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.dog tail anatomy

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…dog body language

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.

dog tail down can mean relaxed or afraidIf 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.dogs communicate with their tail

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:dog tail motion can tell you a lot

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.

dogs have tail wagging bias towards different family membersAn 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.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 Waghappy relaxed dog

  • 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. a dropped tail can be a warning sign of fear biting
  • 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.watch the tail nub if the dog's tail has been removed

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.

 

The Key….

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!

 

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Comments

  1. hannah says:

    i have a 4 year old dog named izzy and a 6 year old dog named duke a couple
    months ago we found a dog on the street and we brought him to our house and we adopted him. duke is a protective dog we interduced he and the dog. we named him scruffy.

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  2. Christie says:

    My border collie rescue is a circle wagger. I was wondering if I was imagining it before reading this. I get the wag when we play ball and others get the wag if they throw the ball too. It’s obvious that this wag shows that he couldn’t possibly be happier or more engaged! Of course I get the wag if we have been separated for more than a few seconds too but good hard work is a consistent thrill that shows in that tail 🙂

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  3. Miriam says:

    I read about the left & right tail wag today and had a look at our Cavalier King Charles. He is a friendly chilled out boy and chooses to hang around with me mostly.
    As usual this evening, he got up when it was bedtime and followed me upstairs, all the time with a “smile” on his face, staying at my heel and gazing up at me with his soft eyes. His tail was wagging excitedly at mid height … but it was wagging to his left, my right. Nothing else in the picture gave away that he was in a negatibe mood – totally the opposite.It was a picture of love & devotion.
    Could my dog be left tailed?

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    Minette Reply:

    You have to take everything with a grain of salt, not sure I am on the left/right band wagon yet. But I do use the tail to tell me information.

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  4. Barbara says:

    I foster Cocker Spaniels and have a biter. She has a stub for a tail and I am trying your technique of treating her every hour and petting these areas that she does not like you to touch; back hind end, back legs and paws. As long as I am treating her she is fine but if I try the petting w/o she is back to attach mode. I have told myself that a couple of tries will not work w/ her. Can only work w/ her in the evenings and some on weekends. I have seen a slight difference but not enough to rave about. I am thinking she was either bothered w/ kids or abused. She is 3yrs old and I have had her in my home since Thanksgiving. Any other tips you can pass along?

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    My biggest piece of advice is not all dogs are safely rehomeable so if you don’t want to keep her yourself, it probably isn’t safe to put her in another home where she could bite someone!

    read this http://www.thedogtrainingsecret.com/blog/rehoming-cujo/

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  5. Tina says:

    We have 2 labs. They are sisters and are 15 months old. Lily wags her tail all the time. Rosy doesn’t wag her tail as much. Sometimes I worry she isn’t as happy. It seems Lily is the dominant one. Does this have anything to do with it? Thanks.

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  6. Sue says:

    We have a golden doodle that wags his tail in a circle. He does it the most when I feel he is confused or not sure of a situation. The primary time I see his circle wag is when my husband yells about a bad football or baseball etc. play on TV. My doodle’s tail quickly starts going in a circle. Then he goes over to my husband and climbs in his lap. It seems very obvious that he understands that something is wrong and he is trying to comfort my husband and tell him that everything is okay.

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  7. Anushka says:

    My dog a Chihuahua is very friendly to my family and I except my 9 year old brother. he seems more alert of dominant when my brother is around. I don’t know exactly why he does that, but in know my brother bothers him like:
    snapping his fingers at him
    chasing him
    throwing balloons at him.

    could you tell me why he does this? 🙂

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  8. Cathy says:

    I have a question. With the left and right tail wag, is it to the dog’s left and right, or to the person’s who is facing the dog. The photos you used, showed that it was to the person facing the dog, not the left or right of the dog. Thank you.

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  9. Susan says:

    I have a pom and he is very playful and loves to be near us but never ever wags his tail..Why?

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    not all dogs do, there are several ways for them to convince you they love y9u without the tail wav

    [Reply]

    Jae Jae Reply:

    I have a pom and she’s 11 years old. The only times I’ve seen her wag her tail is when my son comes home, and once in awhile when my son in laws come to the house. Very funny.

    [Reply]

  10. Carolyn says:

    My dog is frightened of cars, trucks & loud noises. He was hit by a car last dec but fortunately not more than a bruise. It is hard trying to get him to walk. He does his business than wants to ego home. He doesn’t want treats, he just wants to go home. I have to constantly erasure home he’s a good boy and ok.

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  11. Ed says:

    My brother’s German Shepherd is about 2 years old. I am told he barks constantly, even inside. When I visit, about every month or two, every since he was only a few months old, he barks aggressively at me. He is now quite large, and charges at me, and seems very surprised that I stand my ground. Even with my brother, and sister in law attempting to calm him, and get him to accept treats from me, he continues to bark. His tail is wagging held slightly below horizontal. I am a very large man. I believe he is afraid of me, though I never gave him a reason to be. I know the breed is very protective, and territorial, so how do I make friends with him, or do I?

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  12. Isabel Ouellette says:

    Very interesting article here !!!

    [Reply]

  13. Bonnie says:

    When I was about 11, my dog was sideswiped by a car and her tail was sprained. I am 63, and don’t recall if we went to the vet with her or simply called for advice. I know she had always wagged her tail left to right before. After being hit, it hung straight down, and she was so sad. I recall we were told it would heal itself – which it did – and makes me think now it was only a sprain. However, when it healed she did circular wags. She was definitely elated, but I had never seen a wag like this before and didn’t know it was physically possible. Know any more about such changes?

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    Go to your vet

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  14. Maudy Perkins says:

    Our dog is a rescued dog from an over crowded kennel and is a very friendly one who wags his tail at most everyone and whines to be petted. Most people he meets in our apartment complex love him and will pet on him and hug him, but he will bark at the other dogs and one particular person and his dog when they are out and I have to take him back in because of complaints. I’m at a loss at what to do.

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  15. I have a 3 year old Havanese female since she was 9 weeks old. She’s been aggressive with me & actually bite my hand twice while I was trying to take something harmful out of her mouth. I was devastated! She loves my grown kids & their children and wags her tail all the time, but….her tail wags at passerbyes as we walk and then she charges, growling at them! I have to reel her in everytime someone passes us. I’m very disappointed in her☹️

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    Look into our aggression coaching program, I think it will help you

    [Reply]

  16. Lena says:

    Adopted a 4 1/2 month of golden retriever pup this week and she submissive pees when excited as well as does the low wagging tail. Don’t think the family where she was at liked her and may have been mean. We’ve been working with her but it hurts my heart to see that low tail all the time. How long in your experience until she feels secure and happy?

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    Puppies submissively pee, she will grow out of it if you don’t make a big deal out of it

    [Reply]

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