7 Signs of Submissive Behavior in Dogs
by Laura Cross
Published on May 04, 2016
Dogs can’t wave a little white flag to surrender from a confrontation. Instead, they use their body language to say, “I’m not a threat.” For us humans, interpreting the signs of submission in dogs isn’t always intuitive. To help you better understand your dog’s submissive body language, we put together a handy visual guide of a few of the signs you should look for.
Lying Belly Up or Rolling Over
For dogs, rolling over and showing the belly are signs of utter submission and appeasement. But this behavior isn’t necessarily an invitation for a belly rub. Some dogs love belly rubs and will happily soak up the attention. Others may feel threatened by someone standing over them while they’re in such a vulnerable position. In the wild, our canines’ wolf ancestors would roll over and expose their bellies to show deference to more dominant wolves and to avoid confrontation. So if a dog growls or snarls when approached while she’s on her back, she’s saying, “Give me space,” not, “Come rub my belly.”
Peeing When Greeting
When a dog tucks her tail, avoids eye contact and piddles at your feet when you walk through the door, she’s showing signs of submissive urination. She may even roll onto her back and tinkle. It’s her way of showing you that she’s not a threat and surrenders to your authority. Puppies often outgrow this behavior, but if your adult dog is still piddling at your feet (or your puppy does it frequently), take her to the vet to rule out any medical conditions. Once you have a good health report from your vet, try taking her outside immediately upon coming home (either in the yard or on leash) with minimal attention.
Moving Ears Backward or Flattening Ears Against the Head
When a dog is relaxed, her ears are usually upright and erect. Although it's important to understand that the position of her ears should be noted within the context of the rest of her body language, because upright and erect ears can also indicate that she's alert and attentive. And all dogs are different — some dogs move their ears to the side when they're relaxed. If she’s submissive, stressed or fearful, she may move her ears back so they lie close to or flat against her head. If you have a floppy-eared dog like a Cavalier or Cocker Spaniel, it can be harder to tell if her ears are flattened. For those breeds, you should look at the base of the ears rather than the ear itself.
When a dog greets guests at the door with a big, toothy smile, she may be displaying a submissive grin, which is her way of letting visitors know that she’s not a threat. She may also have a lower posture, lowered tail, lick her lips and look away. A submissive grin is usually a friendly gesture, so if a dog approaches you while exhibiting this behavior, it’s usually an invitation to interact. But this toothy grin should not be confused with a snarl. In general, when a dog snarls, she lifts her lips vertically and wrinkles her nose to show you her canine teeth. Plus, her posture and facial expression may stiffen. Never approach a snarling dog.
Tucked-In Tail or Wagging Tail Low and Fast
A dog holding her tail down low is usually showing signs of submission. The more anxious or submissive the dog, the more tightly she’ll probably tuck her tail close to her body. And contrary to popular belief, a wagging tail doesn’t always mean your dog is happy and excited. If she’s wagging it quickly and holding it low, it could indicate she’s anxious or trying to appease you. Even aggressive dogs sometimes wag their tails, so this behavior (and most others, for that matter) should be interpreted along with the dog's other signals and postures.
Avoiding Direct Eye Contact
In the dog world, looking into another canine’s eyes can be perceived as a threat. So when you see a dog turning her head away from another dog, it likely means she’s trying to avoid eye contact to show deference to the other dog and avoid confrontation.
Licking Another Dog’s Muzzle
Next time you’re at the dog park, watch how the dogs greet each other. The more submissive dog will often say hello to a more dominant, higher-ranking dog by lowering her head, avoiding direct eye contact and licking the dog’s muzzle. It’s one way of saying, “I come in peace. I’m not a threat.”
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