Submissive Behaviour In Dogs - What It Means and When To Worry

Is your dog inclined to tuck their ears in or show their belly around you or strangers? Do they seem less boisterous or more fearful than other dogs? This can indicate a submissive personality. 

Submissive behaviour in dogs is not always something to be worried about and does not necessarily indicate fear.

Dogs can show submissive behaviour for many reasons and as their owner, it is important to understand why they behave this way and when you should address it. 


Why Do Dogs Show Submissive behaviour?

Dogs most often show submissive behaviour as a sign of respect and in recognition of authority. 

When behaving submissively towards you as the owner, this indicates that your dog sees you as the leader and trusts you to protect them. 

Some dogs will also behave submissively when they are scared such as during storms, meeting other dogs or being harshly disciplined. In these instances, the behaviour is to make themselves appear less of a threat in the hope that they can escape the fear trigger. 


What Are The Signs Of A Submissive Dog?

What is submissive behaviour in dogs exactly? There are several signs you can look out for when determining if a dog is being submissive, these include but are not limited to:

  • Licking uncontrollably - either a human or another dog
  • Rolling over to expose their tummy (a classic dog submission pose)
  • Peeing themselves when greeting someone
  • Flattened ears
  • Grinning (not to be confused with a snarl) 
  • Stiff posture 
  • Whining or crying uncontrollably
  • A tucked-in tail or low fast tail wagging
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Turning away and hiding 

Submissive behaviours that do not abate may be a sign of serious fear or anxiety. Be mindful of when these behaviours occur and address their fears as necessary. 


What Causes A Dog To Be Submissive? 

There is no single cause that can be attributed to why some dogs are more submissive than others. Some dogs are genetically predisposed to be more submissive than others and every dog has a unique personality just as humans do. 

However, it is certainly true that dogs exposed to negative environments where their safety is threatened can develop heightened submissive tendencies. 

This includes dogs who have been abused by their carers, attacked by another dog and those that had minimal socialisation during their adolescence. 

Is a Submissive Dog Bad? 

Submissive behaviour in dogs is only a concern if it begins to impede their enjoyment of life, their ability to function healthily or negatively impacts their interactions. 

For instance, an overtly submissive dog that pees everywhere anytime a new visitor comes to the house is not enjoyable! Likewise, a dog that repeatedly dumps its saliva-soaked toy in a guest's lap is also unpleasant. 

A dog that rolls over and shows its tummy or cries with joy when you get home to show affection and submission is considered normal and nothing to worry about. 

If the submissive behaviour becomes problematic and intensifies then it needs to be addressed with training. In cases of a dog submissive peeing, when present in puppies they will often grow out of this once they reach adulthood. 

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Are Submissive Dogs Happy?

The answer to this question is that it depends on the dog. A dog who displays submissive behaviour out of fear is not a happy dog! This is indicative of exposure to a fear trigger and should be acknowledged and avoided. 

Conversely, if your dog shows submission as part of their usual happy greeting on your return home or when meeting a new person or dog, they’re likely quite happy. Some behaviours such as a dog’s submissive grin can even be quite funny and a personality quirk many owners love. 

Aggression In Submissive Dogs

Fearful dogs often demonstrate submissive behaviour but the flip side of that is fear aggression. Rather than take steps to show themselves as a minimal or non-existent threat, the dog will go overboard making themselves appear as threatening as possible. 

Dog submissive signs are not always an indication of a wholly submissive dog. A dog that rolls over to show its underbelly is not always asking for a tummy rub and misinterpreting these signs could see you being bitten. 

Dogs who bite out of fear more than aggression are particularly dangerous and many people underestimate the damage they can inflict. If in doubt, such as with any unknown dog, stay clear. 


Can a Submissive Dog Be Protective? 

If you’ve gotten your dog with security in mind and they turn out to be submissive in nature, will they still protect you? Most dogs, even those that are submissive will demonstrate protective instincts where their family is concerned. 

This may, however, present itself differently from a dominant dog. For example, your dog may confidently bark at perceived danger while behind a closed door and quickly return to submissive behaviour if the door is opened. 

As above, however, a submissive dog can quickly become an aggressive dog if triggers are not handled well. So always be cautious in encouraging protective behaviour in submissive or fearful dogs. 


Is a Submissive Dog Easier To Train?

Interestingly, this can go either way. While a submissive dog is more invested in trying to please its owner than a dominant dog, if they are too submissive they may simply not respond well to direction.

On the upside you will not be battling for the top spot with your dog, your dog should always recognise you as the leader of the household and defer to you. With a submissive dog, this is not something you will ever struggle with. 

Practice daily obedience and only ever employ positive reinforcement. Discipline-based training will not be effective on a submissive dog and may in fact be detrimental, leading to further submissive behaviours.  

As indicated, the best way to train a submissive dog is through consistent positive reinforcement. This is also how to help a submissive dog gain confidence. 


Building Confidence In A Submissive Dog

Wondering ‘how to make my dog less submissive to other dogs?’ or how to stop a submissive dog from peeing? The good news is, there are several things you can do to help your dog feel more confident and less submissive. 

Praise And Reward 

If your furry friend is constantly in a dog submissive position or just over the top with their submissive behaviour you can gradually train them out of this. Ignoring submissive behaviour and praising and rewarding bold, outgoing behaviour can help you achieve this. 

Be Conscious Of Your Behaviour

Your behaviour towards your dog heavily influences their responses. For submissive dogs, you should avoid staring at them, loudly scolding them, patting them by surprise or patting them as soon as you enter the room. Even using a loud or overly excited voice in their presence can trigger a submissive response. 

Submissive dogs should be given space to approach you on their terms so avoid making them feel uncomfortable as this will elicit a submissive response. 

As an aside, you should also avoid locking them in another room or their crate when visitors come as rather than stem the behaviour it may exacerbate it.  

Make Time For Socialisation 

Socialisation is critical for a puppy but older dogs can also benefit from this too. Dogs who spend the majority of their time at home with minimal exposure to new people, places, other dogs or things are more likely to become nervous or submissive when they do go out. 

Keep Them Busy

A dog with a task or job has little time to focus on anything else. Getting your dog involved in a canine sport such as agility or even using snuffle mats and enrichment toys can help keep their minds busy and break the pattern of submissive behaviour. 

Practice Counterconditioning 

The best and arguably the hardest way to overcome submissive behaviour, this method involves retraining your dogs to no longer be afraid of whatever is causing the submissive response. If you can overcome your dog's fear of their triggers, they’ll no longer be submissive in those situations. 

Once you identify the trigger, you’ll need to organise small or limited exposure to this trigger and reward your dog and help them relax. Over time, you build up this exposure and continue to reward the dog until they associate the trigger with treats and positive reinforcement instead.


When To Seek Help 

If your dog exhibits excessively submissive behaviour or a sudden change to more submissive behaviour, you should seek professional advice from your vet. 

Trauma, age or illness can all cause a dog to have changes in behaviour and any underlying cause must be ruled out. 

For anxious dogs that are overtly submissive and do not respond to positive reinforcement training, pharmaceutical support such as anti-anxiety medication may be needed. 

Ultimately, you want your pet to live a happy and fulfilling life where they feel safe and loved. Supporting them to navigate submissive behaviour is part of this and something your vet can help you with as needed.

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