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9 Submissive Dog Behaviors & Why Dogs Show Them

By Bridget Reed


Given that we can’t use words to communicate with our canine friends, knowing how to interpret their body language is important. Within canine hierarchies are dominant and submissive dogs, and you can learn about what type of dog you have by observing their behavior. 

There are several different submissive dog behaviors you can watch for. Not all of these behaviors are intuitively submissive, so knowing what body language you should look out for is helpful. 

This article will explain the most common submissive dog behaviors, why your four-legged friend may be showing them, and how you should react when you observe them. 

Why Do Some Dogs Show Submissive Behaviors?

The explanation of why some dogs show submissive behavior returns to their wolf ancestry. A wolf pack has an alpha or leader wolf and a lowest ranking wolf. Dogs likely know how to show dominant and submissive behaviors due to their hierarchical ancestry.

That said, most dogs display both submissive and dominant behaviors. These are more ways they can behave and communicate rather than personality traits. 

Your dog may display submissive behaviors with one person or animal and dominant behaviors with another. In every relationship between a dog and another human or animal, there is always a dominant party and a party that is voluntarily submissive.

Although submission is usually associated with more tranquil and easy-to-control dogs, it is not the opposite of aggression. Whether or not a dog feels dominant in a relationship is not what determines whether or not they will be aggressive. Aggression is usually a fear response. 

Generally speaking, when your dog displays submissive behavior, they are trying to communicate that they are not a threat. Dogs usually display submissive behaviors when they are playing to let the human or animal they are playing with know that they don’t mean any harm. 

Your dog may also display submissive behaviors if they are unsure of the other dog’s intentions. If your dog senses that another dog may become aggressive, they might display submissive behaviors to try and de-escalate the situation.

If your dog displays submissive behavior with you, they are showing you respect, affection, and love. When our four-legged friends display submissive behaviors at home, it is their way of letting us know they feel safe and comfortable in our homes.

What Are Submissive Dog Behaviors?

Now that you know why dogs sometimes display submissive dog behaviors, let’s closely examine some of the most common submissive dog behaviors you can look out for in your dog. 

Rolling Onto Their Belly

One common submissive behavior that dogs display is rolling onto their belly and exposing their belly. This is a sign of utter submission because it is a physically vulnerable position for your dog to be in. For some furry friends, rolling onto their bellies is a clear invitation to rub their bellies.

However, other dogs may be uncomfortable with you standing over them and petting them while they are so exposed. If your dog begins to growl or snarl when you rub their belly, it’s a clear sign that they are frightened. 

If you do not know a dog well and you see them on their belly, approach slowly to determine whether or not they are comfortable with a belly rub.

Submissive Urination (Especially When Greeting)

Submissive urination, also known as excitement urination, occurs when your dog urinates upon seeing you. This is common puppy behavior and usually stops when dogs reach adulthood. 

If your dog continues to do this, you can try taking them out as soon as you get home to discourage the behavior. Make sure you refrain from scolding your dog for submissive urination, or the problem may worsen. 

Lowering Their Body 

When your four-legged friend lowers their body, it can mean many things. This behavior may indicate that your dog is afraid of something in some situations. 

However, it can also be a submissive behavior. When dogs lower their bodies, they try to make themselves as small and non-threatening as possible. 

Lowering Their Tail 

Another submissive behavior you may observe in your dog is a lowered tail, tucked tail, or low and fast tail wagging. The more submissive or anxious your dog is, the tighter they will hold their tail against their body. 

Usually, people assume that a wagging tail signifies a happy, relaxed dog. Although this is true, it is also a sign that your dog is trying to appease you or that they are anxious. 

Flattening Their Ears

You can tell that your four-legged friend is relaxed when their ears are upright. Usually, when dogs move their ears backward or flatten them against their head, they display submissive behavior. If you have a canine with floppy ears, look at the base of their ears to see if they are farther back than normal. 

Licking Their Lips

Your dog may also lick their lips to communicate they are not a threat. Although this is a submissive behavior, it is usually a sign that a dog is afraid or nervous. If your four-legged friend begins to lick their lips, try an assess the situation to see what could be frightening them. 

Licking Another Dog’s Muzzle

Some dogs communicate respect to other dogs by gently licking their muzzle. You may notice that your dog does this right after meeting another dog or with canines they have known for a long time. 

If you have two pups at home, one may do this to another to calm them down. This behavior is completely normal; you do not have to intervene if you see it happening. 


Finally, if your dog greets family members or guests with a smile that shows all of their teeth, they may be making a submissive grin. This is your dog’s way of telling visitors they are not a threat. Usually, a submissive grin is an invitation to interact. 

Avoiding Eye Contact

For dogs, direct eye contact can be an aggressive behavior that signals a lack of respect. That said, if you notice that your dog looks away when you or another dog looks at them, it is a sign of respect. Dogs will avert their eyes to communicate that the other party has their respect. 

What Should You Do if Your Dog Is Showing Submissive Dog Behaviors?

Usually, there is no reason to be concerned if your dog is exhibiting submissive behaviors. Your dog is likely only displaying submissive behavior towards you to tell you that you are the person with authority in your relationship. 

There is no need to assert your dominance when your dog shows submissive behavior. Doing so may instill fear in your dog and cause them to react aggressively in an act of self-defense.

How Can You Get Your Dog To Show More Dominance?

However, if your dog seems overly submissive and timid, there are a few ways you can help them open up and show a little more dominance

You can try any of the following to help your dog feel less fearful of the world around them.

  • Make sure to socialize your dog as much as possible with other dogs. If your dog is very scared of other dogs, you may have to gradually introduce them to other canines over time.

  • Give your dog their own space in your home. Your dog may prefer a dog bed over a crate or vice versa. Regardless, make sure they have a comfortable, safe place that they can go to when they are stressed.

  • Let your dog slowly adjust to new people, places, and other animals.


There are several reasons that canines display submissive behavior. Remember that in every relationship your dog has, there is a dominant party and a submissive party. 

That said, there is nothing inherently wrong with your dog when they display submissive behaviors. These behaviors include grinning, lowering their body, avoiding eye contact, and licking another dog's muzzle. 

If you think your dog is too submissive, there are a few ways you can help them become more confident. Make sure to socialize them with other people and dogs, and make them feel as safe as possible in your home.


Who's top dog? New research sorts dominant and submissive canine poses | NIH

Dominance in Domestic Dogs: A Quantitative Analysis of Its Behavioural Measures | NIH 

Dominance in dogs as rated by owners corresponds to ethologically valid markers of dominance | NIH 

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