Social interactions between dogs can be very fluid, and often involve a lot of role play or behavioural adaptation depending on the mixture of personalities of the various dogs involved.
This means that virtually all adult dogs tend to give puppies more leeway than they would a fellow adult, and that dogs can and do switch roles frequently and may be dominant to one dog, yet submissive to another; as well as often actively enjoying pretend play that sees a more dominant party pretend to yield to a weaker dog.
However, all dogs have a basic level in terms of where they see themselves in the average pecking order, what their approximate pack position is, and if they are naturally assertive, bold and dominant, and so, tend to naturally command the respect and deferment of other dogs or not.
Pack hierarchy is a sliding scale – it is not simply made up of one alpha mae and correlating female, and then a pack of dogs all at the same social level. Every single pack situation, be this a literal pack of dogs in the wild or within a working environment, or a casual, transient pack in the dog park, will contain a spectrum of dominance and submission within the dogs present.
This can change as the dogs involved (or their behaviour or situation) changes too; for instance, a dog that was submissive within one group of dogs might be dominant or at least more dominant in the presence of different dogs, if those dogs in turn are submissive and less assertive than the prior set.
That said, some dogs tend to be naturally more submissive than others, and will generally be the first dog to yield to another, send calming, appeasing signals, be the dog to act as the peacemaker in play, or even avoid dogs that tend to be overly dominant or pushy.
Whether your dog is always the most submissive dog in the pack or simply shows some submissive dog traits regularly, knowing how to recognise this and identify where your dog falls in their hierarchy and how submissive they are can be useful.
With this in mind, this article will tell you what to look out for to identify how to tell if a dog is submissive. Read on to learn more.
A submissive dog might be very keen to play and interact with another, and they might display proactively open and welcoming body language, hoping to get an invite to play. However, they will probably wait for the other party to make the initial approach and invite, and to do so in the way they want, following the cues rather than being the first to give them.
A huge amount of information is exchanged between dogs during the first few seconds of a greeting and interaction, and a large part of this involves determining who will have the upper hand. Dogs that tend to be middle of the pack in terms of the submissive or dominant spectrum will tend to both actively sniff, bounce at each other, stand head to head, and make eye contact, determining the boss by means of who yields first.
However, a dog that tends to be submissive or that isn’t interested in finding out if they might get the upper hand won’t do this. They are likely to be less proactive about the butt sniffing, potentially standing still whilst the other dog circles them, and they won’t make or maintain eye contact. They might immediately lie down in front of the other dog and show their throat and neck, may lick the other dog’s muzzle, or will bow in front of them, waiting for the other dog to give a cue to move onto the next stage of the interaction.
Dogs that are highly submissive and often, very small may urinate in submission to a dominant or larger dog, which is a very strong signal of submission and one you just need to hope doesn’t happen in the house!
Submissive urination is generally a deliberate communication cue from a submissive dog, and not as many owners think, always an indication of fear, or an involuntary loss of bladder control.
A submissive dog won’t instigate eye contact with others, and will actively avoid it if another dog tries to make or hold eye contact.
If a more dominant dog takes your dog’s toy in the park, it will probably be down to you as their owner to retrieve it, as a submissive dog would rather lose their resources than get pushy in order to defend them!
If your dog is submissive, they will also yield other resources in other situations too; for instance, if someone is sharing out treats, they’ll be at the back of the throng and may miss out if the treat-giver doesn’t make sure to allocate the treats fairly. Giving treats to a group of dogs in the park is best avoided, as it can cause flashpoints of aggression.
A submissive dog will also not defend their bowl of food to a more dominant dog, and will accept and respect that the other dog is fed first.
Submissive dogs will display a range of physical signals to other dogs that essentially translate as “I am not a threat, do not hurt me” which may include baring their throat, lying in front of them, licking their mouth, and even licking, grooming, or otherwise showing physical affection to the other dog.
You might also see a dominant dog display these same behaviours to a submissive one as part of role play with another dog they trust or are having fun with too, but generally, you’ll clearly see which dog really has the upper hand!