Common Signs of Submissive Dog Behavior

When dogs face confrontation or feel scared, they use body language to communicate that they are not a threat. This display of body language is referred to as submissive behavior. It’s not always easy for pet owners to interpret signs of submission in dogs. Do you think your pup may be exhibiting submissive behaviors? This helpful guide will give you a better understanding of the most common signs of submissive dog behavior.

Common Submissive Dog Signs

Submissive canine temperament can be confirmed through a variety of signs. The following are some of the most common indications of submissive behavior in dogs. A submissive canine may exhibit all the signs, while some may show just a few. Breeds known to be the most submissive include Basset Hounds, Beagles, Golden Retrievers, and Irish Setters.

Submissive dogs tend to:

  • Urinate when they greet someone
  • Roll onto their side or back
  • Hold their ears flat
  • Tuck their tail between their legs
  • Grin submissively
  • Avoid eye contact or break eye contact first
  • Cower in the presence of humans
  • Avoid people and animals
  • Prefer solidarity
  • Lower their heads
  • Shake in fear
  • Keep their eyes partly closed
  • Allow other dogs to paw their shoulders
  • Whine or squeal when they are afraid
  • Crouch low to the ground

Submission is not necessarily a problem up to a certain point. Dogs are pack animals and should be trained to follow the lead of their owners. However, excessive submission can become a problem in dogs.

Urinating When Greeting Someone

If your dog urinates every time you or a guest enters your home, this is a common sign of submission. Some canines may also roll over onto their backs and pee when they encounter someone, and some will urinate a small amount every time they are touched. This is your dog’s way of showing you that he is not a threat and that he is surrendering to your authority. It’s not uncommon for puppies to urinate when they are excited when they greet someone, but most will outgrow it. However, some adult dogs who are submissive will continue to urinate when they come into contact with people or other animals even after they are house trained. Frequent urination could be a symptom of a medical condition, so it’s crucial to inform your vet before jumping to conclusions about submissive behaviors.

Rolling Over or Lying Belly Up

Rolling over and lying down belly up is a common sign of submission in dogs. However, the behavior alone doesn’t necessarily imply your pup is submissive. Many canines love belly rubs and will roll onto their backs as a way to show their owners what they want. A submissive canine will often roll over when someone is standing over them or when they feel vulnerable. A display of the underbelly can be an instinctual message dogs use to avoid confrontation from dominant people or animals.

Flattening or Holding Ears Back

A relaxed dog will usually display upright ears. If you notice your pet flattens or holds his ears back in your presence, it may be a sign of submission, stress, or fear. This sign of submissive dog behavior can be hard to detect with floppy-eared pups. Upright or erect ears can also indicate that a dog is alert and attentive to their surroundings, so the rest of their body language should also be taken into account.

Tucking In or Lowering Tail

Dogs who frequently lower or tuck their tails between their legs are most likely exhibiting a sign of submission. Anxious or shy dogs will keep their tails tucked more closely to their bodies. If you notice that your pup is wagging his tail low to the ground, it’s not necessarily a sign that he is excited to see you. A lowered tail, even when wagging, could be a sign of canine anxiety or submissiveness.

Submissive Grinning

If your dog greets people at the door with a big, open smile, this could be a way to let guests know he is not a threat. Submissive grinning may also be accompanied by a lowered posture, tucked-in tail, or avoidance of eye contact. However, if this toothy grin is accompanied by a snarl and stiffened posture, this is a sign of aggression. It’s important to never approach a snarling dog.

Avoiding Direct Eye Contact

For some dogs, eye contact may be perceived as a threat. When your pooch breaks eye contact or turns their head away when faced with people or other animals, it most likely means they are trying to avoid eye contact to refrain from confrontation. Avoiding eye contact is a common sign of submissive dog behavior.  

Other Common Signs of Submission in Dogs

Some submissive pups will keep their eyes partly closed when they are around other canines or people. This should not be confused with sleepiness which should only be exhibited before a dog’s bedtime. Another common sign of submissive canine behavior is allowing another dog to place a paw or mouth on his shoulder. The dog that paws or mouths your pet’s shoulder is displaying dominance. Submissive dogs also tend to whine or squeal when they feel threatened or suffer from canine pain. Additionally, it’s common for dogs to show submissive behavior by cowering or crouching low to the ground.

What Causes Submissive Dog Behavior?

Dogs exhibit signs of submissive behavior when they are in situations that make them feel afraid or threatened. Some canines have a fear of strangers and will be docile around people or animals they don’t know. Smaller breeds are typically shyer around strangers and may shake around people they are not familiar with. When aggressive dogs show their dominance by growling, barking, or displaying their teeth, a submissive canine will likely run away or avoid eye contact with the alpha.

Other pups are afraid of getting in trouble or being punished by their owners. When dogs hear their owners or people around them use a certain tone that scares them, they might cower, tuck their tail between their legs, or begin to whimper.

Adopted dogs that were physically or verbally abused by previous owners may become submissive and remain that way throughout their lives. If this is the case, a dog will shy away from most people and animals and become attached to a single person they feel secure around.

Older dogs also tend to show more signs of submission than younger pups. Since they aren’t able to move or react as quickly as they used to, they can feel threatened in certain situations. Older submissive canines will sometimes shake or urinate when they are feeling intimidated.

Can Submissive Dog Behavior Be Changed?

While some dogs are naturally more submissive than others and can’t change their inherent personalities, there are some steps you can take to make your pup a little more confident. Being caring and friendly to your pet is the best way to alleviate some skittishness and boost his confidence.

Dogs that show submissive behavior around other canines can be trained to overcome some shyness and anxiety. Instead of exposing your pup to dominant or aggressive dogs, begin training him at home.

Some pet owners opt for canine massage therapy which has a calming effect on dogs and helps them to release tension and produce endorphins. If you try this, be very careful and gentle so your dog doesn’t feel like it’s a punishment. Begin massaging your pup’s back with soft pressure, then move to the sides of the body, legs, head, and belly. After getting your dog used to being touched in the comfort of your home, you can start introducing them to other mild-tempered pups.

How Can Submissive Dog Behavior Be Prevented?

Submissive dog behavior can be prevented in some instances, especially with early puppy training. Using encouragement and a reward system is the best way to prevent a dog from becoming submissive. Each sign of submissive dog behavior can be addressed individually.

Comfortable Surroundings

Some canines become submissive when they are fearful of their surroundings. If you move to a new home or expose your pup to an unfamiliar environment, make sure to take the time to allow them to get used to the change. Give them plenty of attention, provide treats, and make sure they have their own personal space to play or sleep such as a doggie bed or blanket in a designated area.

If your dog is fearful of specific areas in your home, encourage them with treats. When they enter a new room upon your command, give your pup his favorite snack. You might also try creating a spot in your house where you and your pet can spend time together. Taking quality time to bond with your dog while petting them and talking in a soft, agreeable tone will help to build trust and make your pet feel more secure.

Proper Socialization

Proper canine socialization early on is also critical for developing confidence in a dog and preventing submissive behavior. Encourage your pup to be friendly with other dogs. This will make your pet less fearful in social situations and prevent submission. Stay close to your pooch when they are surrounded by unfamiliar people and animals. This will reassure them that everything is safe and they won’t be abandoned.

Preventing Submissive Urination

Building up your dog’s confidence is the first step to preventing submissive urination. Also, the more your pup trusts you and doesn’t see you as a threat, the less likely they will be to urinate in your presence.

Try engaging in mellow games with your dog while providing encouraging verbal praise and the occasional food reward. The idea is to remain sensitive to your pet’s phobias and fears while building up the trust in your relationship with your pooch. Submissive dogs should never be yelled at or addressed with a raised voice. Always use positive reinforcements and gentle touch. Lastly, never physically punish your dog.

To communicate with your pup that submissive dog urination is unwanted behavior, try not to exhibit dominance when they urinate upon greeting you or other guests of your home. Rather than picking your dog up and approaching them when they first see you, wait for your pet to come to you. Focus more on petting them under the chin and gently rubbing or scratching their back. Avoid patting your dog’s head or rubbing their tummy unless they are clearly asking for that type of touch. In addition, avoid continual eye contact during this time as it is seen as intimidating, threatening behavior to submissive dogs.

Try to prevent your canine from getting overly excited. When you arrive home, say hello to your dog in a soft, calm tone and continue to walk through the door. When your pup approaches you, gently pet him, and then walk away. Your dog will be less submissive if the greeting is on his terms. It’s also important to let your visitors know that your pet is sensitive and teach them how to properly interact with your pup.

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