Have you noticed your dog’s tail between his legs? This is a common body language signal – here are the most common reasons.
The way your dog carries their tail can tell you a lot. If you see a tail tucked tightly between the dog’s legs, this normally – but not always – indicates he is uncomfortable or afraid.
You shouldn’t ignore this body language signal. By understanding potential triggers of tail tucking, you can better evaluate your dog’s health and happiness, and take action when required.
We often associate a dog’s tail with happy and enthusiastic wagging.
This is only part of the story though. A tail wag is a sign your dog is feeling aroused and stimulated by their environment, but not always in a friendly way.
Many dog lovers also don’t realize how subtle tail communication can be. The speed, height, and even direction of tail movement can change what your dog is trying to “say.”
To understand why your dog’s tail is tucked, it’s important to know the basics of tail body language.
If the tail is held high while wagging, this usually signals a confident and alert dog. It can also mean the dog is over-aroused and may not have calm interactions with those around them.
A tail tucked under typically shows the dog feels nervous or submissive. If the tail is low and loose but not tucked, this is generally a sign of feeling at ease and relaxed.
It’s usually a good sign if your dog’s whole back end is waving enthusiastically along with the wag. Relaxed, flowing movements typically indicate a happy dog.
A very stiff tail, with a quivering or vibrating movement, shows tension. It’s best to be respectful of a dog’s space in this scenario.
A fast wagging tail can be a sign of enthusiasm. A slow one can indicate potential hostility, particularly if the dog is showing overall slow and stiff body language.
There’s even been a study suggesting the direction of tail wagging could indicate a dog’s emotions. A wag with a bias towards the right-hand side of the body is thought to be an indication of a more positive, relaxed response.
Don’t forget to assess the rest of your dog’s body language. While the tail can tell you a lot about your dog’s feelings, it’s only one aspect of canine communication.
A stiff and upright tail combined with a tense body and raised hackles, for example, likely means the dog is uncomfortable and displaying warning signs to whoever is approaching.
A low or tucked tail combined with flat ears, crouching posture, lack of eye contact and excessive panting indicates fear and anxiety. The dog may also show other appeasement or calming signals, such as lip licking (or air licking), yawning or sniffing, to try to diffuse a situation they perceive as threatening.
Tail shape, length and position can vary between dog breeds.
Certain breeds have been bred to have different tail shapes for both functional and aesthetic reasons. It may be more difficult, or even impossible, to decipher their tail signals.
Some breeds may not be able to tuck their tail at all. Consequently, you’ll have to pay more attention to other body language signals.
Examples of tail types include:
Sickle-Tails: These are very bushy and curl up over the back. They are found on Spitz types which were bred for cold climates, like Alaskan Malamutes, Akitas, Shiba Inus and Chow Chows. Sickle tails insulate the body and keep the face warm when curled up resting.
Bob Tails: These are small, stumpy appendages found on breeds like Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Brittany Spaniels and Australian Shepherds. Bob tails are naturally very short, unlike a tail that has been docked. Docking is when a breeder amputates a longer tail of a puppy for cosmetic or practical reasons. It’s a highly controversial practice that can lead to long term pain and removes a vital means of communication.
Corkscrew Tails: This type of tail is commonly found on flat-faced brachycephalic breeds like Bulldogs and Pugs. While these tiny, curled tails may look cute, they are associated with an abnormal spine condition called Hemivertebrae. Corkscrew tails can also lead to infections in the tightly wound skin of the tail.
Carrot Tails: These shorter, thick tails in an upright position are found on breeds like Border and West Highland Terriers. They were possibly developed to help their owners pull them out of holes when they were hunting.
The most common reason for a tucked tail is that the dog is in an uncomfortable situation. They are feeling stressed, frightened or submissive.
It’s thought tail tucking is an instinctual behavior to prevent the appendage from being injured when under threat and to make the dog look smaller and less threatening. It could also prevent the dog actively spreading their scent.
You don’t want to push your dog into situations that make them feel frightened. This can heighten their anxiety and, in extreme cases, push them over their coping threshold and tip them into reacting aggressively.
Instead, be an advocate for your dog and help them to feel safe and relaxed. Take things slowly and gradually build up positive associations with the stimulus or environment that is triggering this fearful reaction.
If they are scared of other dogs, don’t head straight for the Dog Park. If they are nervous around new people, don’t force them into a busy room full of strangers. Don’t walk them at night around the 4th of July if they have a fear of fireworks.
In extreme cases, you may even want to get additional guidance from a qualified dog trainer or behaviorist that uses force-free methods. They will support you and your dog with a programme of desensitization and counterconditioning to the things that trigger a fearful reaction.
More than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs in the United States every year. Many of these bites would likely have been avoided if people had a better basic understanding of canine body language and behavior.
Aside from a scared dog, there are several other reasons a tail may be tucked or low.
If your dog is feeling unwell, in pain or depressed, they will often carry their tail tucked under their body.
This may be accompanied by other symptoms or changes in behaviour. Common signs that your dog could be in pain or feeling unwell include:
If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your vet for a checkup.
If your dog has sustained an injury to the tail or lower back, it can hang very low, limp and static. The tail might be swollen, and your dog could want to lick or chew it obsessively.
Nerve damage, a fracture, prostate problems, anal gland issues, or even a localized skin condition can all be culprits.
If this is prolonged or accompanied by your dog displaying signs of being in pain or discomfort, you should seek veterinary advice.
Constipation can result in a dog holding their tail at an unusually low or tucked angle. While this can be caused by something as simple as a lack of fibre in their diet, it can also be a sign of a more serious condition or a potential blockage. If it persists, you should seek veterinary advice.
During the first week of a bitches heat cycle, you may notice they start to tuck their tail between their legs. This is an instinctual behavior driven by a desire to protect their vulva.
Dogs can tuck their tail while they are eating, even if they are not feeling threatened or nervous. This can be a natural position their tail defaults to when they are focussing hard on something.
The tucked tail position may also be seen when they are intensely involved in activities, like digging or playing with a puzzle toy.
Some dogs do feel nervous or threatened when they are eating, though. Monitor their body language to make sure they are not uncomfortable. If you ignore these signs, it can lead to dogs beginning to guard their food or stop eating because of anxiety.
You may have witnessed your dog having a case of the ‘Zoomies’ without even realizing it. They will, seemingly out of the blue, have a burst of frantic running around in circles, often accompanied by a wild, mischievous expression. They tend to have a squatted body position, and their tails can be tucked under.
Usually, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s a normal part of dog behaviour, associated with letting off some steam, having a bit of fun or being excited.
For some dogs, the zoomies are a way to shake off feelings of stress.
If it happens a lot, you should look out for things that seem to trigger the zoomies. You can then decide if you need to work on managing their stress levels.
It can also be a sign that you need to evaluate if your dog is getting enough exercise and stimulation.
The most common reason for a tail that is hanging flaccidly is damage to the muscle, and this is referred to as Limber Tail Syndrome. It’s also known as Limp Tail, Sprained Tail, Swimmers Tail, Cold Tail, Deal Tail and Sprung Tail.
Limber tail is more often seen in large breed dogs, especially sporting dogs that enjoy swimming like Retrievers and Setters. It is generally thought to be caused by overexertion or strain of the tail muscles, but it is still not fully understood.
Dogs that have over-exercised, especially in cold weather conditions and water, and dogs that spend too much time confined to a crate are thought to be more at risk.
Providing your dog gets appropriate rest and, in some cases, anti-inflammatory medication, the condition will usually be short-lived. You should always visit your vet for advice if you notice your dog’s tail is tucked for extended periods though.
Tail tucking is often a sign of anxiety, stress or fear. If you notice your dog’s tail is tucked, try to work out what might be triggering this reaction. You can then start a desensitization plan, or just ensure your dog isn’t forced into the same situation.
In some cases, tail tucking can be a sign of pain, illness, or injury. This is why it’s important to assess your dog’s overall body language and look for other symptoms.
Gemma is a freelance writer and official dog nut. With 15 years of experience in the pet industry, she is a passionate animal welfare advocate. She has worked for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ran her own specialist dog shop for ten years, has volunteered for her local rescue shelter, and is studying towards completing an Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour. Gemma is currently travelling around Europe with her wonderful rescue dog, Annie.