A little Dog that wags his tail

Emily Dickinson

In ‘A little Dog that wags his tail’ Emily Dickinson explores themes of human nature, the purpose of life, and freedom. She compares animals, cats and dogs, to adults and children.


Emily Dickinson

Nationality: American

Emily Dickinson redefined American poetry with unique line breaks and unexpected rhymes.

Notable works include 'Because I could not stop for Death' and 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers.' 

Key Poem Information

Unlock more with Poetry+

Central Message: The difference between childhood and adulthood

Themes: Aging

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Amusement, Confidence

Poetic Form: Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

‘A little Dog that wags his tail’ is Emily Dickinson at her most clever. She answers the question, "What do adults and cats have in common?" and provides a compelling answer.

Throughout ‘A little Dog that wags his tail,’ the speaker comments on the pleasures of taking simple joys from life and the purposeless governing that “adults” try to exert over the world. Happiness, such as that seen in the wagging of a dog’s tail, is compared through metaphor to the youthful happiness of childhood.

A little Dog that wags his tail
Emily Dickinson

A little Dog that wags his tailAnd knows no other joyOf such a little Dog am IReminded by a Boy

Who gambols all the living DayWithout an earthly causeBecause he is a little BoyI honestly suppose —

The Cat that in the Corner dwellsHer martial Day forgotThe Mouse but a Tradition nowOf her desireless Lot

Another class remind meWho neither please nor playBut not to make a "bit of noise"Beseech each little Boy —
A little Dog that wags his tail by Emily Dickinson


‘A little Dog that wags his tail’ by Emily Dickinson compares children and dogs as well as cats and adults, and the joy they take from life.

Emily Dickinson begins this poem by speaking about seeing a dog wag its tail. It is a simple pleasure, stimulated by unadulterated joy. This image reminds her of a boy who gambols without “an earthly cause”. He does so because “he is a little Boy” and that’s all. Both the dog and the boy act in accordance with their own instincts. 

In the last lines, she speaks about a cat and its war with a mouse then turns to address a class of adults she dislikes. These are people who look down on children acting like children and the play they engage in. 


‘A little Dog that wags his tail’ by Emily Dickinson is a four-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The lines are also very similar in length. 

The odd-numbered lines, starting with one, each contain four sets of two beats for a total of eight syllables. Of these, the first beat is unstressed and the second is stressed, known as iambic tetrameter. The even-numbered lines have three sets of two beats for a total of six syllables. Both of these start with an unstressed syllable and are followed by a stressed syllable. Of these, the first beat is unstressed and the second is stressed, known as iambic trimeter. 

Dickinson’s Dashes and Capitalization

Scholars are divided over what this intermittent punctuation could mean. But in this case, the dashes are easily read as moments in which the speaker was overwhelmed or thinking hard before proceeding. The pauses represent a desire to create drama and tension in the text. It is also a way for the reader, speaker, and even Dickinson herself, to gather thoughts together before moving on to the next line. 

One should also consider the use of capitalization in these lines. This is another technique that Dickinson is known for, and which causes confusion among students and scholars alike. There is no single definitive reason why Dickinson capitalized the words she did. Often, the words she chose were the most prominent of the lines, the ones that were the most evocative and meaningful. This appears to be the case in ‘A little Dog that wags his tail’ as well.

Poetic Techniques in A little Dog that wags his tail

Dickinson makes use of several poetic techniques in A little Dog that wags his tail’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment,  and metaphor. The latter is one of the most important techniques in this poem. 

A metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that do not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. In this case, the boy, all children, and those with an instinctual purpose in life are compared to the dog, and those who work, control, and want silence is compared to the cat. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Cat” and “Corner” in the first line of the third stanza and “Beseech” and “Boy” in the last line of the fourth stanza. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. This technique can be seen throughout the poem. Examples include the transitions between lines one and two of the first stanza and two and three of the third stanza.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One 

A little Dog that wags his tail

And knows no other joy

Of such a little Dog am I

Reminded by a Boy

In the first stanza of ‘A little Dog that wags his tail,’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that later came to be used as the title of the poem. This line brings to the reader’s mind an image of an excited dog with a wagging tail. The image is one of joy without preconception or condition. It “knows no other joy”. This is the only way of being the dog knows, and the speaker appreciates and accepts that.

In the second set of lines, she compares this joy and the instinctual way the dog participates in it to “a Boy”. The image of the joyful dog brings “a boy” to her mind. The second stanza reveals why. 

Stanza Two 

Who gambols all the living Day

Without an earthly cause

Because he is a little Boy

I honestly suppose —

In these lines of ‘A little Dog that wags his tail,’ the speaker explains how the dog and the boy are similar. They are both living “all the living Day”. They do what they please, feel as they choose, and take pleasure from simple things. There is no “earthly cause” for their actions. He is a “little Boy” and does what little boys do. The child’s playing is similar in nature to the dog’s general disposition. 

Stanza Three 

The Cat that in the Corner dwells

Her martial Day forgot

The Mouse but a Tradition now

Of her desireless Lot

The third stanza brings in the juxtaposed image and metaphor of the cat in the corner. This creature is very different than the dog. She sits, “Her martial day forgot”. This line speaks to a way of the past, a purpose that is long since forgotten. The cat used to hunt mice but now it is a tradition of the past. She is “desireless”. There is nothing the cat really wants out of life except to get on with it.

Stanza Four 

Another class remind me

Who neither please nor play

But not to make a “bit of noise”

Beseech each little Boy —

The cat and her disposition are compared to the “Another class”. This brings the fourth image into Dickinson’s head, those who “neither please nor play”. They are the group that would tell a child to stop playing or stop making noise. These people, jaded adults, value nothing but their own peace of mind and the continuation of the day as it is. 

Poetry+ Review Corner

A little Dog that wags his tail

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

Emily Dickinson

'A little dog that wags his tail' is one of Dickinson's more joyful poems in which she explores the innocent happiness that is experienced by animals. She compares this joy to youthful recollections of play and rest.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

19th Century

Written in the nineteenth century, the poem's message would be every bit as applicable in most contexts in which humans have kept pets. The slightly antiquated use of language is the only thing that ties the poem to the nineteenth century.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Aside from countries that do not keep dogs as pets, this poem would be as resonant in any country and is certainly not specific to America. However, Emily Dickinson was American and lived in the country all her life.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The narrator's experience of seeing the dog wagging its tail encourages them to reflect upon their own childhood and sense of joyful discovery that is associated with youth. The poem therefore engages with the process of growing older, which is often marked by reflection on one's memories.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The initial amusement is experienced by the dog itself and is expressed through the enthusiastic wagging of its tail. This in turn encourages the speaker to feel amused as they recall their own childhood and revel in the silliness of youth.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The speaker regards the events with a degree of confidence and certainty, easily separating the different groups in their mind. They confidently categorise the dogs and children as joyful, the cat as pragmatically morose and the adults as dull.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The poem's final stanza presents adults to be dull and keen to prevent children from enjoying themselves. Despite seemingly being an adult themselves, the speaker is far more sympathetic to the desires of the dog and children in general, respecting their innocent wishes to play and enjoy life.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Dickinson quickly establishes a contrast between certain types of animals and others. Firstly, the dog is shown to be a joyful animal, keen to enjoy itself even without obvious reason. Conversely, the cat is shown to be a pragmatic creature who hunts for practical reasons but finds no joy in the act. These differences could be intended to reflect similar contrasts in human behaviour.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

Being Yourself

'A little Dog that wags his tail' appears to suggest that people, and animals, should express themselves as they are and seek joy in the world. This is in sharp contrast to the cats and adult figures in the poem, who do not enjoy life and seek to curb the enjoyment of others.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The cat is presented in sharp contrast to the fun-loving dog. Dickinson depicts the animal in the corner and without desire. Cats are therefore implied to be more practical and austere animals compared to dogs, possibly mirroring the contrast between human adults and children.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The fact the speaker's mind wanders to childhood when seeing the dog wag its tail suggests they associate fun and happiness with youth. In particular, the irreverent and unapologetic expression of joy that the wagging tail represents chimes with children's non-self conscious attitude to fun.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


This poem is a fantastic example of a poetic rendering of a dog, focusing on its adorable expression of happiness: the wagging of its tail. Dickinson uses the dog's actions to contemplate on the manner of expressing happiness, quickly concluding that humans stop doing so as openly as this when they grow up. The sight of the dog's wagging tail immediately takes the speaker back to their own childhood.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

Growing Up

The experience of growing up is implied to be one of increasing self awareness and, perhaps, self censorship. Adults don't express their emotions as freely as children or dogs wagging their tails. Dickinson implies that, by being more guarded about their emotions, adults may lose the ability to feel them as deeply like the cat seems to have done.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

Old Age

The older figures in the poem are shown to be devoid of joy. The cat no longer experiences happiness through their actions. Rather, the act of hunting has become a monotonous chore. Likewise, the adults in the final stanza attempt to limit the volume of the children's playing, reflecting their own loss of joy.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The use of quatrains is typical in Dickinson's poetry. In this poem it could represent the passing of time, with each line representing a season, to imply that life moves fast and that we all grow up quickly. However, the consistency of the stanzas could also reflect how easily adult life falls into routines like the cat's and how we should try to live more like children.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The dog's wagging tail is symbolically intended to represent youth and childish joy. It is not concerned with the judgement of others and not afraid to express happiness. Dickinson suggests we lose these qualities as we age.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+
Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

Join the Poetry Chatter and Comment

Exclusive to Poetry+ Members

Join Conversations

Share your thoughts and be part of engaging discussions.

Expert Replies

Get personalized insights from our Qualified Poetry Experts.

Connect with Poetry Lovers

Build connections with like-minded individuals.

Sign up to Poetry+
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Got a question? Ask an expert.x

We're glad you like visiting Poem Analysis...

We've got everything you need to master poetry

But, are you ready to take your learning

to the next level?

Share to...