Dog Tail Between Legs? The Tail Tells the Tale
A dog tail between the legs is a sign of how your dog is feeling. Typically, this means that it’s frightened. Likewise, a very high tail or a tail that’s level with the spine indicate other emotions and behaviors in your dog.
My dog’s tail usually hangs so when it’s high I know she is being dominant, excited or she is agitated.
Most dogs that bite are wagging their tails! We have all heard the old adage, a wagging tail on a dog means the dog is happy, right?
This is a myth!
A wagging tail does not always mean that a dog is approachable, much less friendly.
I don’t know how many times I have heard dog owners say, “He was barking and growling, but I didn’t think he meant it because his tail was wagging”.
Often people and children get bitten by a dog because they misinterpret a tail wag as a good thing.
Tail wags mean a number of things. When I talk about the tail I am talking about how the base of the tail is held not necessarily the tip. The base of the tail can be held low or parallel to the spine when the tip is still held fairly high.
The tail is one of the most expressive parts of a dog and although it tells a tale, it isn’t always one of happiness or friendliness.
The Evolution of the Tail
A dog’s tail originally evolved to help him stay balanced, like a tightrope walker’s pole.
It serves as a counterweight to the front part of his body when he’s making a high-speed turn while hunting and helps keep him from falling off narrow walkways.
Now that a dog hunt generally involves finding the last piece of kibble that fell behind the bowl, that wagging tail is largely thought of as a communication device. Here are five key things the placement of a dog’s tail can tell you, according to the Center for Shelter Dogs at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
Circular swish: A dog whose tail is swishing back and forth or in a circular motion is one happy and relaxed pup.
Lowered or tucked tail: A dog who is frightened or feeling submissive will often lower or tuck his tail between his hind legs.
Tail wagging stiffly: A dog who is excited may wag his tail stiffly while jumping, spinning or sticking his rump in the air. His excitement may be from a positive source like an upcoming walk or a negative source like an intimidating stranger.
Tail held horizontally: A tail held straight out indicates a dog who is attentive and alert or perhaps curious about something nearby. Traditional hunting dog breeds like pointers or setters also hold their tails out straight when they point at an animal or object.
Sudden tail raise: When a dog moves his tail from a down position to a vertical or raised position, it could indicate he is feeling aggressive.
Let’s Break Down the Tail…
Ever wish you knew what your dog was thinking? You can — just watch his tail!
Instead of using words, your puppy uses body language to communicate.
While a dog’s message can only be fully understood by looking at his entire body, the tail end offers some significant clues to how he is feeling.
A wagging tail is widely assumed to be a sign of a happy pup. In reality, a wagging tail most often signals a willingness to interact — but the engagement may not be friendly.
In some situations, a wagging tail may be the canine version of a friendly wave, while at other times, it may signal an overly aroused dog about to react.
What Might your Dog be Telling You with His Tail?
1. How High the Tail is Held
Pay careful attention to the circumstances: When your puppy is holding his tail high and erect, he is most likely intensely focused on something and ready to react to it. This can mean he’s preparing to chase a squirrel or getting ready to respond aggressively to a person.
If your dog holds his tail down low, it could mean that he’s relaxed — or that he is feeling uncertain or fearful. A fast-wagging, low-hanging tail is frequently a sign of submissive behavior. A tightly tucked tail pressed to the body or under the belly can be a sign of an especially fearful animal.
Tail height can offer important insight into a dog’s state of mind. In general, a dog who is holding his tail high may be feeling excited, alert or dominant, while a dog holding his tail down low may be afraid or submissive. The more anxious or submissive a dog is feeling, the more tightly he will tuck his tail close to his body.
Sometimes a tail held in a neutral or low position just means the dog is incredibly relaxed — this even happens to dogs with curled tails like Pugs, whose tails unravel and go straight when resting. A dog who carries his tail lower than usual can also be indicating that he is in pain, or exhausted from too much exercise.
It’s important to keep in mind that the normal tail carriage varies for every dog, since tail height is relative to the breed and individual dog.
Chow Chows and Chinese Shar-Peis, for instance, naturally have a high, curved tail, while Whippets and Greyhounds have a lower tail carriage.
Your knowledge of your dog’s personality can help you determine if your dog is feeling happy or threatened, or if he’s a little bit scared or just super relaxed.
Your dog will hold his tail at a comfortable height, more or less even with his back.
He may hold his tail slightly higher when he is interested in something, like a treat or toy you are holding in your hand.
Not all dogs hold their tails at the same height, so it’s important to recognize what’s normal for your dog.
Certain breeds, like Shar Peis and Pugs, have a curly tail that naturally stands high.
But even canines with very short or curly tails can use their tails to communicate — it’s just a matter of learning what to look for.
2. The Tail’s Rigidity
A rigid, highly held tail shows a very aroused state; this dog is likely going to react to things around him, whether that’s the squirrel he’s spotted in the tree or a dog across the street.
If a dog is agitated, his tail may also “fluff” up, with the hair standing up on end.
When the highly raised tail flicks back and forth rapidly, it’s called “flagging” and may indicate an imminent attack from a dog who is ready to defend his ground.
Interfering with a dog in this state is a good way to get bitten.
In Pugs and other breeds with curled tails, a tense tail looks different:
The existing curl in the tail simply gets tighter the more aroused the dog gets, eventually curling over itself again.
In these dogs, a tensed tail doesn’t always mean aggression, and can simply indicate excitement.
3. How the Dog is Wagging the Tail
So how do you know if your dog’s wag is friendly or frightened? A happy tail wag tends to have a wide, sweeping motion, sometimes with loose circling movements of the tail. A dog who is feeling uncertain or nervous may exhibit a very slight tail wag that ticks back and forth at a slow or slightly irregular pace.
Not all wags mean a friendly dog.
The type of wag that indicates a happy, relaxed dog is usually a sweeping tail wag that moves from side to side at a height close to the dog’s relaxed tail carriage.
An exuberant, joyful reaction would be a tail wag that beats back and forth with gusto at a fairly neutral height, with the dog’s hind end often wagging back and forth in unison and the tail possibly even moving in a circular fashion.
Keep in mind that a friendly dog may not wag his tail, while a tense dog may.
An insecure tail wag is usually held low and may tick back and forth slightly or swiftly. The low, insecure tail wag could mean the dog is unsure about a situation; this wag may be a form of submission, or the dog may be conflicted and may bite.
Believe it or not, the direction your dog’s tail is wagging toward you or other family members may indicate the way he feels about you, according to a study from Italy published in Current Biology. The study showed that when dogs were attracted to or wanted to approach a person or stimulus, their tail wagged with bias to the right, while dogs that were fearful or wanted to withdraw from a person or stimulus had their tails wag with bias to the left.
Though it’s fun to try to guess what our dogs are feeling with their tail language, it’s absolutely essential to look at your dog’s overall body language to truly decipher what he may be feeling. One small slice of a dog’s body language will not tell the full story.
Here are some examples of how to read a dog’s tail:
A Very High Held Tail
- A tail that is held very high is often a sign of a dominant dog. Watch dogs at the dog park or when interacting with other dogs, the dog with the highest tail is almost always the dominant dog.
- When you add to this dominant stance a vigorous wag it can also be a sign of danger and aggression.
- These are often the dogs that people pet and then get bitten by, this wag doesn’t indicate friendliness, and it is often seen right before the teeth strike. Many dogs assume this body posture and wag before biting.
- I tell people, parents, children and dog owners that a tail that is perpendicular to the back and is wagging fast like a rattlesnake shakes his rattle; this is a dog to be cautious of!
- The ears of this pooch are usually held high and forward on the head as well.
A Parallel Tail Wag
- The dog that wags parallel to his spine is usually the sign of a happy dog.
- This is neither a dominant wag or body stance nor a submissive stance or wag.
- This is usually the wag you see when he is playing or doing something he loves.
- The ears of this dog are usually carried in a normal position neither high nor low or back on his head.
A Slightly Dropped Tail Wag
- The dog that drops his tail slightly and wags in low is usually the sign of a happy and slightly submissive dog.
- This is the wag you usually see when returning home to your dog. He is happy to see you and submits to your authority.
- This is also my one of my favorite wags to see when my dog greets another person.
- The dog’s ears are usually held back on the top of the head and may even fold back.
The Between the Legs Tail Wag
- This is a scared dog wag.
- This is another wag that can get you bit if you push this pooch.
- Scared dogs drop their tails low and sometimes the tail even sucks up between their legs. Their eyes may dilate and their ears often suck backward low and press back against their head and their body is often stiff.
- This tail, like the upright tail may also wag or shake like a rattlesnake rattle. Even if this dog is wagging, it does not mean he is comfortable or friendly.
- Scare dogs have earned the title “fear biters” for a reason, they get so scared they feel like they have no other way out of a situation than to bite.
- So when you see this body stance and your hand goes up over his head, he may panic and bite. His body is trying to give you as many clues as possible and he feels like he is left with no other choice.
- Never pet this dog, unless his eyes, ears, tail and body become more comfortable.
The Circular Tail Wag
- This is hands down my favorite wag. I believe that a dog who’s tail wags in a circle is the happiest he can be.
- I have one dog who wags in a circle, and he always does this when I come home. I think it means he is elated.
- Not all dogs wag like this; it is my opinion that only the really special dogs wag in a circle
Wagging to the Left or Right
- A study was done about 5 years ago in Italy looking at dogs and their tails.
- It was determined by studying 30 pets that dogs that wag to the left side of their body seem to be showing fear or depression.
- And, dogs that wag to the right are showing feelings of love, safety and calm.
- I am not sure I have jumped on the bandwagon of this study I think many more dogs need to be studied, but I thought it would be interesting to share!
What about Dogs with Curly Tails or Docked Tails?
You can still see where the tail is held if you are familiar with dogs.
I can see if an Akita’s (curly) tail is held HIGH, normal (which is still fairly high), dropped or uncurled and low (fear).
The same can be witnessed for dogs that have docked or almost no tails if you watch the “nubbin”.
Short Tails vs. Long Tails
Some dogs wag with long, expressive tails, but what about dogs with small, stumpy tails or no tails at all? A truncated tail may make it more difficult for dogs to communicate with their pet parents and with other dogs, writes Psychology Today. An observational study of more than 400 dogs greeting each other off-leash in a dog park showed a higher number of aggressive incidents involving dogs with short tails. This doesn’t mean that your corgi will inherently pick more fights than your German Shepherd, but it could be something to watch out for. Overall, the study found that only 12 percent of dog park incidents resulted in any kind of aggression. That’s a sign that dog communication has a pretty high success rate.
The tale of the tail? Dog tail signs help pups communicate not only with us, but also with other dogs. Knowing the meaning of how a dog is using his tail can go a long way to showing you how your pet is feeling.
Ears and Their Role in Dog Body Language
The tail isn’t the only indication of how your dog is acting; the dog’s ears are a big indicator of how your pooch is feeling at the moment.
A relaxed dog typically holds his ears forward and slightly to the side. His ears may twitch when he is listening to interesting sounds. When he is interested in something, his ears will usually be forward-facing and erect. He may lower his ears and move them back during certain interactions, like accepting a treat or giving kisses. This is a normal, friendly gesture.
When your dog holds his ears taut and tightly forward, it can be an indication that he is preparing to react to something. He may be getting ready to chase a cat or squirrel — or he may be preparing to lunge at a person or another dog.
Your dog may move his ears back or flatten them against his head when he is feeling submissive, anxious or afraid. The more fearful the dog is, the farther back his ears may move. Ears that are held tightly pressed back signal a canine in a defensive position. A dog holding his ears in this way may aggress to protect himself. It may be harder to see this in floppy-eared dogs like Cavaliers or Cocker Spaniels; for these breeds, watch the base of the ear rather than the ear itself for any backward shifts.
Limber Tail Syndrome
Limber tail syndrome, or acute caudal myopathy, is a disorder of the muscles in the tail, usually affecting working dogs. It is an injury occurring mostly in sporting or working dogs such as English Pointers, English Setters, Foxhounds, Beagles, and Labrador Retrievers.
Limber tail syndrome is also known as limp tail, swimmer’s tail, cold water tail, broken tail, dead tail, “happy tail” or broken wag.
The injury affects the tail of the dog, causing it to be painful at or near its base.
Limber tail can be recognized by a very flaccid tail, or a tail that is held horizontally for 3 to 4 inches, and then drops vertically. The condition is also more pronounced in dogs that wag their tails a lot.
Limber tail syndrome is painful for the dog, making it hurt to wag its tail. It also makes it difficult to read your dog’s body language due to the limp tail that it causes.
You need to keep your dog in a calm, quiet area where it’s less likely to be excited or wag its tail while it is suffering from limp tail. The syndrome should go away as the body heals itself after about a week. You can ask your veterinarian about getting painkillers for your pooch if it has limber tail syndrome.
Don’t assume that just because a dog’s tail is wagging that he is happy to see you or friendly in anyway!
Aggressive dogs often wag their tails!
And, be very careful that you train your children never to pet dogs that they don’t know and that you are diligent if you allow them to pet unknown dogs in your presence!
Of course these traits are always generalities; even a circular tail-wagger can bite! Arm yourself with knowledge and be as careful as possible when dealing with dogs!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.