How to Help a Submissive Dog Build Confidence
Signs of an Overly Submissive Dog
If you are reading this article, it is probably because you know that your dog is overly submissive. Here are some of the signs you might have noticed, and some other signs that indicate a submissive disposition:
- Dribbles urine on the carpet when you come into a room and talk to her or pet her.
- Dribbles urine when you raise your voice, even when it has nothing to do with the dog (speaking on the phone, etc.). Some dogs dribble when they hear loud noises, too.
- Assumes a submissive stance (tail between her legs, ears flat, crouching, or even lying on her back with her belly exposed), and then pees whenever a visitor reaches down to pet her.
- Avoids eye contact when you meet or makes it only briefly, then sniffs the ground or looks away.
- Goes into a submissive stance whenever meeting other dogs. Your dog may also dribble urine when coming up to a strange dog.
- Allows other dogs to put a paw over her shoulder.
- Licks the other dog on her muzzle when greeting. This is a calming signal, and one way in which your submissive dog lets the other know that he is just like a puppy and not to be feared; some submissive dogs use this signal with people, too. Owners think it is like kissing.
- Hides underneath furniture. Many people will tell me how their dog loves their crate, and not even realize that the dog is in fear and using the cage in order to hide.
- Whines excessively.
- Has a submissive grin (rolls the upper lips up like a growl—it is not a growl!).
Four Tips to Build Your Dog's Confidence
Sports or Work
Building Confidence With a Submissive Dog
There are several methods you can use to improve your submissive dog´s confidence:
- 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.
- 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.)
- Give your dog a job or get him involved in a canine sport: If your dog is a herder and you have livestock, it is likely that he will be so busy that he will not have time to develop overly submissive behavior. 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.
- Use counter-conditioning techniques to help him 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 him 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 his confidence through counter-conditioning, the first thing you have to identify is the trigger. What is stimulating your dog to be so submissive? If he is only afraid of one thing it is easier to train him; unfortunately, most submissive dogs are afraid of almost everything. Spend some time with your dog to become familiar with his fears.
The next step is to teach him that the scary thing is actually a good thing. When he is exposed to the scary object, give him a tasty treat and let him relax around the object without any pressure.
The final step in counter-conditioning your dog to face his fears is to expose him 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 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. Patricia McConnell has a book
More Ideas on Working With a Submissive Dog
You should not treat an overly submissive dog just like a happy-go-lucky or dominant dog. If you use the methods above and treat your dog a little more carefully in the meantime, this problem can go away.
- Do not reach down and pet your dog as soon as you come into the room.
- Do not stare at your dog.
- Do not scold your dog if she dribbles on the carpet. Take her to another room or put her outside in an enclosed yard so that she does not watch you cleaning up.
- Do not reach over your dog and pat her on top of the head.
- Do not hug your dog.
- Do not speak in an angry or excited voice, even if you are about to take the dog on a walk.
- Do not lock your dog in her crate every time someone comes over to your house. You are only encouraging her submissive behavior.
Is Your Dog's Submissive Behavior Dangerous?
Overly submissive behavior is a sign of fear. Dogs that are fear biters are more dangerous than aggressive biters because people tend to underestimate how much damage they can do.
By following these tips on building your dogs confidence when she is overly submissive, you can prevent her from becoming a fear biter.
Why do you want to change your dogs submissive behavior?
Get Started Today
Your dog did not develop submissive behavior in just a day, and it is not possible to train her out of that behavior in just a day. This is going to take some time and some work.
If you do not feel like you have enough time to work with your dog, if your dog has already become so fearful that she bites when worked with, or you just do not want to spend all of the hours needed to teach your dog to no longer be submissive, consult a professional. Dog trainers will work on this problem, or you can consult a behaviorist. If you need a referral, talk with your regular veterinarian.
I urge you to take care of this problem now before your dog develops fearful behaviors that can lead to fear biting.
Questions & Answers
My seven-year-old female GSD has still not warmed up to my husband after nine months. She will pee or hide every time she thinks he is going to take her out. She follows me everywhere, but does not seem to experience separation anxiety when I leave for work. She is not submissive to other dogs. What can we do to help her overcome this fear?