Dogs and humans don’t speak the same language – either in the spoken form, or in terms of body language and eye contact. This means that we tend to anthropomorphise dog behaviour – assigning human emotions and personality traits to the things that our dogs do. Trying to decode your dog’s behaviour using human behaviour as your cipher is highly ineffective, however, and leads to reactions and responses to your dog’s behaviour that don’t match your dog’s cues, leading to confusion on both sides.
One particular area of canine communication that is widely misread and misunderstood by people is the submissive signals that dogs give out to both humans and other dogs, to indicate that they are not a threat, recognise the dominance of the other party, or use to appease or diffuse a situation.
Many of the different submissive signals that dogs use are widely misinterpreted by humans – and in this article, we will cover six of the most common ones – and what they really mean. Read on to learn more.
If you’re having a conversation with another person and they seem keen to look everywhere but at you and go out of their way to avoid eye contact, the chances are that you will immediately start to feel suspicious of their motivations, and assume that they are either lying to you or up to no good.
When dogs avoid eye contact, we often assume that the same things are going on – that your dog is hiding something, feeling guilty, or trying to mislead you. However, resolutely avoiding eye contact in dog-speak is a way of showing respect, and yielding authority to the other party – whether the other party is a dog or a person.
If you greet a dog and it immediately rolls over onto its back to show you its belly, most of us automatically think of this as very cute, and an invitation to give the dog a belly rub. While the dog might actually be quite keen to get a belly rub too, exposing the belly and throat is a very strong and committed gesture of submission on the part of the dog, and one that is intended to both demonstrate no threat, and invite lenience.
Showing the most vulnerable parts of the body in this way serves as the dog’s way of saying “I know you are in charge and that’s fine with me,” and also, that they will accept your authority over them.
If your dog keeps darting their tongue out to lick their lips, you might think that they are showing you that they are hungry or have tasted something interesting! Dogs do of course lick their lips for all sorts of different reasons, including because they are tasting something and to help them to smell more clearly – but lip-licking is also widely used as an appeasing or submissive gesture on the part of the dog, designed to defuse a potentially tense situation or make greetings more relaxed and friendly.
Dogs display this behaviour with other dogs as well as people – if one dog is getting a bit boisterous, the other might use lip-licking alongside of a range of other calming signals to try to ask the other party to calm down.
If your dog is showing their teeth with a slightly open mouth that is relaxed and loose, they are trying to indicate that they are calm and not looking for an argument, avoiding escalating rowdy play or a highly-loaded greeting with another dog.
It is important to ensure that you can tell the difference between a relaxed mouth showing the teeth and a snarl, with the gums prominent and the lips taut and pulled back – which is a different signal entirely – but one that is often confused with a submissive, open-mouthed stance.
A dog that feels daunted, anxious or threatened will try to make their profile low and small, to try to take attention off themselves and stand a better chance of being able to back away and remove themselves from the situation. If the dog’s tail is tucked in or held low to the ground with a slow wag, the dog in question likely feels nervous or threatened, and is trying to protect their vulnerable back end while they retreat.
If your dog deliberately turns their face or whole body away from you when you give them a command or are telling them off, this behaviour can unfortunately lead to a large misunderstanding on the part of the handler, who assumes that the dog is ignoring them or deliberately showing disrespect.
However, the dog is actually trying to portray the exact opposite of this – turning away, like avoiding eye contact, is a submissive gesture designed to defuse a tense situation and invite leniency. If your dog does this when you speak to them firmly or give a command, they are not trying to avoid you as much as they are worried about your tone and responses.
Having a dog that reacts to commands in this way will also be hard to teach, and you will need to work with them first to boost their confidence and security in their bond with you, so that they engage with training and don’t expect to be told off!