Signs of Submission in Dogs

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Understanding dog behavior and communication is crucial for building a healthy and trusting relationship with our canine companions. Dogs communicate through a variety of signals and behaviors, many of which can be easily misunderstood by humans. One critical aspect of canine communication is the signs of submission in dogs, which can indicate a dog’s feeling of safety, respect, or fear in their interactions.

Signs of Submission in Dogs

Knowing how to recognize and interpret these signs helps dog owners and trainers respond appropriately, ensuring the well-being of the dog and maintaining a harmonious environment. The purpose of this article is to delve into the various signs of submission in dogs, helping readers to better understand and respond to their pet’s behavior.

Decoding Dog Communication: Understanding Canine Language

Importance of Body Language

Dogs communicate primarily through body language, which encompasses a wide range of signals including posture, tail position, and facial expressions. This form of communication is often more pronounced and subtle than vocalizations, making it crucial for dog owners to learn and observe these signals closely.

  • Posture: A dog’s posture can indicate its emotional state and intentions. For instance, a relaxed dog may stand with an even weight distribution, whereas a scared or submissive dog might lower its body to the ground, tuck its tail, or crouch.
  • Tail Position: The position and movement of a dog’s tail can convey a lot of information. A high, wagging tail often signifies excitement or confidence, while a low or tucked tail can indicate fear or submission. A slow, hesitant wag may show uncertainty.
  • Facial Expressions: Dogs also use their facial muscles to convey emotions. Relaxed, open eyes and a slightly open mouth with the tongue hanging out typically signal a relaxed state. Conversely, avoiding eye contact, yawning, or licking lips repeatedly can be signs of stress or submission.

Understanding these aspects of body language can help dog owners interpret their pet’s needs and emotions, ultimately strengthening the human-canine bond.

Appeasement vs. Submission

It’s essential to distinguish between appeasement gestures (calming signals) and true submissive behaviors in dogs, as they serve different purposes in canine communication.

  • Appeasement Gestures: These are often referred to as calming signals and are meant to defuse tension or convey peaceful intentions. Examples include yawning, licking lips, turning the head away, or sniffing the ground. These behaviors are not necessarily indicative of fear but are rather a dog’s way of trying to calm a situation or show that they pose no threat.
  • Submission: Submissive behaviors are more about indicating a lower social status or acknowledging dominance. True submissive behaviors include actions like exposing the belly, lowering the head, and flattening the ears against the head. These behaviors are more likely to occur in contexts where a dog feels intimidated or is in the presence of a more dominant individual, canine, or human.
Signs of Submission in Dogs

By recognizing and understanding these different types of behaviors, dog owners can better respond to their dog’s emotional needs, fostering a more trusting and secure environment for their pets.

Signs of Submission in Dogs: Common Signs

Postural Signs

Lowered Body

One of the most obvious signs of submission in dogs is the lowering of the body. This behavior can manifest in various forms, including crouching, crawling, or rolling over onto the back.

  • Crouching: When a dog crouches, it often flattens itself close to the ground in a bid to appear smaller and less threatening. The dog might lower its head and try to make itself as inconspicuous as possible.
  • Crawling: Crawling is an extension of crouching. In this behavior, the dog might belly-crawl towards a more dominant individual, whether human or canine, demonstrating an acknowledgment of higher status.
  • Rolling Over: Rolling over and exposing the belly is perhaps the most profound act of submission. By showing its vulnerable belly, the dog indicates a complete lack of threat. This behavior is often accompanied by other submissive signals, such as tail tucking and particular facial expressions, to convey the dog’s peaceful intentions.

Tail Position

The tail position is a significant indicator of a dog’s emotional state and social stance in submissive situations:

  • Tucked Tail: A dog’s tail often tucks between its hind legs, signaling fear or recognition of lower social status. A tightly tucked tail against the body is a classic sign of submission and anxiety.
  • Low, Slow Wags: These can signify a mix of uncertainty and submission, indicating that the dog is cautiously feeling out the situation.
  • Raised Tail with a Loose and Gentle Wag: This can sometimes display submissive behavior and contrast with a stiff and assertive wag. It’s important to consider the context and entirety of the dog’s body language to interpret these signals accurately.

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions provide significant insights into a dog’s emotional state:

  • Ears Pulled Back: Ears pulled back against the head often signal submission or fear. This physical gesture makes the head appear smaller and less imposing.
  • Avoiding Direct Eye Contact: This common submissive gesture indicates that the dog does not want to challenge or provoke.
  • Repetitive Lip Licking: Especially out of context (not after eating or drinking), can be a sign of stress and submission. It serves as an appeasement gesture to communicate peaceful intentions and discomfort.

Recognizing these subtle facial cues helps dog owners respond appropriately to their pet’s needs, fostering a trusting relationship.

Other Vocal and Behavioral Signs

Submissive Urination

Submissive urination is a behavior exhibited by some dogs in response to stress or recognizing higher social rank.

  • Purpose: It is an involuntary action used to demonstrate submission and appeasement, rather than a housebreaking issue.
  • Triggers: Common triggers include loud voices, direct eye contact, sudden movements, or the approach of a more dominant figure.
  • Managing the Behavior: To manage submissive urination, approach the dog calmly, avoid direct eye contact, and create a positive and stress-free environment.

Whining and Crying

Whining and crying are vocalizations that dogs use to communicate various needs or emotions.

  • Expression of Needs: Dogs often whine or cry to express hunger, the need to go outside, or the desire for attention.
  • Anxiety or Stress: These sounds can also indicate anxiety, discomfort, or stress, particularly in unfamiliar or challenging situations.
  • Responding to Whining: Address the underlying cause by ensuring the dog’s needs are met and by providing comfort in stressful situations.
Signs of Submission in Dogs


Licking is a multifaceted behavior that can convey various messages in the context of submission.

  • Appeasement Gesture: Dogs may lick their lips or another individual’s face as a sign of appeasement and to convey peaceful intentions.
  • Bonding and Affection: Licking can also be a way for dogs to bond with their owners or other dogs, showing affection and reinforcing social bonds.
  • Interpretation: It’s essential to consider the context in which licking occurs to understand whether it signifies submission, affection, or another sentiment.

Signs You Might Misinterpret as Submission

Similar Yet Distinct Behaviors

Understanding dog behavior can be challenging, and it’s easy to misinterpret certain actions as submission when they might convey entirely different messages.

Play Bows

  • Context: Often seen during playtime, a play bow involves a dog lowering its front legs while keeping its rear up.
  • Playfulness: This is a clear sign of playful intent rather than submission. The dog is inviting others to engage in play and is showing excitement and friendliness.

Excitement Urination

  • Occurrence: Particularly common in puppies, excitement urination happens when a dog is overly excited or happy, such as when greeting their owner after a period of absence.
  • Differentiation: Unlike submissive urination, which involves stress or fear, excitement urination is purely a response to positive emotions like joy or excitement.

Exuberant Greetings

  • Jumping Up: Dogs often jump up on humans as a form of greeting.
  • Explanation: While this might be interpreted as a sign of submission because the dog seeks attention, it is more accurately a demonstration of excitement and a desire for social interaction.

Conflicting Body Language

A dog’s body can exhibit mixed signals that may confuse even experienced dog owners.

Wagging Tail

  • High, Fast Wags: A high and fast wagging tail generally indicates excitement or aggressive intent, rather than submission. It’s crucial to look at the entire body language to correctly interpret this behavior.
  • Curved Body Posture: A dog that is excited but slightly unsure may exhibit a wagging tail paired with a curved body posture. This blend of signals requires careful observation and understanding of the context to interpret correctly.

Raised Hackles

  • Instinctive Response: Raised hackles, or piloerection, occur when the hair along a dog’s back and neck stands up.
  • Misinterpretation: While this might be assumed as a sign of submission due to stress, it actually indicates heightened arousal, fear, or aggression. Assess the situation and other indicators like vocalizations and facial expressions to understand the dog’s true emotional state.

Vocalizations Misread as Submission

Various sounds from dogs can be easily mistaken for submissive gestures but may indicate other emotions or needs.


  • Misconception: Some might think a growling dog is trying to show submission by vocalizing discomfort.
  • True Meaning: Growling often signifies discomfort, fear, or warnings. It is a dog’s way of communicating that it feels threatened or needs personal space.


  • Different Contexts: Barking can happen in numerous situations and for various reasons.
  • Comparison: Instead of being a submissive sign, barking generally expresses excitement, alertness, or a desire to warn or communicate something important.
Signs of Submission in Dogs

Other Behavioural Signs

Several other behaviors are often misread and need a nuanced understanding.

Excessive Drooling

  • Possible Causes: Dogs drool for various reasons like excitement, anxiety, or medical issues.
  • Misinterpretation: Mistaking excessive drooling for a submissive reaction could overlook a potential health concern or anxiety issue that needs addressing.


  • Instinctive Action: Dogs might avoid certain people, places, or situations due to fear or distress rather than submission.
  • Clarification: This behavior shouldn’t be confused with showing submissive respect. Instead, it underscores the need for a safe and reassuring environment or gradual socialization.

Tail Chasing

  • Playful Behavior: While often playful, tail chasing can also be a sign of stress or other underlying issues.
  • Understanding: Recognizing when this behavior is about stress rather than playfulness helps in addressing the potential problem appropriately.

Understanding these nuanced behaviors allows dog owners to better discern their pets’ needs and emotions. Correctly interpreting a dog’s actions fosters a more understanding and harmonious relationship.

What to Do for Fearful Submission

Understanding how to respond to a dog’s fearful submission is essential for building trust and ensuring the well-being of your furry friend. Fearful submission can manifest in various ways, including cowering, avoiding eye contact, submissive urination, and more. Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to address and alleviate this behavior.

Creating a Safe Environment

Provide a Safe Space

One of the first steps in helping a dog with fearful submission is to provide a designated safe space where they can retreat when feeling overwhelmed. This space should be quiet, free from too much foot traffic, and stocked with their favorite toys and a comfortable bed.

Minimize Triggers

Identify and minimize any triggers that may provoke fear or anxiety. This could include loud noises, unfamiliar people, or sudden movements. Gradually desensitize your dog to these triggers while maintaining a calm and reassuring atmosphere.

Building Trust

Positive Reinforcement

Use positive reinforcement techniques to encourage desired behaviors and build trust. Reward your dog with treats, praise, and affection when they display confident behavior. Avoid punishing fearful submission as it can exacerbate anxiety.

Consistent Routine

Maintain a consistent daily routine to provide a sense of stability and predictability. Regular feeding times, walks, and play sessions help to build a structured environment that can reduce anxiety.

Behavior Modification Techniques


Gradual exposure to fear-inducing stimuli can help desensitize your dog. Start with low-intensity exposure and gradually increase the level as your dog becomes more comfortable. Pair this with positive reinforcement to encourage calm behavior.


Counterconditioning involves changing your dog’s emotional response to a fear-inducing stimulus. For example, if your dog is fearful of certain sounds, pair the sound with something positive like treats or playtime to create a more positive association.

Signs of Submission in Dogs

Training and Socialization

Obedience Training

Enrolling your dog in obedience classes can help build confidence and reduce fearful submission. Training sessions provide mental stimulation and the opportunity to learn new skills in a controlled environment.


Proper socialization with other dogs and people can help your dog feel more comfortable and less fearful. Start with controlled and positive interactions and gradually expose your dog to more social situations as their confidence grows.

Professional Help

Consult a Veterinarian

If your dog’s fearful submission is severe, consult a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical issues that could be contributing to their behavior. They may recommend behavioral therapy or medication if necessary.

Work with a Professional Trainer or Behaviorist

A professional dog trainer or animal behaviorist can provide personalized guidance and techniques to address your dog’s fearful submission. They can help create a tailored plan to build your dog’s confidence and reduce anxiety.

Patience and Understanding

Be Patient

Building confidence in a fearful dog takes time and patience. Celebrate small victories and remain consistent with your approach. Avoid rushing the process, as this can cause setbacks.

Show Compassion

Always approach your dog with gentleness and compassion. Understanding their fears and reassuring them with a calm demeanor can significantly aid in their recovery process.

Monitoring Progress

Keep a Journal

Document your dog’s progress by keeping a journal of their behaviors, triggers, and improvements. This will help you track what works best and identify any patterns that need addressing.

Signs of Submission in Dogs

Adjust as Needed

Be flexible and ready to adjust your approach based on your dog’s responses. Some techniques may work better than others, and it’s important to be responsive to your dog’s needs.

By implementing these strategies, you can effectively address fearful submission and help your dog become more confident and at ease. A nurturing and supportive environment, combined with consistent training and positive reinforcement, will foster a happier and healthier relationship with your canine companion.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What Are Common Signs of Submission in Dogs?

A: Common signs of submission in dogs include lowering their body, tucking their tail between their legs, avoiding eye contact, rolling over to expose their belly, licking their lips or the face of another dog or person, and submissive urination.

Q: Why Does My Dog Lower Their Body when Approached?

A: Lowering their body is a way for dogs to show that they are not a threat and to communicate submissiveness. This behavior often occurs when they are approached by someone they perceive as dominant or when they are in an unfamiliar or intimidating situation.

Q: What Does It Mean when My Dog Tucks Their Tail Between Their Legs?

A: Tucking the tail between the legs is a classic sign of submission and sometimes fear. It is a protective behavior that reduces their size and signals to others that they are not a threat.

Q: Why Does My Dog Avoid Eye Contact?

A: Avoiding eye contact is a submissive gesture indicating that the dog does not want to challenge the other party. In the canine world, direct eye contact can be perceived as a threat or challenge.

Q: What Does It Signify when My Dog Rolls Over and Exposes Their Belly?

A: Rolling over and exposing the belly is a very submissive behavior. It shows vulnerability and is a way for the dog to demonstrate trust and submission. It is often seen in interactions with people or more dominant dogs.

Q: Is Licking a Sign of Submission in Dogs?

A: Yes, licking can be a sign of submission. Dogs may lick the face, hands, or feet of a person or another dog to show submission and respect. This behavior is rooted in pack dynamics where subordinate dogs lick the dominant ones.


Understanding the signs of submission in dogs is vital for any pet owner aiming to foster a trusting and secure relationship with their furry friend. By recognizing and properly addressing behaviors such as cowering, tail chasing, and avoiding eye contact, you can create a safe and nurturing environment that encourages confidence and reduces anxiety.

Through the application of positive reinforcement, consistent routines, and gradual desensitization, you reinforce a sense of stability and trust. For severe cases, consulting professionals such as veterinarians or dog behaviorists can provide additional support and tailored strategies.

Ultimately, patience and compassion are key in helping your dog overcome fear and embrace a more confident, happy demeanor. By dedicating time and effort to understanding and addressing your dog’s needs, you pave the way for a harmonious and loving bond.

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