Ah yes, that is a classic expression. The well-used phrase of having your tail between your legs comes from our favorite four-legged friends.
This expression usually connotes someone being pretty guilty, but in dogs it can translate as them being scared as well as feeling guilty about something.
However, dogs can put their tails between their legs for lots of other reasons – not just because they are feeling guilty or scared.
So, read on to find out more about why dogs will put their tails between their legs – there is more to it than just feeling guilty or scared.
The Short Answer
Well, the short answer as to why dogs put their tails between their legs is because they might be feeling guilty, scared or they are showing complete submission. Have you ever wondered why dogs do this?
Well, if a dog is frightened they will put their tail between their legs to cover their genital area. This stops other dogs sniffing them, meaning that your dog will instinctively protect where they are most vulnerable: their mating spot.
The Position Of A Dog’s Tail
So, like we said before, a dog can put its tail between its legs to signal various emotions.
But, they do other things with their tail to signal other emotions that they are feeling. In case it wasn’t obvious before, dogs can’t tell us how they feel. They use body language to give a visual representation of how they are feeling.
For instance, we know when a dog is happy because its tail will be wagging frantically, but when a dog is walking slowly with its tail down then you know that it is feeling sad.
Your dog can also have its tail up or down in a naturally calm kind of way, when they are feeling totally comfortable and at home in their environment. However, if your dog has its tail tucked between its legs then it could be conveying a kind of deep message.
Letting Your Dog’s Tail Do The Talking
In particular, we are focusing on why dogs put their tails between their legs, and there is a lot more that we can say on this particular expression of fear and guilt.
Dogs put their tails between their legs when they are scared, they may be showing submission to another dog that frightens them, or they may even react in this way after you have given them a telling off.
If you have a rescue dog, then you may notice that it is quite prone to putting its tail between its legs.
This is sadly quite common in rescue dogs, they take longer to trust in any new environments so they might feel nervous and weary about any new environment they find themselves in for a lot longer than the average dog.
Understanding Your Dog With Its Tail Position
Like we said before, a dog can’t just tell you how it is feeling.
This is super annoying for both you and your four-legged friend when they are distressed or anxious, because as its owner you want to help them but you can’t always work out what your dog needs from you at that moment.
So, here are some standard interpretations of what your dog’s tail position might mean:
- Tail pointing downward close to the legs – here your dog is feeling stressed or insecure.
- Tail tucked tightly between hind legs – here your dog is feeling scared, vulnerable, and maybe even submissive.
- Tail tucked slightly between legs – your dog is not being submissive, but it is still frightened and might even consider an attack.
- Tail held slightly below the top line – your dog is feeling unsure, they might be working out a new environment or deciding where they want to sit down.
- Tail wagging and held more upwards – your dog is happy and joyful. Large sweeping tail motions will especially indicate this.
- Tail wagging and holding more downwards – your dog is analysing and evaluating the situation it finds itself in before allowing itself to be fully happy.
- Stiff, upright tail with a few wagging movements – this is not a good sign. Here, your dog will be feeling aggressive or agitated.
- Horizontal and stiff tail with slight movement – your dog is on alert. Maybe they have heard a particular noise, and they are evaluating the situation before deciding how to react.
- Lowered tail that is drooping and listless – this is often a sign that your dog is feeling unwell, so monitor your dog and if you are really concerned then make sure to take them to the vets.
Disclaimer: every dog is different, so what is normal for your dog might not be so normal according to us – but that is okay! You know your dog best, so you do not need to worry if you do not have a tail-wagging pooch. Your dog might show its happiness in another way. Alternatively it might show that it is frightened or distressed in another way, for instance terrier breeds will not tuck their tail between their legs when they are frightened or when they are being submissive. Also, not all dogs have long tails, so they will struggle to show you how they feel via their tail. Your Frenchie won’t be able to tuck its tail between its legs when it is scared…
What Is Your Dog Trying To Tell You?
It can be hard for us as owners to understand why our dog might be putting its tail between its legs, but there are logical ways that you can use to work out what is wrong with your dog.
You can figure out what your dog is attempting to tell you by assessing the situation. Here are some examples…
Your dog might be saying: ‘I’m sorry.’
Picture this… You have had a long, hard day at the office – and all you want to do is come home, make a big bowl of pasta and crash in front of the TV with a glass of wine.
But, when you get home you see that your dog has gnawed at your running trainers that you left by the front door, not thinking that your dog would look at them as a target to attack. You’ve had a long day, so you shout at your dog and tell it that it had been bad.
This will naturally make your dog feel guilty and it will know that it has done something wrong. Your dog will plead with you for forgiveness, and you will most definitely be met with those classic puppy dog eyes.
This is a situation where your dog might put its tail between its legs because it will know that it has done something wrong and will want to apologise. Well, as much as a dog can apologise.
Your dog is saying ‘I know I’m being cheeky, but I thought I would test my luck.’
In this situation, you might not even need to give your dog a telling off.
If you have told your dog off for taking food off the coffee table, or for having a toileting accident indoors, or we’ll still go with the chewing shoes scenario… It’s happened to all of us dog owners, and if you say it hasn’t then you are lying… then your dog knows what to expect if it does this more than once!
So, the next time your dog commits the same crime that it committed a fortnight ago, your four-legged friend will have its tail between its legs because it knows that it is in trouble. Yeah, your dog was just testing its luck and being a bit mischievous.
Your dog might be saying a simple ‘okay, boss.’
This is going back to dogs’ history of evolving from wolves, where it is part of their nature to submit to their leader. So, in your home you are the boss – or in this case you are the leader of the pack.
The difference here is that as the pack leader, when you are unhappy about something your dog has done then you will reprimand it in a very different style to a wolf pack leader. This situation will definitely cause your dog to put its tail between its legs.
This is a sign of submission as well as actually acknowledging that they know that what they have done is wrong. It’s somewhere between giving an apology and also showing that they are ashamed.
However, some dog breeds can be pretty stubborn about accepting who is the leader of the pack – German shepherds, huskies and beagles are some examples – and it is rare that these breeds will be seen with their tails between their legs.
Your dog might be saying ‘I’m not sure how I feel about this place.’
Your dog putting its tail between its legs when it is in a new environment will mark that it is feeling nervous and it might also be feeling threatened. This might be more common in rescue dogs or if you take your puppy away on vacation, it might take a while for both dogs to adjust in these situations.
These are totally different environments for your dogs to get used to, so it is quite natural for them to feel anxious.
Think about it in simple terms. So, your dog is used to being in your house because to them that is their territory. So, you take your dog on vacation and this is a totally new environment for them that they are not in control over.
They might feel a little overwhelmed and they will want to get used to their new space, but every dog is different. Some dogs might take longer than others to get used to their new environment.
Your dog might be saying ‘please don’t make me do that.’ Does one example spring to mind for you, because it definitely does for us?! Yeah, that is the notorious bathtime. Dogs are known to either love the water, or absolutely hate it. You can’t blame them, there is nothing worse than getting your fur wet after all!
But, of course bathtime is not the be all and end all for your dog. In fact, it can often be pretty essential after they have rolled around in mud or they have dug up half of the yard. So, bathtime is something that your dog might not enjoy, but they will definitely get over it… Or just get used to it.
So, this one is for the girl dogs only – she might be saying: ‘not today!’ What is this in answer to? Well, this would be in answer to mating. Just because your dog is in heat, does not mean that she is totally fine with any dog mating with her. No way!
She will definitely have her tail between her legs and covering her private parts, just to be extra vigilant in deciding that she does not want a certain dog to mate with her.
So, as an owner be weary of this because if your dog isn’t feeling it, then it might not happen… Your four-legged female needs to be totally comfortable in her surroundings, so when your dog is in heat, help her out by making sure that she feels completely at ease and that she is not surrounded by too many males.
She might feel vastly outnumbered and like she is being pestered constantly which will cause your dog to feel agitated and slightly more irritable.
So, on the whole, there are not only lots of ways that your dog can use its tail to tell you how it feels – but there are lots of ways to work out how your dog is feeling just by contextualising a situation.
If you are struggling to work out what is going on in your dog’s head, then try and work out what might trigger your dog to feel stressed or uncomfortable, and then you can work out how to react to the situation.
Discipline can be hard, and you can’t expect yourself to be the perfect dog owner all the time. So, if you shout at your dog and feel bad a little while later then try not to worry. Like a moody teenager, your dog will eventually come round and show you that they love and appreciate you.