How to Train Your Dog to Stop Being Submissive

Hard
1-12 Months
Behavior

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. 

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. 

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

The Build Confidence Method

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Step
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.
Step
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.
Step
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.
Step
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.)
Step
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.
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The What NOT to Do Method

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Step
1
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.
Step
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.
Step
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.
Step
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.
Step
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.
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The Ignore the Behavior Method

ribbon-method-1
Effective
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Step
1
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.
Step
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).
Step
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.
Step
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.
Step
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.
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Written by Pippa Elliott

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

Success Stories and Training Questions

Training Questions and Answers

Question
Neep
Hovawart
1 Year
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Neep
Hovawart
1 Year

Hello, so we got our dog from a farm at the end of January and he is great although we have lots of challenging behaviours that is very stressful for him aswell as myself and my family.
He is very anxious and wants constant attention and reassurance. He is constantly submissive and always rolling onto his back in any situation and pees everywhere all of the time. I have tried so much but nothing is working and it's getting worse by the day. He has major separation anxiety with my partner also and cannot be left alone as he gets very stressed and destructive.
I am desperate for advice as this is ruining my bond with him and creates arguments in the home. We got a 1 year old to skip the puppy drama with having 4 children and its actually worse than having a puppy as it's very hard to teach him anything with him being so submissive.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1123 Dog owners recommended

Hello Stephanie, For this case I recommend working in person with a trainer who has a lot of experience with behavior issues like fear and submissive peeing. Generally, in cases like these there is a need for a lot of obedience structure to help pup know what to expect - like a structured heel during walks, working up to a 1 hour place command, sitting before feeding, waiting for permission before going out the door for a walk. Obedience practice in general can help with relationship building and trust too, as well as self-control. I would use a belly band temporarily to keep your home pee free while addressing this, taking the belly band off while outside going potty. Keep interactions calm and monotone inside with pup, keeping a drag leash on pup so you can direct pup without needing to chase or collar grab - which can trigger that peeing. Keeping praise calm and medium pitched - instead of loud or high pitched. Check out the Surprise method from the article I have linked below for time alone. https://wagwalking.com/training/like-a-crate I can seem counter-intuitive but practice obedience commands with pup. Keep the practice calm and your attitude confident, and make no big deal out of mistakes, using commands you are teaching to instruct pup where to go and what to do, so they have more predictability and are using their thinking brain more to keep them out of fight or flight and an anxious state, so pup builds a habit of thinking more instead of just reacting. Choose training methods that get pup thinking and don't involve too much harsh physical touch. If a correction is needed, use a tool or method that's more neutral and not associated with an angry noise or you being the one to touch pup during it. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Benny
Yorkie Bichon frisse
8 Years
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Benny
Yorkie Bichon frisse
8 Years

Our dog has leash aggression but is now allowing other dogs to dominate him

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1123 Dog owners recommended

Hello Todd, It sounds like the leash aggression might be related to fear or insecurity. I would work on building pup's obedience and structure with you, to help pup defer to your leadership and feel more confident due to trust in you. Work on commands like Leave It, Quiet, Come, and Out - which means move away, so you can help pup come to you for help while being dominated and ignore other dogs while on leash. I would also pursue structured activities with other dogs instead of something like a dog park, which can be overwhelming for an insecure dog. Places like local dog clubs, meetup.com, rescues, or other social outlets will sometimes host dog walking or dog hiking groups on leash. Practice pup's obedience, like Heel, calmly in these setting around other dogs to build pup's confidence and trust in you around other dogs. If you can find one in your area, pup may also benefit from a G.R.O.W.L. class which is a class for dog reactive/aggressive dogs where pups socialization is worked on in a structured environment with the dogs all wearing basket muzzles for safety. The goal of this class is to desensitize the dogs to each other to increase calmness. Increased calmness around other dogs could make something like a dog hiking/walking group with pup to build confidence possible. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Sadie
American Staffordshire Terrier
10 Months
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Sadie
American Staffordshire Terrier
10 Months

Hi! We are adopting Sadie from a rescue. She was kept with metal wires when she was a puppy and has scarring on her stomach and back due to this. She's probably a mix breed between American staffordshire terrier, pitbull and maybe something else. She's been kept in a cage at the rescue outside and she is the kindest most loving dog even though she had more than a tough start in life. She's friendly towards other dogs but she is very relative to loud voices and very very submissive. We want to train her to become more confident in her self so she doesn't shy away when she hears an assertive voice. How do we help her gain her confidence and security in herself in the best way once we bring her home? It's almost like she's afraid to play and just be a puppy and focuses on being submissive as soon as we're around. She has no aggressive traits at all even when she's scared. We just want to boost her confidence so she can be an active part of our family without having to ever feel scared and the need to be extremely submissive. We're not going anywhere and this is her forever home. Thank you!

Alisha Smith
Alisha S., Dog Trainer
257 Dog owners recommended

Hi there! I am going to give you some tips that will build her overall confidence. It is likely her behaviors will start to resolve themselves over the next few months. So patience is key! There are several methods you can use to improve your submissive dog´s confidence. 1. Work on obedience training. Daily obedience work, even when it is only for a short time, provides submissive dogs with a lot of confidence. Family members are proud of dogs that perform on command and dogs pick up on this feeling. If the obedience training is harsh, though, a submissive dog will just get worse. Find a positive reinforcement and reward-based training class in your area. If the trainer works with a discipline-based system, it is not appropriate for a submissive dog. 2. Socialize your dog as much as possible to make them adaptable. The sensitive socialization period for your dog ended when she was a puppy, about 15 weeks of age, but she can still be socialized as an older dog, it is just going to take a lot more work. To socialize your dog, take her out as much as possible, let her meet new people, let her meet your friends dogs (if they are friendly with other dogs), and let her run free at the dog park so that she will meet new dogs. (Some dogs will be too nervous to play at the dog park so this phase may only come later.) 3. Give your dog a job or get her involved in a canine sport. Most dogs are not able to "work", however, so in order to give them an activity to build their confidence, it is a good idea to get them involved in one of the canine sports. Flyball, agility, Frisbee, dock diving, and other activities may be available in your area. 4. Use counter-conditioning techniques to help her overcome fear. This is the best but also the hardest (for you!) of the methods available to treat a submissive dog. For each thing that your dog is afraid of, you have to train her to have a pleasant feeling. When a dog is no longer afraid of the situation, he is confident and no longer going to be submissive. If you decide to try to build her confidence through counter-conditioning, the first thing you have to identify is the trigger. What is stimulating your dog to be so submissive? If she is only afraid of one thing it is easier to train her; unfortunately, most submissive dogs are afraid of almost everything. Spend some time with your dog to become familiar with her fears. The next step is to teach him that the scary thing is actually a good thing. When she is exposed to the scary object, give her a tasty treat and let her relax around the object without any pressure. The final step in counter-conditioning your dog to face her fears is to expose her and not provide a treat or even notice that he is being exposed. If you need more help on using counter-conditioning, the animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell has a book that I have found to be useful. The techniques are great and will help your dog develop confidence but as with most behavior modification, takes patience and persistence. Please let me know if you have additional questions. Thanks for writing in!

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Lilli
Jack Russell Terrier
1 Year
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Lilli
Jack Russell Terrier
1 Year

Hi!

Our Lilli is full of energy and loves going for walks and meeting other dogs. She´s very submissive with dogs, but she also knows how to tell them off when they get too much for her, so it´s clearly not too big of a problem. The problem usually arise at home, where she is quite vary of our surroundings outside and will growl and bark at anything she sees from the balcony, window etc. She is also incredibly fragile, and will try her best to lure herself in between any nook or cranny to stay warm. Her body shakes a lot, but we´ve been at the vet and confirmed through several tests that she´s physically healthy.

In my opinion, she seems to be a little scared and fragile in nature. She can tell other dogs off, but I think that´s because she´s a JR Terrier and her breed is innately a bit tough. But she is very submissive, she will growl and bark at anything she sees from the window, any person coming into the house and anything she has decided she doesn´t like (which is cute, but not great as she´s the one getting stressed)

I believe she might have been bullied by her siblings from a young age, and I believe she could do with some more confidence. Not necessarily because of her submissive laying-on-the-back behaviour, but to stop her from always looking out the window for threats.

I´d love some advice, and I´m not 100% what she struggles with. It´s just hard to see her whine around the house, growl at anything and almost refuse to lay anywhere but inside my armpit. We´ve enforced her sleeping in her bed for the last month so she can have that as a safe space, and it works well.

Thank you guys so much, you´re amazing help!!

Jonas and Heidi

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1123 Dog owners recommended

Hello Jonas, First, I would look into something like ruffwear. They have a line of athletic dog coats that are made similarly to people' backpacking equipment to help regulate body temperature while also allowing for good movement and the ability to go potty in the jacket. I would purchase something like that for pup. Merino Wool is also a great temperature regulator to keep warm without overheating as much as something like fleece, that material also helps' inhibit bacterial growth so it doesn't stink as much as cotton or synthetics, additionally the long threads of merino opposed to other types of wool isn't as itchy. I would purchase pup a good quality jacket/sweater that's designed to be tough, move freely, regulate temperature well, and just designed to look cute without actually doing the above things too. Second, check out this video channel on reactivity and barking. I would work through some of the training there with pup to help desensitize pup to the various barking triggers they have. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAA4pob0Wl0W2agO7frSjia1hG85IyA6a Agility and the mental stimulation from daily training practice using lure reward training are also good ways to build confidence in general. Pup having to overcome something new or learn a new skill can help get pup into a working mindset more and out of fight or flight, release some pent-up mental nervous energy, build your relationship to help them trust you more to handle things they are nervous about, and gain confidence in their own abilities. Kikopup linked above, as well as Zak George from Training Revolution both have a lot of how to videos for ideas on things to practice during these types of training sessions. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Juno
Beagle Harrier
1 Year
1 found helpful
Question
1 found helpful
Juno
Beagle Harrier
1 Year

Juno is a beagle, golden retriever mix. When visitors come over shes excessively submissive to the point she is turning over with her tummy up and urinating. While she is doing this she is also whining which is giving me a sense of fearfulness and anxiety. What is the best way to go about this? Thanks!

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1123 Dog owners recommended

Hello Mikayla, I would actually teach her a Place command, practice having guests come over and having her go to place automatically, then the guest ignoring her until she is completely calm. Once she is completely calm - probably 10-15 minutes later, then you can release her from place. When she comes over to your guest, instruct them to interact with her calmly, only brief eye contact or no eye contact, calm voices instead of high pitched or excited ones, and keeping touch brief. If she seems fearful, they can also drop treats without acknowledging her, but if she is overly excited I would avoid doing that and just stick with calm. I would recruit friends and family to come over to specifically practice this initially, so you know you have someone who is willing to take the time, and not having to practice with your actual guests as much at first, until pup has gotten good at staying on place and remaining calm. Right now it sounds like she is anticipating a lot of excitement and is both excited and nervous about the expected interactions. You want her to expect something boring and calm instead so she no longer works herself up to the point of excited/submissive peeing. This will take repetition and time because you have to change her emotional response toward guests and not only the outward behavior for the peeing to also stop - since that's mostly emotional. As frustrating as the accidents can be, also keep your energy calm and happy. If you act nervous because you anticipate unwanted behavior from her or embarrassment around your guests, that feeds into her nervousness. If you get angry over the accidents, that increases submissiveness in the future because she is bracing for a intimidating reaction from you associated with guests. If she pees don't acknowledge it toward her with this type of peeing, just clean it up quietly, and make a mental note of what triggered the peeing - a touch, didn't send to place soon enough, wasn't calm enough before releasing from place, a high pitched voice, ect...So you will know how to modify the training next time, and know that since you are working to change an emotional response, at first there will probably still be some accidents until she adjusts to the calmer arrivals - and anticipates calm. Place: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O75dyWITP1s Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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