How to Train Your Dog to Stop Being Submissive

How to Train Your Dog to Stop Being Submissive
Hard difficulty iconHard
Time icon1-12 Months
Behavior training category iconBehavior

Introduction

You've been out for a couple of hours. Returning home, the dog is super-excited to see you but throws himself to the ground. As you reach out to stroke that delectable tummy, the dog urinates on the floor. 

Hygiene aspects aside, this isn't nice for the dog, especially as this behavior is likely to be submissive and a glimpse into the dog's state of anxiety. 

Indeed, a submissive dog is likely to spend a lot of his life feeling anxious or fearful. At best, this is unpleasant for the dog, and at worst it could lead to growling or biting if the dog feels sufficiently threatened to lash out. This is most commonly the case when a child doesn't understand that a dog rolled on their back isn't asking for a belly rub but is actually fearful. When that child then persists in stroking the dog, perhaps even a little roughly, the dog may be sufficiently anxious to bite. 

No-one wants a dog to be distressed, especially when the solution often lies in our own hands. 

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Defining Tasks

Teaching a to stop being submissive is best done by building the dog's confidence. It's not possible to simply command a dog not to be submissive, instead, you must work on rewarding confident behavior. Once the dog learns that boldness is a good thing, then it becomes less likely he will need to show his submissive side. 

A common mistake made by many owners of submissive dogs is to coo over their pet pal when he rolls into a submissive position. Unfortunately, attention is a highly prized commodity to a dog and making a fuss only reinforces the dog's submissiveness. 

Instead, turn the problem on its head and ignore the dog when he shows anxiety, and praise him when he approaches you confidently. Then he will learn that boldness is a good thing and he doesn't need to be submissive. 

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Getting Started

Most important when teaching a dog not to be submissive is an endless supply of time and patience. It is by building the dog's trust that the battle is won, and there is no fast-track option for doing this. 

It's also helpful to acquaint yourself with how to read dog body language so that you can recognize the subtle signs that indicate the dog is stressed or anxious. This will help you avoid accidentally rewarding submissive actions and build on the confident ones. 

To help the process you will need: 

  • ¬†Treats
  • A treat bag you can wear on a belt, so that treats are to hand at all times
  • A rope tugger toy
  • A collar and leash, for attending agility classes
  • Understanding friends and visitors who are prepared to work with you and the dog

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The Build Confidence Method

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1

Understand the idea

Dogs get into the habit of acting submissively, but equally, they can learn boldness when taught in a patient and sympathetic manner. This is done through a combination of rewarding bold actions, engaging in confidence-building games, and activities which grow the dog's self-confidence.

2

Build confidence with visitors

Before visitors arrive, explain the dog is submissive and it's best to ignore him. Have the visitors act in a quiet, calm manner and don't respond if the dog rolls over.

3

Reward the dog for approaching visitors

Give visitors a small supply of treats. While the guest ignores the dog, if he approaches, have the visitor toss a treat close to the dog in order to reward him. This teaches the dog that guests are a good thing and helps build his confidence.

4

Play confidence-building games

Games such as tug are not only fun but help to build an anxious dog's confidence. Try shaking a tug-toy in front of the dog and encouraging him to take it. Pull on the other end of the toy, while making fun noises and praising the dog when he tugs back. Crucially, let the dog win, which bolsters confidence. (The opposite is true with a domineering dog. In this case you should teach the dog to release the toy to you.)

5

Build self-confidence with activities

Fun activities such as agility classes can be a huge confidence booster to an anxious dog. He learns that he has the ability to tackle small or low obstacles and that doing so is fun. When he enjoys himself he forgets to be anxious and learns a new way of being.

The What NOT to Do Method

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Avoid staring directly at the dog

In dog language, staring directly is a challenge of authority and a potential act of aggression. This is guaranteed to make a submissive dog uncomfortable. Instead, if you need to watch the dog, do so from the corner of your eye.

2

Avoid patting his head

When you pat a dog on the head, the dog can perceive this as a threat. Even happy, confident dogs may flinch when a hand is raised over their head. Avoid this in a submissive dog by rubbing his chin or stroking along his back.

3

Never force a dog to face his fears

Never forcibly restrain the dog in order to have him face up to something he is fearful of. This is called "Flooding" and is extremely damaging to the dog. He may become so fearful that he freezes and is unable to respond. This gives the impression the dog has conquered his fear while the exact opposite is true and he is more fearful than ever.

4

Avoid fussing the dog when he rolls over

If a submissive dog rolls over and you make a fuss of him, this inadvertently rewards him for showing submissive behavior. The dog then thinks this is the expected action when he sees you, which compounds the problem. Instead, ignore the dog and wait for him to come to you.

5

Don't let guests reward fearful behavior

A mistake often made is to give guests treats, which they throw towards an anxious dog in order to attract him closer. If the dog is actively showing fear, there's a real risk the dog believes his fear is being rewarded and the behavior is reinforced. Instead, only reward the dog as he's moving toward the guest in a bold manner.

The Ignore the Behavior Method

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Understand the idea

Submitting is a dog's way of saying he poses no threat, but is fearful and wishes to be left alone. Approaching a dog showing submissive behavior can result in ramping up the dog's anxiety, such that he may then urinate (or even snap at an extended hand). Instead, it is best to ignore the dog when he shows submissive behavior and wait for him to approach you. Then you can reward this bolder, more confident action.

2

Know when to ignore the dog

A typical flash point is when you return home after being out for a while. Excited, the dog runs over to greet you but rolls over submissively and then urinates. Have a think about when the dog exhibits this type of behavior, so that you can work on ignoring it (hence, not inadvertently rewarding the submissive action).

3

Acknowledge the dog in a calm, low-key manner

When you arrive home, the aim is to keep the dog calm. Greet him briefly in a calm, quiet voice so that he knows he's been acknowledged.

4

Do not approach the dog

Walking over to the dog has the potential to intimidate a submissive individual. Instead of approaching the dog, sit down on floor level and wait for him to come to you. Reward him by tossing a treat or softly praising bold behavior.

5

Keep things calm

Praise and reward bold behavior and ignore submissive actions. Likewise, pet your dog under the chin or along his back, as these areas are less likely to make him feel threatened or insecure.

By Pippa Elliott

Published: 10/24/2017, edited: 01/08/2021

Training Questions

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Training Questions and Answers

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Billu

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German Shepherd

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11 months

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Question

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I just want to ask, I've been socializing my puppy since 3 months but whenever he meets big adult dogs, he is showing submissive behavior like crouching down showing his belly. Currently he is 11 months and does not show submissive behavior in front of dogs less than his age. My question is will my dog stop showing submissive behavior in front of adult dogs when he becomes an adult ?

June 29, 2023

Billu's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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1133 Dog owners recommended

Hello, Showing submission at this age can be an appropriate, good sign of respect toward other dogs, avoiding future issues. Some dogs do this because it's their personality and they are naturally more submissive, in which case they may continue to act more submissive around others but as long as those interactions are still good and he isn't being bullied or attacked, then he will also likely learn how to tell a dog to leave him alone and set boundaries when he has had enough. Most dogs will become less submissive around two years old though, when mental and sexual maturity happens, whether they have been neutered or not. You will have a better idea of what to expect from him around two. I wouldn't discourage the submissiveness at this age. I would just be picky about which dogs he is hanging out with, to ensure he isn't being bullied so that he doesn't become fearful or loose confidence. Aggression and defensiveness tends to increase around two years. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

June 30, 2023

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Dobby

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Goldendoodle

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Nine Months

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Hello! Our puppy is now 9 months. We adopted him when he was 7 weeks old. He was doing very well on training, knowing basic commands - sit, leave it, stay and down. After all the vaccinations and puppy vet visits, we started to take him out on a walk and try to socialize. However, when he was about 5 months, he suddenly became fearful, stressed and anxious when we are outside. At home, he is a very playful but sometimes very submissive. But when we are outside, he gets very fearful of everything and very distracted. I tried offering high value treats but he wont take it and remain distracted.

Oct. 5, 2022

Dobby's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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1133 Dog owners recommended

Hello, Check out this video series on working with shy and nervous dogs. In your case, I would recommend hiring a private trainer with experience with counter conditioning and confidence building to work in person with you. This is may be a case that needs some trial and error, observing pup's body language in person, and being able to ease him into the counter conditioning process, deciding how much pressure he can handle versus how slow the training needs to go, and working in that sweet spot where he isn't so nervous he shuts down but he is learning to overcome fears and build confidence still; that process involves a lot of adapting and reading the dog to know exactly how to train, so sometimes in person help is needed in those cases. Your attitude, confidence, and leadership with him will also play a large part in the training. Often obedience command practice is important for building his confidence in you too more, so he will look to you for security and instruction when nervous instead of flee. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

Oct. 6, 2022


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