FAQ – Why’s the dog’s tail position so important?

QUESTION: I keep hearing people talk about the position of the dog’s tail when it’s working sheep. What do they mean?

ANSWER: When dogs are relaxed, they hold their tails in a normal downward position but when they are nervous or afraid, the dog’s tail becomes rigid, and often points upwards.

photo showing the dog with its tail in the air as it's led into the training ring

In the photograph above, Andy is leading trainee sheepdog Scylla into the training ring – with Scylla’s tail straight in the air. A sure sign that the dog is nervous.

An experienced sheepdog trainer can get a good indication of the dog’s anxiety level by looking at its tail position while it’s working sheep or other stock.

If any part of the tail is pointing upwards it’s often seen as a bad sign. Some trainers of dogs intended for sheepdog trials, will reject a dog which lifts its tail when put under pressure, such as working very closely with sheep.

Whilst the carriage of the dog’s tail is certainly and indication of its anxiety level, we don’t agree with this blanket condemnation IN THE EARLY STAGES OF TRAINING. Many of the dogs we’ve trained have shown tail in the early stages, but with good training, those dogs have gone on to make first class sheepdogs.

Do not forget though, that when the dog lifts its tail, it’s a sign that the dog’s confidence is very low.

photo showing a sheepdog being led into the training ring with its tail in a normal position
Bronwen’s tail position is normal, suggesting she’s relaxed and confident before her training session.

This post is one of our Sheepdog Training FAQs
Click here for the full list of frequently asked questions.

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