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Why Do Dogs Put Their Tails Between Their Legs? (Explained)

Since dogs can’t talk, their tails are one of the ways they have to communicate with you and with other dogs. 

If tucking their tail between their legs is something your dog often does, it’s natural to wonder, “why do dogs put their tail between their legs?” 

why do dogs put their tails between their legs
Why do dogs put their tails between their legs?

Why Do Dogs Put Their Tails Between Their Legs? 

There are various reasons for this behavior, with the specific motivation for your dog having much to do with context and personality. Here are some of the most common causes for your pup to put their tail being their legs. 

Your Dog Is Nervous 

It’s well-known that a happy dog is a dog with a wagging tail, thanks to a combination of canine cartoons, greeting cards, and popular songs. 

Conversely, anxious dogs may put their tails between their legs. 

Typically, this occurs because you have introduced your dog to a new environment

But you may also observe this habit while on walks or after a significant change at home. 

Changes can range from acquiring a new pet or family member to moving house. If you notice your dog’s tail seems perpetually between their legs, then it may be a sign of ongoing canine anxiety.

Other signs of anxiety or separation anxiety in dogs include: 

  • Pacing/circling door 
  • Whining 
  • Inappropriate elimination  

There are several ways to manage canine anxiety and restore your dog’s tail to upright-antenna status. One of the most effective is synthetic pheromone dispensers. These help relax your dog and alleviate some of their nervousness. 

scared dog
Dog is being scared with his owner!

Your Dog Is Demonstrating Submission 

Another answer to “Why do dogs put their tails between their legs” is that they are demonstrating submission. 

Dogs have an inbuilt sense of hierarchy. Assuming you are at the top of yours, your dog acknowledges that by putting their tail between their legs. 

This behavior is especially evident in multi-pet households, where one animal defers to another when claiming:

  • Food
  • Attention
  • Toys 

Often the submissive dog keeps their tail tucked to signal their submission or willingness to wait their turn. Certain breeds are more submissive than others, and some of the best-known are: 

  • Golden Retrievers 
  • Burmese Mountain Dogs 
  • Greyhounds

You’ll notice that many of these dogs are larger in size than you might expect. That’s because when it comes to establishing submission, a dog’s temperament has more of a role to play than size. 

That said, not all dogs are naturally differential. Some breeds aspire to be dominant, such as: 

  • Bulldogs 
  • Mastiffs 
  • Irish Terriers 

There are ways to curb dominant behavior. One of the most effective is also the most counter-intuitive. Namely, you shouldn’t spoil your pet as it sends conflicting messages about who has the upper hand at any given moment. 

It can also cause insecurity for your dog because when it comes to the point, they don’t want to be in charge. That insecurity leads to the anxiety we mentioned, and once again, you’ll see your pooch tuck their tail. 

Depending on the degree of dominance your dog asserts, another solution can be to embark on dominance training. However, if you go down this route, you must deem it necessary. 

Trying to enforce dominance training on a stubborn (rather than dominant) pup can have a detrimental effect not only on your relationship with the dog but on their developing personality. In extreme cases, it can produce the kind of anxiety common in abandoned or rescued dogs because they no longer feel safe in their home environment. 

German Shepherd nudge owner
German Shepherd nudges his owner to show affection.

Your Dog Made a Mistake 

Dogs that acknowledge a mistake exemplify some of the submissive behavior discussed earlier. 

Certainly, it’s a common scenario in our house. We make a sandwich for lunch, and if we commit the fatal error of leaving it within reach, one of the dogs gets it. They know that’s not allowed, so they slink off, tail between their legs. 

It’s a canine mea culpa that tells you they recognize your authority and that they have broken the rules. To prevent these types of mistakes, it’s important to set clear boundaries when training your dog

While it can be frustrating, yelling at your pet in these situations is unlikely to be helpful. The fact that they have pre-emptively tucked their tail between their legs indicates an awareness of the wrongdoing.

a small boston terrier puppy looks down sadly
A small Boston Terrier puppy looks down sadly.

Responding to Unwanted Mating 

Another answer to “Why do dogs put their tail between their legs” is that your pet may not want to be mated. 

It’s normal for dogs to attempt mating behavior. For many dogs, humping or mating antics can be about establishing dominance, and you are as likely to see a female humping a male as the other way around. 

But if the dog on the receiving end of the attention doesn’t want it, they may put their tail between their legs to call a halt to proceedings

Since this can also indicate submission, it’s a behavior over-eager canines can misinterpret to their detriment. Our female dog has no qualms about nipping her brother on more delicate parts of the body if he doesn’t stop when she puts her tail between her legs and says no trespassing

dogs smell each other
Two dogs smell each other.

Why Do Dogs Tuck Their Tails Between Their Legs When Eating? 

Some animals never forget that they can be both prey and predator. Cats are a classic example, but it’s also true of some dogs. 

It’s especially true of smaller varieties, like Dachshunds, that have a specific hunting function but are almost always eclipsed in size by the animal they’re supposed to be flushing out of the forest. 

This matters when eating because mealtimes are when dogs and other animals are at their most vulnerable. It allows predators to approach and eat them, so the instinct to curl their tails between their legs is natural

Consequently, it’s normal to see pack animals like dogs to eat in groups. That way, there’s always someone to warn them if they’re about to become a snack themselves. 

It’s also incredibly common behavior in dogs eating in an unfamiliar environment, like a shelter, new home, or kennel. Indeed, it’s so common that many shelters warn prospective owners their new pet may not eat for the first 48 hours post-adoption.

As with anything, there are steps you can take to relax your dog at mealtimes. One of the most helpful is to minimize distractions. That means you should avoid feeding your dog during high kitchen traffic.

The frequent interruptions by other family members can distract your pet and at best, stop them from eating and at worst, unsettle them.

If your dog trusts you, another thing you can do is sit with them while eating. That recreates the social eating of pack animals and can reassure your pooch that you’ll look after them if a threat appears. It’s also helpful in multi-pet households because it discourages food snatching. 

Best Dog Food For German Shepherds
A German Shepherd chowing down. Yum!

Interpreting Other Tail Signs and Signals 

If you find yourself asking, “Why do dogs put their tail between their legs,” chances are you’ve noticed other quirks of canine behavior. 

Dogs talk through a variety of outlets. Barking is the most obvious, but eyes and tails are also key sources of canine communication. 

We’ve talked about what it means when a dog puts their tail between their legs, but what else can your dog tell you through their tail? 

  • Downward pointing tail close to legs: This indicates a stressed, anxious dog. 
  • Tail tightly tucked between hind legs: Often, this indicates submission and extreme vulnerability from your dog. 
  • Tail partially tucked between legs: Indicates your pup is submissive but frightened. If you aren’t careful, the dog may attack you or others. 
  • Stiff upright tail: This attitude is displayed by an aggressive dog. 
  • Stiff horizontal tail: Not aggressive but is alert to their surroundings. 
  • Upright, wagging tail: Clear sign your pooch is delighted by you, life, and their surroundings. 

Final Thoughts 

As is now apparent, dogs can say a lot with their tails. So, why do dogs put their tails between their legs? 

Every dog has their reasons. They can range from disinterest in mating to anxiety about their surroundings. 

The context is key to determining the specific reasons behind your dog’s behavior. So will knowing their personality

Crucially, if your new dog or puppy puts their tail between their legs, don’t take it personally. All that tells you is that they aren’t sure about their new home yet. With time and patience, you’ll soon have a new best friend.