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What is Submissive?

Dogs will communicate with you in many different ways, just like humans do. They will vocalize their needs and they will also employ body language to get their point across. It is especially important to understand submissive behavior. Your dog will use submissive behavior as a way to communicate with you that they are not a threat and are looking for some reassurance from you as their pack leader. By recognizing the reasoning behind your dog acting submissive and giving the reassurance they are seeking, you will strengthen the bond between you. 

There are several ways your dog will show submissive behavior. Those include rolling over and exposing their stomach, submissive urination or piddling, flattening their ears against their head, submissive grin or toothy smile, tucked tail and low, fast wagging of the tail, avoiding eye contact and licking another dog’s muzzle. Some reasons your dog may start acting submissive include:

  • Fear of strangers
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression 
  • Abuse 
  • Age

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Why Submissive Occurs in Dogs


Your dog may begin showing submissive behavior when they are confronted with strangers or in a strange setting. It is common for dogs to be leery of people they do not know and toy breed dogs are especially more submissive with strangers. Your dog may need extra help overcoming their uncertainty of strange people. Socialization at a young age will help them become more confident as mature dogs. 


Dogs that feel anxiety from different environmental factors will act submissively, especially when they are in need of reassurance. Many dogs suffer from anxiety attacks during storms or when separated from their owner. These dogs will act submissively and be unable to cope with things that are going on within their environment.


Some dogs that encounter aggressive people or other dogs will act submissively. Dogs that are not dominant will bow their head, tuck their tail and avoid direct eye contact with the dominant person or dog. Dogs that are acting submissive will be extremely susceptible to the tones in your voice and will react accordingly to the depth of emotion you convey when you speak or give commands.


Dogs that have suffered from physical and/or emotional abuse will act submissive. Your dog will avoid certain people or situations that remind them of the abuse they suffered. These dogs will try to hide from situations or they may whimper and lie down and shake. If your dog is acting submissive because of past abuse, they may pick one person who is their safe person and stay close to them. This gives them a sense of security and the reassurance they are seeking. 


As dogs age, you may notice they begin acting more and more submissive. This is because an aging dog is unable to properly defend themselves; therefore, their social status begins to change. These dogs will need extra reassurance from their owners as they age and become more frail and submissive.

What to do if your Dog is Submissive

While most submissive behaviors are not from a medical condition, if you are concerned about your dog acting submissive, you should have your veterinarian do an assessment. This will give you peace of mind that your dog is not ill and you may also get suggestions from your veterinarian regarding natural remedies that may alleviate some of your dog’s submissiveness. There are some natural calming remedies that may help your dog if they are suffering from severe anxiety. 

A professional dog trainer and/or dog behaviorist may also be able to guide you in training your dog. They can give you the tools necessary to properly reassure your dog without feeding into any perceived fear. Dogs that have suffered abuse can benefit greatly from working with a professional dog trainer. 

Assess your dog’s environment to determine if there are things that can be altered to help them feel more secure. For instance, if there is a dominant dog that is next door, put up a privacy fence that keeps your dog’s contact with the dominant dog limited. Dogs suffering from submissiveness due to anxiety from storms may benefit from wearing a thunder shirt when storms approach.

Prevention of Submissive

Your dog will look to you for leadership and reassurance. By providing strong leadership, you will be giving your dog the confidence to deal with new situations without acting submissive. 

Encourage your dog to be confident by engaging in confidence building play and appropriate socialization techniques. Dogs that are acting submissive will require a balance of reassurance and leadership to help them become more confident and able to face intimidating situations.

Always have special toys or treats readily available to give as rewards when you are out socializing or playing. This gives your dog a reason to perform as you are expecting and they will feel better equipped to handle new situations if they feel that there is a reward waiting for them.

Dogs that have been abused will benefit from formal training classes that are not too strict or rigid. Speak with your potential dog trainer about your dog’s situation to ensure that they are aware of your dog’s needs prior to classes starting.