It’s a gesture that we are presented with often through a dog’s life, especially when he or she is growing up, however, it often goes either ignored or misinterpreted. It’s the dog’s way of communicating with us which, although uses basic body language, often times backfires and fails to convey the message that the dog is trying to put forward.
You know the story all too well by now, you come home after a long day at work, you find your favorite slippers chewed up, the couch cushions have been eviscerated, and in the middle of the living room lies your dog chewing on the TV remote. You scold him, or her, and then something happens, the dog looks into your eyes, bows its head and tucks its tail between its legs.
This is what's known as an apology bow, the dog realizes that he, or she, has made a mistake, acknowledges his or her fault in it and assumes an apologetic stance. The head is oftentimes bowed, avoiding eye contact, the back is slightly curled up, but most importantly the tail is tucked between the dog's legs almost forming a perfect "C".
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The Root of the Behavior
The dog's ancestor, the wolf, is a highly sociable animal, the vast majority of cases living in packs with a clearly defined hierarchal order. The pack itself is a tight-knit society with clear rules in regards to ethics and conduct, which every single member of the pack has to follow, otherwise, he or she faces the harshest punishment they can imagine, exclusion from the pack. The very first thing that a wolf cub learns, from a very young age, just like we teach our children, is to apologize when they do something wrong or when they are scolded by the pack leader. This is because, just like children, cubs tend to make a lot of mistakes and cause quite a few annoyances for more mature and even elder members of the pack. Once such events occur, the cubs themselves need to be disciplined in order to know their place in the pack, know what is wrong and what is right in the pack, and most importantly learn how to properly function in the pack unit. The idea of apology has been ingrained in wolves and subsequently, in dogs, which is why a dog does not need to grow up in a pack in order to know how and why to apologize, the dog just needs to know who the pack leader is and who he is apologizing to. In this case, you are the pack leader and the dog sees you as the main shot caller of the pack. Because you’ve scolded the dog, the dog realizes he or she has made a mistake, mostly by your tone and body language, and he or she apologizes by taking this apologetic stance.
Something very important to note here is the fact that, while this stance is an apologetic one, the dog will need to acknowledge your position as the pack leader before they will even begin to apologize for their actions. While this can be easy when it comes to breeds like Dalmatian, Doberman, Schnauzer, Labrador, and other more obedient breeds, it can be quite a challenge for breeds like Husky, German Shepherd, Akita, Beagle, and other generally stubborn breeds which will take advantage of each and every opportunity to challenge your position as the leader of the pack. The best thing to do is to assert yourself, dominate the dog and consolidate your position as the leader of the pack.
Encouraging the Behavior
It is important to understand the level of intelligence that dogs actually have. While this differs from breed to breed, or from one training level to the other, the truth stands, dogs are smart. When the dog bows his or her head and tucks his or her tail between his or her legs, then the dog in question assumes the apologetic pose. Here is where the delicate part begins because the dog will adjust his or her behavior according to the reply that you give and the gesture that you make in return. Do not reward the dog in any way, shape or form. Do not pet the dog, do not give the dog treats, do not cuddle the dog. The dog still made a mistake and if rewarded, the dog will interpret it incorrectly and will assume that it’s ok as long as an apology is made.
What you need to do is punish the dog, but punish him or her properly. Just like dealing with a child, you need to assign a punishment that forces the dog to think about his or her actions and feel bad in the process. Command the dog to move to an area well defined and sit or lie down there while you clean up and try and repair what can be repaired. Do not look at the dog, do not acknowledge the dog, do not talk to the dog, the dog is in time out because that is the dog’s punishment. Only address the dog if he or she tries to move from that spot. After a certain period of time has passed and you feel comfortable that the dog has learned his or her lesson, then you can let the dog out of time out.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Another reason why dogs would have their tails between their legs is when they are uncomfortable and weary of their surroundings. This is also a common behavior when there are unfamiliar dogs around and your dog feels uncomfortable around them. In this case, by tucking its tail between its legs, your dog is preventing other dogs from sniffing its butt, as well as preventing being mounted by other dogs. If that is the case, then all you need to do is stand in close proximity to the dog to make it feel more comfortable. As the leader of the pack, your dog looks to you for moral support, and just by being around you, the dog will feel safe and confident enough to meet other dogs and make new friends.
Just like humans, dogs will make mistakes, and dogs will be able to acknowledge those mistakes when scolded. A bowed head and a tail tucked between the legs is their way of acknowledging that and apologizing towards you, the master and leader of the pack. No matter how angry you are, how annoyed you are, how stressed you are, or how panicked you are, you need to calm down, breathe, and react accordingly. Trust that the dog understood what he or she did wrong, and trust that he or she has learned the lesson.