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Why Do Dogs Put Their Tails Between Their Legs?

The position of a dog’s tail at any given time can say a lot about what he may be feeling.

For instance, when most of us see our family dog enthusiastically wagging his tail as we enter the house, we have to come to associate that wagging tail with excitement or happiness—sheer joy due to our safe return home.

However, a wagging tail is just one of the positions this appendage can take—and each of these positions can convey different messages or feelings.

One such position is when our dog’s tail is tucked between his hind legs.

Most dog owners have come to understand that this position means “fear or submission.”

The position is also used in the common lexicon of us humans, usually to mean the same thing.

For example, “My boss was so afraid I would quit that he came to me with his tail tucked between his legs.”

And although it is true that a tail tucked between the legs in dogs can signal fear, submission or both, there are actually several more conceivable meanings behind this particular tail posture.

In this article we will highlight and explain all the possible rationale for why a dog may position his tail in this fashion.

We will also describe some of the subtle variations of this posture, other tail positions, and the general meanings behind each of them.

Tails Positions in Dogs and What They Mean

Before we get into the exact reasons and subtleties for all the “tail between the legs” poses are dogs may choose to assume, let’s first discuss all of the other tail positions and explain what each of them generally means.

Wagging Tail

In the introduction, we alluded to the fact that a wagging tail means happiness or excitement.

This is usually true.

But you also need to pay close attention to the position of the tail when it’s wagging to get the full picture.

Certainly, if your pet’s tail is in the “up” position and wagging freely, he is feeling happy, joyful and probably a bit excited.

We tend to see this position when our dogs are at play, right before meals, upon our homecomings, and before and during walks.

However, when the tail is trending more downward and wagging, it could mean a feeling of indecision; your pup is trying to gauge the circumstances before fully making up his mind to feel distressed or overjoyed.

Usually, a low wagging tail will transform into a swaying and sweeping upward wag motion, but in times of indecision, the tail tends to remain downward until your dog has made up his mind about what to feel.

A full and free wag as we’ve described thus far is usually a good sign.

It tends to mean that a given dog is happy or at least making up his mind in that direction.

Sometimes, however, a dog will present with a very stiff upright tail that can also have a slight wag motion in it.

Do NOT be fooled by this minor wagging gesture.

This position means a dog is feeling aggressive and might be preparing to attack.

Never approach a dog who is displaying this rare posture.

Chances are the encounter will not be a friendly one.

Lowered Tail

If the tail on your dog is lowered it can mean different things.

Here are three possible scenarios:

  • Tail is held slightly below vertical.  When a non-wagging tail is held just below vertical it can also mean a dog is undecided about how to feel.  This dog may not be friendly, so extra caution is recommended.
  • Tail held at horizontal.  A stiff, horizontal tail means the dog in question is being very watchful or is on high alert.  You may see your dog take this pose when someone comes to the door.
  • Low-hanging tail.  A lowered, non-wagging tail could mean your dog is feeling sick or in pain.  Be watchful for this pose, as it could help you understand when your dog is unwell.

Why Dogs Put Their Tail Between Their Legs

As we wrote earlier, the general consensus by experts is that a “tail between the legs” posture is representative of fear and submission in dogs.

But there can also be certain things your dog is trying to convey with the position depending on the situation.

Here are just a few doggie sentiments behind this very popular posture:

  • “I made a boo-boo.”  Believe it or not, dogs learn the rules of your house very quickly.  Whether they choose to obey them is a different story.  When a dog makes a mistake in your home, perhaps an indoor potty accident, expect to see the tail in that position almost immediately.
  • “I’m sorry.”  Dogs will put their tails between their legs right after they make a mistake, AND when you confront them about it.  So when you scorn your dogs for their rule-breaking behavior, their tail posture is actually just their unique way of apologizing for their unwanted conduct.
  • “You’re the boss.”  When, out of fear or submission, your dog assumes the “tail between the legs” position, he may be just owning up to the fact that you are the alpha of the pack.  This type of declaration is very common among wild canines such as wolves.
  • “I’m apprehensive.”  If you have recently moved to a new home or taken your dog on vacation with you, the new environment can be very challenging for him to navigate.  At times like these, the familiar pose may return.
  • “I’m not that kind of girl.”  When a female dog does not want to be mated, she instinctively places her tail between her legs, thus protecting her private parts.  This is also extremely common in the wild.

Lastly is the question, “why do dogs put their tail between their legs when they are eating?’

This is a common question among dog lovers.

While you might think that eating would be a purely and truly happy event for dogs, it is also one fraught with possible danger (in their minds).

Since they are focusing exclusively on their meal and nothing else, their tail intuitively lowers as an attempt to protect itself from any possible threats that may come his or her way during the meal, including intrusions from other dogs and potential mating activity that is unwanted.

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