What is Submission?

In this post:

  1. What is dog submission?
  2. What does submissive behavior look like?
  3. Do dogs show submission?
  4. What does submission look like in dogs?
  5. Can we teach dogs to be submissive?


Most pet owners feel that they know their dogs pretty well. You can read their facial cues, understand their barks and sounds, and interpret their body language. But most dog owners misunderstand what submissive behavior is and try to force their dogs to act more submissive.

What is dog submission?

Submissive and dominant behaviors come out in animals when there is limited access to resources. When there is a lack of food or water, pack animals will create a social hierarchy that dictates who gets access to the resources first. When an animal wants to move to the front of the line, they will act dominantly and assert themselves. However, if an animal is willing to move to the back or wait their turn, they will communicate that using submissive behaviors.

What does submissive behavior look like?

According to David Mech, submission itself may be as important as dominance when it comes to promoting friendly relations and strengthening social bonds. There are two different submissive behaviors: active and passive.

David Mech believes active submission is indistinguishable from food beggingPassive submission is where the submissive wolf or dog rolls over onto their side or back. He found that all members of the pack will usually “submit” to the main breeding male. It is imperative to note this is never a forced submission through aggression or force. It is a much gentler behavior of giving way to another member of the pack.

Do dogs show submission?

It is typically said that submission is the flip side of dominance. It’s a package deal. This means that if a dog has displayed dominant behavior in the past, they can also be submissive and vice versa. What determines which behavior they exhibit relies entirely on the number of resources available to them.

What does submission look like in dogs?

Unlike wolves who tend to have a more linear dominance structure, dogs are much more fluid, and dominance depends on the situation. One dog may insist on getting the food bowl first but will allow another dog to chose a toy first. Not all breeds show submissive behavior since not all dogs show dominant behavior. However, here are some examples of submissive behavior you may have seen your dog do:

  • Belly Up: The belly is a vulnerable area that dogs won’t show to anyone they don’t trust or are willing to submit to.
  • Flattened Ears: If your dog is afraid or submitting, she may put her ears flat against her head. If you notice your dog giving you this subtle sign, provide them with some comfort and reassurance.
  • Avoiding Eye Contact: This can be a behavior that may be hard to spot, but a submissive dog will often avoid your direct eye contact or that of another dog.

Can we teach dogs to be submissive?

The short answer is; No. You cannot teach dogs to be more submissive.

Just like David Mech said earlier, dominance is rare and is the source of most aggression and submission is the same thing. It is very rare, and it’s entirely inappropriate for owners to require that their dogs behave in a more submissive manner.

Dominance and submission are not personality traits that trainers can bring out in a dog. We are not dogs and therefore, should not be trying to act like dogs. Human-dog interactions are very different from dog-dog interactions, just as we treat people differently than we do our pets.

In the wild, submission is never forced. It is something wolves instinctively know to do. They do it when begging for a favor or just as a way to communicate to another wolf, “okay, I recognize you are the boss.” It is more of a show of respect among the pack members, not an enforced behavior.

When owners try to teach a dog to act submissively, what they’re doing is taking an anxious dog and merely pushing it to be more fearful and quicker to react.

Special Thanks To …

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Dr. James C. Ha, Ph.D., CAAB

Dr. James C. Ha, Ph.D., CAAB is a professor of applied animal behavior at the University of WA and a certified applied animal behaviorist with over 30 years of experience in animal behavior teaching, research, consulting, and expert witness services. Aly was privileged enough to be in his Applied Animal Behavior Certification program.

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Discovery Wildlife Park

Discovery Wildlife Park is a refuge for orphaned and unwanted wildlife. They provide “forever” homes for animals who are not able to be returned to the wild. It is located on a 90-acre park with over 30 species of orphaned animals. They offer many family fun adventures from visiting the animals in their zoo to camping.

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Fort Rickey Children’s Discovery Zoo

The Fort Rickey Discovery Zoo is a special kind of petting zoo with a focus on children and healthy family fun. Everything they do centers on the understanding that, for kids, passive observation of zoo animals is not enough. Children need to be engaged. They need to use all their senses to explore, manipulate, and discover. They strive to provide the highest quality care for our animals while providing the best in healthy, outdoor family entertainment and education.

Aly DelaCoeur, UW-AAB
Aly DelaCoeur, UW-AAB is one of the founders of Wag Enabled (originally Why Does My Dog). Aly has a certificate in applied animal behavior through the University of Washington and is a certified veterinary assistant and AKC Evaluator. She aims to provide an unbiased perspective on dog training by providing practical, intelligent, and caring advice for people to impart on their canine companions