Why Do Dogs Keep Their Tails Between Their Legs?

Adrienne Farricelli

Dogs keep their tails between their legs for a good reason: to make themselves look as small as possible. It's somewhat similar to when us humans curl up into the fetal position when feeling sad or sick. Dogs may also keep their tails between their legs due to natural tail carriage which may vary from one breed and another.

In order to better understand why dogs keep their tails between their legs it helps to take a closer insight into canine anatomy and how dogs use their instincts to get themselves out of potentially dangerous situations. Let's face it: dog tails are appendages that can get dogs in trouble, providing opponents an area to grab and potentially cause harm. 

When dogs wag their tails, their anal glands are spreading pheromones that are released for identification purposes.

A Lesson in Anatomy 

Most people know that dogs come with four legs and have tails that are often wagged. Those beautiful tails may be wagged in large sweeping motions, in small wags restricted only to the tip and sometimes even in full circles. However, many people do not know exactly what hides under a dog's tail (or perhaps they may not want to know!) Yet, this can be very helpful in understanding Rover more. 

Well, here's a spoiler. Under a dog's tail we obviously find the dog's behind which is  meant to expel feces, but it doesn't "end" here. Around the dog's rectum are  two paired reservoirs, one on each side of the rectum which are known as anal sacs or anal glands. If you imagine your dog's rectum as the face of a big clock, these sacs are found around the 4 o'clock and 8 o'clock position.

What's the purpose of these glands? They each come equipped with a duct which discharges fluid every time the dog has a bowel movement that is solid enough to "express" them. According to research by Natynczuk, Bradshaw and McDonald, compounds excreted by these glands are very unique, varying between one dog and another. 

This helps explain why dogs are so interested in sniffing each other's' behinds and why they are so intrigued by each others' feces which are coated with these compounds. Through detection of these compounds, dogs can learn a whole lot about each other (possibly sex, age, reproductive status, etc.) 

Interestingly, when dogs wag their tails, their anal glands are spreading pheromones that are released for identification purposes.

"Whether intentionally or not, when a dog wags her tail, all the very fascinating odors (to a dog) from her anal sacs spread in a bloom around her body. She is not only telling other dogs how she’s feeling; she’s scenting who she is."~Alexandra Horowitz, Being a Dog, Following the Dog Into a World of Smell

"Please Don't Hurt Me"

According to the book "Exploring Life Science, Volume 6" dogs and cats who feel threatened will pull their ears back so that they are plastered against their head. "This action helps protect their ears from injury if they have to fight another animal."

If we think about this, this theory makes perfect sense after all. Ears that are carried naturally tend to protrude from the head. They can easily become targets and risk getting scratched or bitten by any animal with an aggressive intent. By flattening them as tightly as possible against the head, dogs are instinctively practicing some level of damage control.

In a similar fashion, dogs who feel threatened and frightened may also instinctively tuck their tails under them as an extra effort to protect their appendages from becoming an easy-to-grab protrusion which can get them into trouble. 

The extreme expression of fear are ears back and tail tucked under the body. It's as if the dog is saying: "Please don't hurt me"

"Please Be Nice With Me"

If dogs could talk, most likely what they would say when they tuck their tails is something along the lines of "I'm no threat to you, so please be nice with me."

It's almost as if these dogs are trying to get as small as possible or even invisible. You can often see this body language when dogs feel intimidated by another dog or by an owner who is scolding the dog. 

Such dogs exhibit a tail held between their legs along with flattened ears, providing what may look like the classical "guilty" look. In this case though, more than feeling guilty, the dog is simply sending appeasing body language in hopes of calming down the owner and deflecting his threatening posture or tone.

Dogs who feel intimidated and scared, on top of keeping their ears flat and tail between their legs, will typically also exhibit a lowered body posture and avoid making direct eye contact. 

Such dogs may stick their tongue out in an attempt to lick and they may show squinty eyes. Shenkel in a paper published on the journal "Integrative and Comparative Biology" referred to this posture as "active submission."

On top of this, dogs who are fearful aren't much eager to spread any identification chemicals around, since, as mentioned, they may wish to become as small and invisible as possible, keeping a low profile.

 At worse, if they are really frightened, they may secrete "alarm pheromones" under the form of stinky, anal gland secretions that may smell like rotten fish.

A lower tail position decreases the amount of scent that is emitted from the anal glands. Tail tucking interferes with the ability of other dogs to perceive identifying information. These dogs may wish to hold a low profile and hide under the radar 

"I'm Not Feeling Well"

A dog who displays a tucked tail may be showing signs of not feeling well and this can be physical or emotional. 

Among the many medical maladies that may affect dogs, there are several in particular that may trigger a tucked tail, although a tucked tail may also be just a general sign of malaise. 

In general, a tucked tail may point to an anal gland problem or back pain explains veterinarian Dr. Scott. Anal glands are found under the dog's tail and they sometimes may get impacted or infected. When keeping the tail up, more pressure is exerted on the area so the tail is kept down to prevent this.

Back pain can be caused by arthritis, a disc protrusion or perhaps bone spurs that impinge on the spinal cord. 

In some cases, a tucked tail may be due to a condition that is known as limber tail. If your dog's tail has gone limp and is hanging down after swimming in cold water or after an injury by pulling the tail, then, this may be a possibility. 

 If you have a dog with a tucked tail, it's important to have the dog see the vet to see what is going on and possibly have the back end radiographed to pinpoint a specific diagnosis and treatment plan.

Greyhounds and whippets are known for having a natural low tail carriage

Other Causes for Tucked Tails in Dogs

Upon observing dogs interact and go about with their lives, you will notice several other circumstances where dogs will tuck their tails. 

Dogs may tuck their tails to protect the area under their tails. At the vet's office, dogs may be seen tucking their tails tightly to avoid having their temperatures taken. 

 When there are bugs around their rear ends, dogs will tuck their tail to prevent them from accessing their private areas. 

Undersocialized or shy dogs may tuck their tails to to prevent other dogs from sniffing their behinds. 

When evaluating why dogs tuck their tails, it's important to consider that certain dog breeds have a naturally low tail carriage. Greyhounds and whippets are known for having low tail carriage.  

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs have several good reasons for keeping their tails tucked between their legs. Now that you know, here are a few tips. 

  • If your dog is keeping his tail tucked and you cannot find a reason for the behavior, play it safe and have your dog see the vet for a thorough examination.
  • If your dog is very meek and perhaps slightly fearful or anxious, take steps to help your dog gain more confidence. Here are some exercises for helping dogs gain confidence. 
  • Identify stimuli/contexts in which your dog appears uncomfortable and take steps in preventing full intensity exposure to those. 
  • Consider that dogs with flattened ears and tucked tails may turn defensively aggressive if they are cornered and have no way to stop an interaction that causes them anxiety. 
  • Avoid yelling at your dog, startling your dog and moving  too quickly. 
  • For difficult cases, consider behavior counselling. Employ a force-free dog trainer/behavior consultant to help your dog.