Why do dogs chase their tails?

To connect their front end with their hind end.

The number one motive of all animal behavior is to-connect-the-front-end-with-the-hind-end in order to “ground” stimulation. This is because when a dog is stimulated, it’s just as if the dog is cut in half, in other words, the dog’s center-of-consciousness is wholly centered in its head and it can’t feel a thing.

Generally when I tell people that an animals’ front-end-is-not-necessarily-connected-to-its-hind-end meaning that an animal needs to feel resonant with their surroundings in order to feel connected to their body, understandably they find such a notion hard to believe. How could a dog not know that its hind end is part of its front end no-matter-what? Then after one seminar several years ago a participant sent me the link below to a video on the internet. I suggest you mute the volume so that the laughter in the background won’t obscure the profound principle that is actually being revealed through this dog’s behavior.

This poor dog has no idea it’s attacking its own foot because it takes a feeling for an animal to have a sense of its body and every feeling is dependant on a sense of resonance with the external surroundings. And when a dog’s body is impacted by something that doesn’t resonate with a feeling, instincts and habits from the Big-Brain in its head run the show. In this state, such a dog is “referencing” the inner ear balance system in its head and is so preoccupied that it has no “idea” what the rest of its body is doing because it’s not feeling the rest of its body. The state of disconnect can become so total that even physical sensations from the hind end can be tuned out. So in this video while one end of the dog is gnawing on the bone, the other end of the dog, its foot, by straying into the dog’s peripheral vision is triggering the physical memory of having once been attacked by another dog and this is all it’s perceiving and experiencing by the encroachment of its foot. The unfortunate dog is doomed to relive the memory every time it’s in an analogous situation. I once witnessed a Scotty gnawing on a bone go into a full fledged attack mode when being buzzed by a fly and it acted just as if it was dealing with a huge Saint Bernard looming over its head.

So a behaviorist would say that a dog chases its tail because the tail is moving and the canine prey instinct evolved to reflexively chase that which moves, especially when bored. But this explanation misses the far more fundamental point that such a dog is responding reflexively to a fundamental paradox of its hardware and which motivates it to connect with those things in its environment that can connect its front-end-to-its-rear-end. Dogs that have been chronically overly stimulated, and puppies, are those especially prone to chase the nearest thing that’s moving and they have no “idea” they’re chasing a part of their own body.

As funny or pathetic as some of these behaviors may strike us, the truth is that because a dog’s sense of its body is directly related to a feeling that connects it to its surroundings, we have identified a perfect platform for an auto-tuning/feedback dynamic that lends intelligence to how animals respond to the world. Animals need external objects of attraction in order to connect-the-front-end-to-the-hind-end and experience a true feeling. And therefore while some dogs become addicted to tail chasing in order to address the fundamental problem of their emotional makeup, nonetheless all dogs are social by their nature and so they are most vulnerable to this affliction.

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Published August 11, 2009 by Kevin Behan
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17 responses to “Why do dogs chase their tails?”

  1. Adam says:

    This video is very interesting. I understand what you said about why the dog reacts to his foot in terms of physical memory. But I don’t understand what “motivates” his foot to do that in the first place. I mean…where’s the stimulation that initially produces that behavior? I have a feeling the answer has something to do also with physical memory. I’m thinking specifically of another article of yours that describes a dog being yelled at, and “reliving” a broken leg previously cared for by the owner.

  2. kbehan says:

    Excellent question. Because this dog is more into balance than hunger (even though it is chewing a bone) he is more into his head than into his body so that his body isn’t fully integrated into its mind in that particular moment. So because the dog is excited about the bone, and because it is operating through the balance perspective, therefore output-has-to-equal-input and therefore the body is trying TO RUN so that the Big-Brain can satisfy the balance mandate wherein output-has-to-equal-input. In other words the excess energy of the Big Brain activity is leaking into the body via motor reflexes which are indeed the physical memory of running. Now what put this dog into this highly defensive/balance perspective when enjoying a bone is invariably another dog attacking it over a bone or food or toy and so when its foot strays into its peripheral vision it construes one of the toenails to be an eye and is indeed reliving the memory of being attacked.

  3. Lorraine says:

    I have a 7 month old Shih Tsu. She has the same reaction to her tail as the dog in this video does to its foot. I mentioned it to the vet just yesterday and she said it is a phobia and that it is a serious situation. The vet continued to say we need to correct this phobia as soon as possible with discipline and or training or we will need to get her on medication in the future. The vet mentioned she had only seen this in one other dog in the past 10 years. I agree with the author of this article that the dog is not aware that it is controlling its own leg, just like my dog doesn’t realize she controls her own tail. Every dog we have owned chased their tails to some extent, but they never got angry and acted like they were going to attack. Our vet suggested more exercise and to distract them with positive reinforcement, but not treats because they will think they are being rewarded for their bad behavior and continue to repeat it.

  4. kbehan says:

    One way to state the problem is that your dog doesn’t know what the “prey” is, hence she projects her “self” into her tail and then gets addicted to the adrenaline rush of trying to chase it down. What has to happen is that your dog needs to get the exact same downloading of intensity to a prey object of your choosing rather than something her instincts have defined as prey. In other words, the dogs tail represents something that offers a great degree of resistance, given that she can never catch it, and yet it’s always moving away, hence it’s the path of least resistance. So it’s a state of conflict that makes energy and because it’s self perpetuating it becomes addictive. The solution is to train her to overcome objects of resistance that you offer and can control access to thereby not only giving you access to this distortion of energy in your dog, but also the means to process it into a group purpose that can hit the “stop signal.”
    Also, you have to look at the input side of the equation, what is overly stimulating to your dog and which then requires her instinct to construe her own tail as its resolution.

  5. christine randolph says:

    …i have seen on tv how a dog was cured from that obsessive twirling by getting a “job” (in this case carrying a small backpack on regular walks…) in more general terms. focussing on extraneous objects not connected to her. maybe the backpack would also shift the focus from head.tail to center of dog.. which might be a balancing thing to do ????

  6. kbehan says:

    I can see how that could be a really good idea. My only question is that after the dog acclimates to the backpack, can it still hold onto the feeling of its whole body, or would it when stressed, once again be able to see its tail as the preyful aspect not connected to its self and then pickup the problem again because the notion of a group purpose wasn’t directly addressed. But nonetheless the basic idea sounds good.

  7. christine randolph says:

    it could be that the group purpose gets somehow addressed by the backpack. not sure if it would help to put bottled water in there which everyone then drinks on the walk.

    how would we know if the dog has or has not addressed the group purpose at least for a little while, surely the dog could alternate between group purpose and her solipsistic tail chasing ?

  8. kbehan says:

    The surest indication is whether one can attract all their dog’s energy and so that they orbit the handler and are easy to live with in general.

  9. elmo tha KILLA!!!!! says:

    My dog also LOVES TO CHASE HIS TAIL!!!(and our rabbit)

  10. Andrea says:

    I have two labradors and when they wag their tail their whole body moves with them (i know going completely of topic but) i was just wanting to know why this is.

  11. kbehan says:

    Your question is right on topic. In a dog’s mind, its front end isn’t necessarily connected to its hind end. A dog FEELS its whole body (one must make a distinction between bodily sensations and a feeling) when it FEELS connected to an object of desire. This feeling of connection arises from the physical memory of warm mothers’ milk coursing into the neonatal puppy’s gut from the moment of birth and the first weeks of life. This is an imprinting process rendering an individual that feels viscerally connected to its surroundings as the basis of its perception. All the neurological and physiological processes involved in ingesting its first meals, become the basis of emotional affects that thereafter are released when a dog ingests, through any of its senses, a preyful aspect of a stimulus. So your dogs rear ends wiggle in a whole body wave because they feel connected on sight, they feel as if they are ingesting the essence of what they are attracted to, just as if there is an electrical current running from the Big Brain in their head to the little brain in their gut. This is how infant pups feel toward any object of desire, before they experience the rigors and resistance of life, and my interpretation is consistent with Coppinger’s theory of neotony as an explanation of the various dog breeds. So labs are characterized by a puppy-like dentition, pronounced stop in their skull, a puppy-like coat, and the puppy-like disposition of feeling orally connected on sight. They grow up to retain a very low threshold of perceiving a preyful aspect in a complex object of attraction and so feel emotionally grounded on sight. Concurrent with this is a very low threshold of inhibition toward the predatory aspect, so that they are easily deflected and radiate the excess emotional energy outward in intense displays of personality because they cannot overcome resistance directly, what we otherwise call friendly. Another way of saying this is that their rear end goes “faster” than their front end, hence the whole body wave action.

  12. Christine says:

    My girl Diva will often “cry” when greeting me, as she licks furiously at my face and/or mouth. She’ll sit close to me, sometimes pawing at me, and then she’ll lay down and roll over, grinning and making what I perceive as “sensual” movements. Duncan does the whole body wiggle and pushes his head into me. Are these all aspects of feeling grounded or am I missing the point?

  13. kbehan says:

    It sounds like a bit of both. She’s definitely grounded and so you see sensuality in her body, but there is also an intensity going on (the intense vibrations of whining/licking/pawing ) which represents that the ground isn’t enough to channel the complete load. If there’s any unwanted aggression in her behavior, it is the mirror image of this greeting. Duncan seems mroe fully channeled, maybe it’s a guy thing!

  14. lisa ryan says:

    I have a 6 month old female jack russell. When eating a bone,chicken neck or fresh meat, she sees her tail sneaking up on her and all hell breaks loose. She thinks her tail is trying to get the food and chases her tail in circles and snarls viciously while doing it. She does not do this with dry or wet food – only fresh meat or bones.i can take the food away from her with no drama but I am worried she may bite soneone one day.

  15. lexie says:

    My dog aggressively attacks his tail whenever he has food he is protective over and almost every night when he’s in bed. He gets so aggressive towards it he’s made himself bleed. However he’s such a mild manor dog that I could literally take any food away from him and he would just look at me. I’ve had to because of him attacking his tail. So I’m just wondering how do I help him passed this? It’s getting to be too much on the middle of the night.

  16. Kevin Behan says:

    Reading between the lines, I’m presuming he may be too mild to play intense tug-of-war with you. If this is the case, then that would be my first line of approach. The rage he is directing towards himself, and which has no object through which he can reach a successful conclusion (bring the prey to ground), has to be objectified so that it can reach terminus.
    Question: Was he ever swatted on the rump as a pup?

  17. lexie says:

    He is very mild but definitely has no problem with playing hard. He loves fetch. We got him at about 5 weeks old but he didn’t start doing this till about a year and half. He wasn’t swatted on the bottom but was put outside the house when he misbehaved. We did obedience school with him when he was young and he did really well other than he was too timid with other dogs. He is a Shepherd and hound of some type.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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