you a lot about what the dog is experiencing on an emotional level. Learning to read what this positioning means can help you better understand your dog and what he is trying to tell you. Most owners are adept at noting that a rapidly wagging tail indicates that their dog is enjoying himself or happy. Likewise, when the tail drops, it is natural to assume the dog is feeling troubled, worried, or sad.
Most often, a tucked tail is indicative that a dog is feeling anxious, afraid, worried, guilty, or stressed. The act of tucking the tail helps to provide protection for some of the most vulnerable areas of a dog’s body including their genitals, intestines, and stomach. Covering these regions ensures the dog has some measure of protection against attack.
Here are some of the most typical tail positions and their meanings:
- Tail pointing down and hanging close to the back legs
This tail position is often adopted by dogs that are struggling to feel secure or that are experiencing stress.
- Tail only slightly tucked between the back legs
This position indicates the dog is afraid and worried about its safety. This tail positioning can also be a sign the dog is showing submission to a person or higher ranking pack member.
- Tail tucked only marginally
When the tail is tucked only a small amount, the dog is communicating that he is afraid but not in a submissive mode. If the source of fear is not removed, the dog may become defensive and might possibly attack.
- Tail positioned just beneath the length of the spine
Dogs that hold their tail in this position are expressing that they are feeling uncertain.
- Wagging tail held at a higher level
Dogs with wagging tails are not always happy, but when in the tail is in this position, dogs are most often communicating their joy. The wider and more frequent the tail sweep, the happier the dog is.
- Wagging tail held at half mast
This indicates a dog that is happy but feeling a little uncertain as to his environment. Once this dog feels secure, the tail will likely move higher, and the wagging will increase.
- Stiff tail in an erect position with only a slight amount of wagging
This is the perfect example of a dog with a wagging tail that is not happy. This posture indicates that the dog is feeling defensive and may attack aggressively.
- Tail held horizontally, stiff, and with only a small amount of movement
Dogs holding their tail in this position are projecting that they are not comfortable. This posture is associated with dogs on high alert.
- Lowered, drooping tail
Dogs with this tail position are often in pain or feeling sick.
Some Fun Facts About Dogs and Their Tails
Dogs are born with tails for a specific purpose. It is not simply a part of their anatomy that adds to their esthetic appeal. Here are some fun facts about dogs and their tails:
- Dogs only wag their tails in the presence of humans or other dogs.
This fact reinforces that the tail forms an important part of the modern dog’s communication strategy. Puppies learn from their mother and their littermates how to use their tail as a means of expressing themselves.
- Dogs use their tail for balance.
Believe it or not, a dog’s tail helps to keep them from falling over when engaged in active pursuits such as running or jumping. The tail helps dogs to know how to land on their feet to avoid injuring their legs or body.
- Dogs use their tails in scent detection.
Dogs’ tails help to spread scents, allowing them to unearth their “messages.” When a dog finds an aroma it finds particularly attractive, the dog’s tail helps to spread the love around for other dogs to enjoy too.
- Dogs chasing their tails are not necessarily bored and entertaining themselves.
When some dogs are feeling stressed, they may chase their own tails. The best way to determine if a dog is doing this out of boredom or out of stress is the duration of the activity. Anything longer than a few minutes is indicative of a dog that is struggling emotionally. In some cases, this behavior may be a sign that the dog is suffering from OCD.
- Dogs use their tail as a rudder when out for a swim.
Dogs that regularly swim hold their tails erect when in the water. This tail positioning helps the dog to push its body forward through the lake, stream, or ocean. Likewise, when the dog changes direction, the tail will move in the trajectory of where the dog is moving.
- The direction of the dog’s tail has different meanings.
When a dog wags its tail to the left, this typically means the dog is uncomfortable or fearful. Wagging to the right shows a dog is feeling happy and friendly.
- A dog’s tail connects directly to the spine.
A dog’s tail is equipped with a separate set of muscles and discs from that of the spine; however, it is important to note that this body part is an extension of the spine itself. The tail can be damaged, bruised, and broken, but unlike when damage occurs to the spine, tail injuries will heal and no functionality will be impaired.
- Tail docking is no longer legal in many countries today.
Many dog breeds have been docked throughout the centuries. This was most often done to assist the dog with its job and was not simply a matter of a preferred appearance. However, today, most countries prohibit alterations to a dog they consider cosmetic only which includes docking of tails and cropping of ears.
- In a tradition dating back to the Romans, many people groups believed dog’s tails could be used to treat rabies.
Legend relates that someone affected with rabies could be cured if they were to cut some hair from the tail of the dog that transmitted the disease to them, burn said hair, then rub the hair ashes along the bite.
What are Some Behaviors Associated with Tail Positioning and What Do They Mean?
There are a few different behaviors that when accompanied by an unusual tail positioning or action that communicate a very clear message. These include:
- A tucked tail and shaking
When shaking accompanies a tucked tail, the dog is expressing that he is afraid.
- A tucked tail and panting
Dogs that have tucked tails and that are also panting are usually feeling unwell.
- A tucked tail and crying
A tucked tail that is accompanied by crying could mean several different things. Obviously, dogs in this state are not comfortable. Most commonly, they are suffering from some anxiety or are looking for reassurance from you or from their other canine household members.
- Walking with a tucked tail
This may indicate the dog has an injury or anal glands that require manual expression.
Why do dogs tuck their tail between their legs? There are lots of reasons why dogs engage in this behavior. Look for other behaviors in conjunction with the tail positioning to better understand what Fido is trying to communicate to you.