How to Help a Submissive Dog Build Confidence

Updated on February 7, 2018
DrMark1961 profile image

Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He has been working with dogs for more than 40 years.

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:

  1. Dribbles urine on the carpet when you come into a room and talk to her or pet her.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Avoids eye contact when you meet or makes it only briefly, then sniffs the ground or looks away.
  5. Goes into a submissive stance whenever meeting other dogs. Your dog may also dribble urine when coming up to a strange dog.
  6. Allows other dogs to put a paw over her shoulder.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Whines excessively.
  10. Has a submissive grin (rolls the upper lips up like a growl—it is not a growl!).

A sumbissive dog allowing a more dominant dog to place a paw on her shoulder.
A sumbissive dog allowing a more dominant dog to place a paw on her shoulder. | Source

Four Tips to Build Your Dog's Confidence

 
Obedience Training
Socialization
Sports or Work
Counter-Conditioning

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 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.

A submissive dog allowing a more dominant dog to examine her.
A submissive dog allowing a more dominant dog to examine her. | Source

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.

A submissive grin should never be confused with a growl.
A submissive grin should never be confused with a growl. | Source

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.


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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.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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?

    This is a problem, but it is not as serious as a fear aggressive dog. It does take some time, and will require some changes, but your GSD needs to start seeing your husband as her provider and caretaker, and things will change.

    Every time he comes in a room with her, he needs to toss her a treat. (Do not try to approach her at first, as this will probably scare her and she will be afraid to eat the treat.)

    He needs to be the one to feed her.

    He should be the ONLY one to take her out for a walk.

    How long is this going to take? I cannot tell you for sure. Some dogs get over this problem in a few days, but some take weeks or even months. Eventually she will see your husband as "that guy who gives me a treat" and look forward to seeing him everytime.

    This works with deliverymen too. If your dog is barking excessively or is scared of the postal carrier or UPS guy, you need to give them some treats so that they give her one every time they approach your house.

    Again, they should toss them from afar, and not scare her by trying to hand a treat to her.

  • My dog pees on the couch every time I go to take him for a walk. How do I get him to stop this?

    A dog that pees on the couch when it is time to go for a walk may have excitement urination. The most straightforward solution to this problem is to call him to you every time before showing the leash and telling him it is time to go out. He may dribble when he is excited, so call him to the kitchen or entrance, somewhere you have a tile or hardwood floor, and it will be a lot easier to clean up.

    Do not scold him or hit him for doing this. It is not his fault. A lot of dogs grow out of excitement urination, but not all, so calling him off of the couch is the best idea.

    I had a dog that would urinate on the couch every time the doorbell rang. He did not grow out of the problem, so these are the steps we used to train him to be less reactive to the bell. https://pethelpful.com/dogs/Help-My-Dog-is-Peeing-... It was not always easy, but sometimes this problem can persist if you are not persistent in getting rid of it.

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    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      7 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Making up the phrase counter conditioning? Really?

    • profile image

      BellatheBall 

      7 months ago

      This is a good article. however, I don't think there is any reason to muddy the waters by making up a phrase such as "counter conditioning". What is the reason?

      The first step to training the "shy" dog, not to be confused with the submissive dog, is to try and understand what type of trauma the dog has been though in the past.

      Sometimes this is not possible, such as with a rescued dog. In that case, a handler with just have to figure it out as best as possible.

      But a shy dog is not the same as a 'submissive' dog.

      A submissive dog is the opposite of a lead dog.

      Not the same.

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      8 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Adrienne, thanks for those comments on counterconditioning. I agree that it is very detailed and it seems difficult to even go over it in an article. (Which is why I suggested Dr McConnells book.) I wrote another article on counterconditioning for use in dogs that are afraid of fireworks but it does not get much traffic. I think that is a shame because those techniques have can do a lot of good for dogs if they are performed correctly.

      I hope your Rotties are doing well.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      8 months ago from USA

      Bellatheball, I don't mean to be harsh, but any dog trainer or behavior professional in the field should know who Patricia McConnell is. It's like being a doctor and not knowing who Louis Pasteur is.

      Positive reinforcement is much different than counterconditioning. In positive reinforcement something is added when the dog performs an operant behavior. It's all about consequences, albeit there's also an element of classical conditioning going on (Pavlov is always on your shoulder as the saying goes).

      Counterconditioning instead entails changing the emotional response to a stimulus. It is a very powerful behavior modification protocol and is not just "giving treats." That oversimplifies things and degrades a very effective behavior modification protocol that, not coincidentally, is also used in applied behavior analysis for humans.

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      9 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Thank you Louise. That first photo is of my dog Ajej playing with her sister in front of my house. She is a super dog, but one of the reasons all my other dogs grow up so submissive! (She has that "you looking at me?" complex.)

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      9 months ago from Norfolk, England

      There's some really good advice there. My dog isn't submissive, but you've given some really useful information here. I love the photographs too.

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      10 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Bella, telling you that I disagree with you is degrading you? That proves to me that you are being oversensitive. Adults learn to discuss things like adults.

      If you really feel like you are an expert in the subject, perhaps you could write something more helpful than an article on how ladies should guard their credit cards.

    • BellatheBall profile image

      BellatheBall 

      10 months ago

      No, and I don't know who Patricia McConnell is either. I think the terms that we use matter, and degrading me just proves that you are not fully proficient in dog behavior.

      Perhaps it would help if you could turn to writing articles in your field of expertise, such as Dog First Aid, What Vaccinations your Dog needs and When, When is Time to Say Goodbye, How to Prep Your Best Friend for Surgery, etc.

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      10 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Hi Bella, you remind me of Patricia McConnell and the other animal behaviorists when they decided that the term "dominance" was misunderstood and decided it should no longer be used. They stopped publishing papers using that term, but since everyone else still used it they did not matter.

      You may use the phrase insecure if you wish but the rest of the world uses the phrase submissive.

      As per your comment, are you suggesting that the way to help a submissive (or insecure) dog is by gettting rid of him so that he will have a new owner?

    • BellatheBall profile image

      BellatheBall 

      10 months ago

      While this article seeks to address the problems of a 'submissive' dog, the behavior described is actually that of an insecure dog.

      In every group, or pack, of dogs, there is a Leader of the pack, Lieutenants, or dogs that support the Leader, and then submissive dogs, or dogs that follow orders.

      This article is describing insecure dogs, or dogs that are shy and afraid of normal objects and activities, like say, a trip to the vet.

      Usually a insecure dog can helped through this insecurity by having a calm and secure owner or handler. A nervous owner or handler will only make the situation worse. Positive reinforcement is a good idea, but beware of giving too many treats as this will not be a cure and could be harmful.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 

      10 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Doc, I continue to do great, thank you. I go in to Boston tomorrow for my pre-op PET scan (funny test for a pet food salesman and pet writer), appointment with the surgeon, and pre-op evaluation. I continue physically and emotionally unfazed by my condition or my treatment. No side effects except minor hair loss occurring now, but you'd never know it. It's coming out in an even shed of short, uniform length hairs, not in clumps. I guess I'm shedding my undercoat. My surgery is in a couple of weeks...the 21st of February.

      I thought a 5th choice could be "all of the above." All four choices are valid reasons to change a dog's submissive behavior and I find it difficult to pick just one.

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      10 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Hi Bob good to see you. I hope you are doing okay. I appreciate your comment, as always, but you made me curious: what is the 5th choice that I forgot to put on there? This is the best time to change it, before there are any votes.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 

      10 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Good hub, Doc. I see submissive urination a lot during my job servicing various pet supply stores. Many customers bring their dogs with them, of course, and will ask other owners if their dogs can say, Hello." This greeting often produces submissive urination.

      When not engaging dog and cat owners I walk around the store...orbiting the aisles, I call it. I also call it pee patrol because I often discover little puddles of pee that I report to store personnel so they can clean it up.

      Owners can identify submissive urination because it's often just a bit more than a spoonful or two, as opposed to what was just in an emptied bladder. Just curious; did you intend to put a 5th choice on the poll?

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