With Her Tail Between Her Legs

Most of us know that a dog’s tail can be a fairly good indicator of mood. We can observe whether the tail carriage is low, medium, or high and whether it is loose or stiff. Whether and in what manner it is wagging. We can often draw some pretty good conclusions from those observations, keeping breed in mind.

A dog wagging her tail loosely at a low angle is possibly friendly. A dog holding her tail upright, wagging it stiffly from side to side is one to watch out for. A dog with her tail hanging straight down or tucked between her legs is usually afraid or unhappy.

dog with tail between legs eating out of a Kong toy
Zani focused on a Kong with her tail tucked

Except when she’s not.

I have a popular YouTube movie called Kongs for Beginners, in which I show how to make very easy Kongs for puppies and inexperienced dogs. All four of my dogs from that time demonstrate. A viewer commented that Zani looked unhappy because her tail was tucked. I hadn’t noticed. I agreed and put a note in the video description about it.

But over the years I’ve changed my mind. I’ve noticed that Zani tucks her tail in certain situations in which I know she is not unhappy. She does it when she is working with a food toy, when she is digging, even when she licks a plate. It seems to happen when she is very focused on a task in front of her.

Take a look.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

I’m letting this be a reminder to me to look at the whole dog and the whole situation and not just one obvious aspect. And don’t forget: breed can make a big difference in tail carriage and other aspects of body language.

Zani’s tail may be tucked in those situations, but the rest of her body is not spelling out “misery.” She is animated and her ears are forward, and in two of the clips, she is eating.

Here’s a photo of Zani with a tucked tail when she was scared and upset for comparison. In this photo, you can see a lot of other stress signs.

How about the rest of you? Anybody else’s dogs tuck their tails when they are probably not upset? The reason I finally published this is that I did find one other person whose dog does the same thing. Thank you to Johnna Pratt, who also has a dog who tucks her tail when working hard on something. We’d love to hear about some others.

dog with tail between legs
Zani working to “bury” a Himalayan chew in the pillow, with her tail firmly tucked

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

32 thoughts on “With Her Tail Between Her Legs

  1. This is a great post! It is SO important to know the individual dog and look at the big picture. Thanks for the reminder! I’ve seen other dogs who tuck tails when concentrating. It’s kind of like people who look “serious” or “grumpy” when they are concentrating on something …

  2. So glad we connected and put this all together Eileen!! It’s been so frustrating as the owner of a very loved, spoiled and pampered pooch to try to explain to other people who don’t know me or my dog – that “No, really she isn’t scared, nervous, upset of abused – she’s just focused and concentrating”! I think your post illustrates how you really have to look at the entire dog and also the context in which the behavior is occurring and realize that just like people – different dogs have their own unique personalities and respond to things in different ways. There’s no such thing as a cookie cutter dog.

  3. The situations you’re describing all involve resources. Makes me wonder if there isn’t a low level of concern over protecting her resources that’s actually leading to the low tail.

    1. Jen, that’s a good observation. I’ve been trying to think of a commonality since she also does it when digging in the dirt. Maybe not food, right away, but definitely a resource. She does it even when alone, but if one is all involved with something in front, one could get surprised by someone or something in back. If I could get a little anthropomorphic here, I have wondered whether it is something like “protect the butt while I am paying attention up here.”

    2. My dog – who is a tail tucker when concentrating – also does it when performing tricks. Not simple easy tricks, or ones she knows very well; but more complicated multi stepped tricks where there is a lot for her to remember. For example – open crate door, enter crate, turn around, close crate door requires much more concentration (and leads to tail tucking) then say “spin around”.

  4. I’m with you.

    I think of a tucked tail in a dog as similar to a furrowed brow or pursed lips in a human. These expressions are pretty common when a person is stressed, worried, irritated, upset, angry, etc. But they also occur at moments of very intense concentration or mental focus – even when the task at hand is thoroughly enjoyable.

    In one of my former lives, I worked as a photojournalist, photographing (among other things) world-renowned orchestra conductors. You would not believe the grimacing, frowning, etc. displayed on their faces while they were conducting. But if you asked them, they would tell you that they LOVED what they were doing, and that it was exhilarating for them.

    It seems that certain creatures contract certain muscles when they are focusing attention very closely, and that looking at the whole body, in the whole context, is the only way to truly understand the “meaning” of individual parts.

    1. What great observations! Thanks for sharing; they are perfect examples. One of my dogs furrows her brow a lot; it is a sign that she is stressed OR paying close attention. I think with Zani’s tail thing it’s a combination of attention with also specifically involving her front end in certain ways. And possibly even protecting her backside…

  5. Thanks for another great article Eileen! A lovely reminder to look at whole context before making assumptions. I have also noticed my BC x Charlie doing this when he is chewing on a bone or working on a Kong. The first thought that came into my head when I observed this, was that he was tucking his tail for better balance. As all his weight is concentrated and projected in front of him, he needs something to anchor the back part of him to the ground for extra traction and forward force. I could be very wrong, but it seemed to make sense to me 🙂

    1. I like that theory as well. In the last clip of the Zani movie (caching), it almost seems like her tail is working a little like a rudder as she moves around, then it clamps down when she focuses forward.

  6. Great subject! I’ve noticed my dogs doing this and in the beginning I’d get worried that something was stressing my dogs but over time I realised that this is ‘normal ‘ behaviour. I’ve seen this behaviour in young pups as well. I’ve even seen it in younger dogs when playing intensive tug games so I’d agree it’s to do with intensity of concentration which makes certain muscles contract.

  7. Perhaps it is because dogs cover their anal glands to stop others getting their scent. So the dog is saying she doesn’t want anyone coming up to her or investigating her as she is quite happy on her own with her kong thank you very much.
    A great observation though.

  8. Kya tucks her tail when eating however ive always thought this was related to her anxiety

  9. Lots of interesting comments for reasons. The conductor one and the “I’m busy up front” both make sense to me! I’ve noticed my dog tucking her tail (tucking may be extreme, it’s not so far tucked as to be touching her tummy – just clamped down tightly) at non-scary times too – sometimes when using her nose to hunt for treats or trying to get at a treat that is difficult to extract from its hiding place.

    She also clamps down her tail when getting pets by some of her favourite people – usually people who are a bit rougher with their petting – she rushes over happily to say hello and gets a full-scale rubdown and overall seems to be enjoying herself immensely but based on her tail and the occasional raised paw you’d think she finds it stressful. Still not sure what to make of that one – maybe it’s enjoyable but also a bit stressful for her, so mixed emotions.

    1. Also very interesting examples! Thanks for posting. I think it’s cool that there seem to be interweaving reasons.

  10. I also had a dog who tucked her tail way under while eating a kong or other particularly tasty treat. I always wondered about the strange conflict between the activity and the posture, and always wondered what triggered the inclination.

  11. Thanks for this Eileen. My dog too does this and I have always believed it was down to focussing hard on something. The obvious time she tucks her tail is when she is eating.

  12. All of my many beagles bar one have tucked their tails in when eating, all have loved food above all else and none have ever had issues round the food bowl. I just assume dinner is a very serious thing. The one who doesn’t is a weirdo who would even wag if you sawed a leg off.

    1. I can just see your beagles and their tucked tails, seriously eating. Except for the one, which is funny too. Thanks for the comment!

  13. I agree. My male dobe only carries his tail high when he’s excited. When he’s relaxed or concentrating, he carries it low with just the end tipped up. And he has several quite different ways of wagging it – side to side for general friendliness, helicopters when he sees a puppy, Indian snake charmer when he’s looking for a ball in the field.

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