Imagine if your dog couldn’t communicate anything with you. You would never know what he was feeling, and you probably wouldn’t feel anywhere near as attached to your dog as you do. As in any relationship, the ability to communicate leads to a deeper sense of trust and creates a strong and healthy bond between human and dog. Dogs have many effective ways of communicating with human beings, including the position and motion of their tails. Some of these statements, like a happily wagging tail, seem loud and clear. Yet others require a bit more deciphering, and they can sometimes mean more than one thing depending on the context of the rest of the body. Here’s what it could mean when your dog’s tail is down, and when to know if the problem is more than just mood.
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The Root of the Behavior
The expression “like a dog with his tail between his legs” generally translates to a humbled, submissive, or recently repentant person. There is a lot of truth in this expression! Dogs bring their tails between their legs whenever they feel that they are in trouble, when they have just been punished for bad behavior, or when they feel stressed or anxious. A tenser, lower tail translates to deeper stress, guilt, or fear. In other words, a dog with his tail hanging kind of low is not as stressed or sorry as a dog with his tail tucked tightly between his legs. Dogs that are frequently or constantly tensed up with their tails low are showing that they are under considerable stress, and if you notice this behavior, you can try removing stress or anxiety-inducing triggers from your dog’s environment.
While tucking a tail between the legs is a more extreme form of this communication, it is important to note that one of the signs of a relaxed, completely comfortable dog is a low, relaxed tail. In this case, your dog is simply allowing his tail to rest along its natural curve. As a means of comparison, the human hand rests naturally at a significant curve inward. Making a fist closes all of the fingers the rest of the way, and usually represents stress, anger, or frustration. When a person is relaxed, their hands tend to rest in the semi-closed, natural state, and the same goes for a dog’s tail. The exact resting position of the tail will vary depending on breed and tail length, but the generally relaxed state will be clearly communicated in the dog’s overall body language.
A chronically low hanging tail may not always be communicating anything at all; it may be the result of a medical condition. Several different dog breeds are prone to a condition called limber tail syndrome. There are several different terms for the condition—cold water tail, broken wag, dead tail—each identifying a condition in which a dog’s tail seems to hang completely limp and stop working suddenly. The cause is thought to be overexertion, and the symptoms are the result of what amounts to a muscle strain in the dog’s tail muscles. In most cases, the tail will return to normal after a week or so of rest, with little to no treatment necessary.
Encouraging the Behavior
Just like people, different dogs have different personality types that make them more or less anxious, fretful, excitable, stressed, and playful. Dogs that tend to be more fearful are more likely to have their tails down and tucked between their legs, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of living healthy, happy dog lives. The key is to learn what stresses your dog out, and patiently approach redirecting fearfulness until your dog is comfortable with his surroundings. In most cases, you will not be able to eliminate all stressors from a fearful dog’s life, nor should you attempt to. Focus on helping your dog adjust to his immediate fears and to his immediate living situation. Doing so will eliminate the majority of stress and anxiety from your dog’s life, which in turn may enable further confidence and curiosity.
Sporting dogs with long, active tails are most at risk for experiencing limber tail syndrome in their lifetimes. In many cases, the tail will suddenly become limp following a time of prolonged play. Swimming for a long period of time often causes the condition. The difference between limber tail syndrome and a more serious spinal or tailbone problem is the sudden change, from perfectly normal to absolutely limp. Although the condition seems painful, it does not seem to cause dogs any pain beyond the tenderness that you might feel after a good workout. Simply encourage your dog to rest and take it easy, and in a week or so, your dog’s tail should be back to happily wagging away.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Since limber tail syndrome is a known but not fully understood condition, it can be easy to mistake it for something more serious. If your dog seems to be in considerable pain, avoids his tail, and keeps his tail at a low or awkward angle, there may be a more serious spine condition that a veterinarian should address. This could include anything from a fracture to bone cancer, and any condition of this nature will need to be diagnosed and treated by a veterinarian. Both x-rays and a physical exam are necessary for ruling out any serious conditions, and if you are unsure of the exact nature of your dog’s injury, it may be a good idea to take your dog in for a physical exam anyways.
Learning to communicate with your dog and reading his body language always leads to a stronger bond between you and your best friend. It will make you a better caretaker, which in turn will give you a greater sense of reward in caring for your dog. See what you can learn from your dog’s tail today, and you may find yourself more in tune with your own body language of the body language of your peers.