Why does a dog put its tail between its legs?
Pet Health Questions and Answers

Does a Dog’s Tail between Legs Mean It’s Sick? What Tail Positions Mean!

Dogs are generally expressive little critters. They may not be fluent in English (at least that’s what they want us to think…), and it’s as yet unproven as to whether they bark in regional accents, but canines communicate through a variety of methods.

Of course, dogs use their voice boxes without hesitation. Many dogs bark, squeak, whine or cry to express their excitement or displeasure. Body language is arguably more important to chatty hounds though, which is why it pays to understand dog tail positions and what they mean.

You can gain a little insight into what it means when your dog tucks their tail between their legs or indeed displays it proudly and prominently. So, keep reading for some interesting facts!

Dog Tail Position Facts

How much do you actually know about dogs and their tails? The more you understand, the better you will be able to comprehend what your furry friend is trying to tell you!

Here are ten fascinating facts about dog tails.

  • Dogs only wag their tail when another dog or friendly human is around to see it. The tail is a hugely important way of communicating for any dog – dogs learn it from their puppy littermates and mothers – and unlike humans, canines don’t tend to wander around talking to themselves. If you’re observing your dog in secret and are concerned about a static tail, don’t be. The moment they see you or a fellow furball, they’ll start wagging their tail like a loon in the manner that you know and love.
  • A dog’s tail isn’t just for aesthetics or communication – it’s also hugely important for balance. Your dog will rely upon their tail to help them from tumbling over while he or she is running, jumping and chasing all over the place. Next time your dog makes an athletic movement, such as jumping to catch a ball from the air, take a close look. You’ll notice that your dog probably quickly moves their tail from one direction to the next. This is a simple matter of instinct, as it’s how Fido manages to land on all four paws and prevent an injury.
  • A dog uses their tail to spread smell all around them. Despite what we might think of any particular scents, dogs love them – including the ones that we deem to be wholly unpleasant, such as poop or urine! Dogs communicate so much through the power of scent that they use their tail like a giant fan. When a dog gets a nose full of something they find appealing or interesting, they’ll start swooshing their tale and doing everything they can get that aroma out there so their canine companions can enjoy it too.
  • A dog chasing his or her tail can be a sign of mental distress. Sure, the sight is very amusing at first; everybody loves a goofy canine, and watching dogs chase their tail out of excitement or confusion can spark a lot of belly laughs! If the behavior lasts longer than a minute or two, however, keep an eye on it and consider consulting a vet. It may be a sign that your dog is suffering from OCD or a stress disorder that they are desperately attempting to soothe through this physical activity.
  • Swimming dogs use their tail as a rudder. If your pooch loves a dip in a river or lake, watch them closely next time they go for a swim. You’ll probably notice that your Fido’s tail remains bolt upright while he’s swimming in a straight line as he uses it to propel himself, and it leans to the left or the right when they’re turning that way. Not only is this practical, but it’s also hugely cute to watch!
  • Dogs use their tail to make themselves look big and to declare a territory as their own. Any pack of canines has an alpha, and this alpha will usually point his tail directly upward. Not only will this make the dog look bigger and more intimidating to any would-be infiltrators, but it allows them to release pheromones from their anal glands. These scents, which will then be distributed by a wag of the tail as previously discussed, send a message to any other dog that may be near – “stay away, you’re not welcome here unless you’ve been invited.”
  • Wagging the tail to the left means something very different to wagging the tail to the right. We’ll go into this in greater detail later, but in a nutshell, if a dog wags their tail to the right, they are feeling fantastic. A left-side wag could be a message that the dog is feeling afraid or tetchy.
  • A dog’s tail is attached to their spine. A dog’s tail comes with its own set of muscles and discs, but it’s an extension of their spinal cord. This means that the tail is somewhat delicate and can be damaged. However, unlike a spinal injury, it doesn’t need to be permanent; if a dog suffers an injury to their tail, they’ll usually recover eventually. A dog can even learn to live without their tail if they need to have it amputated later in life due to sickness or injury, but they will require a period of adjustment to master their balance without it.
  • Docking a dog’s tail is illegal in most countries. This practice, which involves trimming, shortening or even removing a puppy’s tail during the first few days of their life on the grounds of appearance, remains common practice in the USA. This is not the case on most locations throughout the rest of the world, where the practice is prohibited – unless it’s a working dog, and a lengthy tail would prevent the hound from fulfilling their duties. Australia, Canada, and a great many European territories are among the countries that have banned docking.
  • Dog tails were once believed to cure rabies. Anybody that has ever over-indulged in alcohol on a night out has been told to try, “the hair of the dog that bit you” as a potential hangover cure – meaning that they should try another alcoholic drink. This idiom stems from the Roman Empire, where it was believed that anybody suffering from rabies should trim the hair from the tail of the dog that caused the infection, burn it, and rub the ashes upon the wound. Thankfully cases of this condition are now extremely rare, as most vets would frown upon this particular practice.

Why Do Dogs Put Their Tail Between Their Legs?

Now that we have established that dog tails display all kinds of signals, it’s time to look deeper into one of the most important signs of all – a dog tucking their tail between their legs.

Many people suspect that when a dog tucks their tail between their legs, it’s a sign that their canine companion is in pain, sick or deeply afraid of something. There is often truth in this, but as always, the reality is a little more complicated.

My Dog’s Tail is Between Their Legs, and They’re Shaking

This is a classic sign of fear or anxiety. Remember how we discussed that a pack alpha would raise their tail high, allowing their pheromones to spread far and wide? Well, a dog further down the pecking order that doesn’t want to be acknowledged will behave oppositely.

Placing their tail between their legs is a dog’s way of blocking the release of scent from their anal glands, thus preventing other canines from sensing their presence. Accompanied by shaking, which is a classic symbol of doggy anxiety, this behavior is sending a message that says, “it’s OK – pretend I’m not here. There’s no need to show any aggression toward me.”

If your pooch is showing this behavior in front of other canines, your dog is feeling intimidated and not enjoying themselves, and you should probably lead them away. If dogs exhibit this behavior in front of humans, there is something about that person that frightens your dog. Maybe that’s something you need to investigate further.

dog tail tucked when eating

My Dog’s Tail is Between Their Legs, and They’re Panting

This is the most likely warning sign that your dog is feeling sick or unwell. Dogs that pant suddenly and without reason – i.e., not immediately following exercise or on an exceptionally hot day – are usually experiencing some kind of discomfort.

It’s possible that they’re struggling for breath, or that they are experiencing a strange sensation elsewhere in their body. This will understandably frighten Fido, leading to the tail drooping between the legs. If any other warning signs of illness accompany this posture, such as uncharacteristic lethargy or vomiting, make an appointment with a vet ASAP.

My Dog’s Tail is Between Their Legs, and They’re Whimpering or Crying

We’ve just discussed how the tail between the legs is a classic sign of anxiety. Dogs also use whimpering or crying sounds to verbalize fear, such as the worry that inflicts our furry friends when a firework display is taking place, or they are concerned by the presence of another canine. This means that combining the two behaviors is a classic sign of anxiety in your dog.

If your dog is whimpering with their tail between their legs, they are seeking reassurance from the rest of their pack. That means you. If you notice your dog exhibiting this behavior, you should scoot over and give them a reassuring stroke – and a cuddle if they enjoy such contact. If you can do so, you should also remove them from the area that is causing such concern. After a while, you should notice that the tail springs back into life eventually.

My Dog is Walking With Their Tail between Their Legs

If a dog keeps their tail between their legs even while they’re walking, they are trying to send a message. Usually, it means that the dog is worried or frightened by something, and is not feeling confident in their surroundings.

If you notice your dog walking this way, try to encourage them to hurry up a little and get them somewhere else. Hopefully, this will mean that your dog will perk up when the perceived threat has passed. If the behavior continues, your dog may be sick, and you should seek professional advice.

My Dog’s Tail is Tucked Between Their Legs While They’re Eating

If your dog is eating with their tail between their legs, don’t worry – it’s not a sign that they dislike the meal that you prepared for them. It’s a compliment.

This is the one time that your dog tucking their tail between his or her legs is not a sign of distress, worry or anxiety. Dogs often adopt this position while they are concentrating on filling their faces, or during other activities that they enjoy such as digging a hole in the ground.

Nobody is quite sure why this is, but it appears to be a sign that your dog is concentrating on the task at hand – especially if his or her ears are also pointed forward.

senior dog tail down

My Dog is of Senior Age, and Their Tail is Always Down

Sadly, it’s a cruel and unfair fact of life that dogs age faster than humans and have a shorter life expectancy, If your dog is older than ten in human years, they are considered senior – and as we all know, as we grow older our bodies start to give us more trouble.

A senior dog that constantly has their tail between their legs may not be a problem. It’s possible that they’re just masking their scent as they are not interested in socializing with other dogs in the street (especially those pesky and boisterous puppies!), and can’t be bothered to tell these other canines to leave them alone.

On the other hand, however, it could be a sign that your dog is experiencing health problems. These could be failings in the nerve endings, arthritis or a variety of other concerns. PetMD has a list of possible tail problems that could be impacting your dog, so consider speaking with a vet if you have any worries.

Dogs Wagging Their Tails in Different Directions

There are plenty of other ways that dogs send out messages using the position of their tails – both to humans and their fellow canines. Forget the myth that any kind of tail wagging from a canine is a sign of happiness, as your dog may be using their tail to send a warning message.

The important thing to know is that a dog’s tail acts in almost complete reversal to their brain. What we mean by this is that a dog is experiencing a flood of messages from the left-hand side of the brain, which is associated with pleasure and fun, will wag their tail to the right. If a dog is having a right-brained moment, however, they will be filled with anxiety, frustration or anger and will wag their tails to the left to signify this.

Allow us to elaborate…

My Dog is Wagging Their Tail to the Right

A prominent wagging tail to the right is a dog’s way of saying hello, and that they are excited to see somebody or something. When out for a walk, many younger dogs that recognize a familiar pooch do what is referred to as a ‘play bow’ –bending down until their tummies are on the ground – to signify an interest in playing.

Many dogs outgrow this particular behavior as they leave the puppy years behind, but they replace the social cue with wagging their tail to the right. This is sending another message to other dogs that says, “I’m in a great mood! Feel free to come on over and say hello – if I may say so myself, my bottom is smelling particularly intoxicating today.”

Although this message is primarily for the benefit of other dogs, this is also a hugely beneficial piece of body language for any dog owner to learn. It helps us judge whether we should allow our pooch to approach a strange canine in the park, and gives us an early warning that our dogs may be feeling playful and need a little off-leash time.

dog tail between legs and whimpering

My Dog is Wagging Their Tail to the Left

Of course, every action has an opposite reaction – and a dog wagging their tail to the left is sending a very clear and unmistakable message that they are not in the mood for any socializing.

This could be a permanent status – some dogs just don’t like other dogs, for their own reasons. It may be that the canine in question is grumpy that day because they are hungry, thirsty, tired or in pain. It may be that the dog had a bad experience with a pooch of the same breed, and wants nothing to do with this new arrival.

Whatever the reason, respect the left-side tail wag and the fact that it is basically saying, “not today, I’m not in the mood. You’ll leave me alone if you know what’s good for you.”

If a dog approaches a hound that has sent this warning sign, a display of dominance and/or aggression is almost certain to follow. Learning this particular piece of canine body language yourself could spare your pup from any unpleasant interactions with an antisocial animal, and ensure that everybody can enjoy their walk without an incident.

Other Dog Tail Wagging Behaviors

Here are some other tail positions to keep an eye out for, and take the appropriate action wherever necessary.

My Dog is Frantically Wagging Their Tail

Broad tail wagging is usually a good sign. If a dog is allowing their tail to swish from one direction to the next, unburdened by any sense of caution, it’ll be because they’re in a great mood and don’t care who knows it; this is doggy body language for, “I am approachable, and I am not a threat in any way.”

You may be familiar with this kind of tail wagging when you return home from work, and your dog greets you, or when you lay down their dinner for the evening. If a strange canine or human receives this greeting, it means your dog has taken an immediate shine to them and wants to make this person or dog feel welcome in their company.

My Dog is Very Gently Wagging His or Her Tail

If your dog is wagging their tail a little more slowly and cautiously, perhaps at a form of half-mast rather than fully extended, they have not quite decided how they feel about a person, dog or situation. This not a sign of aggression or distaste by any means – it just means that your dog is erring a little on the side of caution, and is prepared to turn and run if necessary.

Basically, this is your dog saying, “OK pal, the ball’s in your court now – should I be excited or anxious about the fact that you’re here?” If you ever encounter a dog that reacts this way, speak in a high voice to reassure them, and don’t make any sudden moves that could cause them to be skittish. You’ll be besties in no time at all.

Is my dog feeling ill?

My Dog’s Tail Appears to be Twitching

If your dog is twitching their tail, almost frantically, this could be a warning sign. It certainly means that this canine is not entirely at ease, and if their tale is pointing straight upward while it twitches, a dog may be sending a message that you are on their territory. Remember what we said earlier about alpha behavior? This is a classic example.

Of course, if the same dog is behaving the same way but with their tail pointed downward – or between their legs – it’s a sign that they’re feeling intimidated or frightened, and question your intentions. If faced with this kind of reaction from a furry friend, reassure them that you have no intention of hurting them as quickly as you can.