Whitney has over 10 years of experience in dog training, rescuing, and healthcare.
No matter what the breed is, any individual dog can be dominant or submissive. It's all in the temperament of the individual dogs. Collies can be very dominant and Rottweilers can be very submissive, or the other way around. There's never a clear cut answer as to whether a dog is going to be one or the other until you meet it and see it interacting with you and other animals.
There are many signs of dog dominance and submission that you should be aware of when choosing a dog so that you know whether the pup or dog will fit into your family and training experience. You should be very alert and watchful of the signs so that you can correct any problems that may arise in the future.
Any dog breed can be dominant or submissive, and neither temperament type is going to sex-determined, meaning both males and females can be dominant or submissive. Below you'll find basic signs of both temperament types and a few precaution measures and training techniques that you may want to consider.
Signs of Dominant Dog
If your dog shows some of the below signs of dominance, you want to nip it in the bud before it gets worse. You'll probably find it easier to re-train a puppy or young dog who shows signs of dominance rather than an older dog, but that's no excuse to not correct the situation before it gets worse.
Remember that it's very important that you are alert for the signs of dominance because in most cases, it's just not going to pop up out of nowhere when the dog is, say, 4 years old. There will almost always be signs prior to any incidence and shows of dominance.
- Protectiveness of possessions (to include toys, food, and even people); snarling and snapping when the dog feels someone or another dog is too close to his things.
- Snarling or snapping when you try to do something he doesn't like (grooming, teething brushing, picking him up, etc.)
- Tries to stare your down
- Repeatedly ignores well-known commands
- Gets on the furniture when he knows he's not supposed to and refuses to get down
- Refuses to move out of the way when you ask
- Nudges or mouths you insisting to be petted or played with, trying to make you comply to his wants
- Resists handling by you, groomer, vet, etc.
- Chase other dogs or animals in play.
- Persisting to walk in front of you or go out of a door before you.
- Growls, bares teeth, or snaps under any circumstances
- Being stubborn, hard-headed and willful, demanding, pushy, forceful, and greedy
Some of these signs may seem simple and like nothing to worry about, but if they persist and the dog starts to feel like he can control you in order to get what he wants, you're going to have some issues later on.
Dominance is unlikely to go away on its own. It' best that you seek assistance of a trainer or behaviorist so that you can correct any potential problems. If you recognize any repetition of dominance signs in your dog, you'll want to take precautions to ensure safety of people and other animals.
Dominance may not turn into aggression, but you want to be prepared for anything.
- Avoid situations that may bring out aggression.
- Avoid baby talk when your dog becomes dominant or aggressive (When you say in a happy tone "it's ok Fido, calm down baby," you're telling him it's ok. Dogs recognize tone before they do what you're saying. If you talk in a happy-go-lucky tone, he's going to think what he's doing is ok.)
- Closely supervise and/or restrict activities when children or other pets are around.
- Never leave the dog in a situation, unsupervised, that may result in an incident.
- Use a head halter and/or muzzle to help control the dog when outside. If you can keep your dog under control, and show him you can handle the situation, you can reduce his want to take charge.
- When inside, control where the dog can go by using baby gates, and crate the dog when you can't watch him.
Dominant does not always mean aggressive, and it does not mean that the dog will 100%, without a doubt hurt someone or something. But, you want to make sure that you do your best to prevent any potential mishaps.
Signs of Submissive Dog
You may think that it's better to have a submissive puppy or dog than a dominant one, and depending on your experience that may be the case. Just remember that submissive dogs bite just like dominant ones do. They can bite out of fear when forced in to a situation that makes them utterly uncomfortable. It's actually pretty common.
Submissive dogs can become fear biters, so you want to diagnose your dog as being submissive and try to help him build more confidence.
The more common signs of submissiveness include:
- Rolling over onto his back with the belly showing when another dog or person walks up to him.
- Urinating, especially when meeting new people or animals.
- Keep tail ducked or at a low sway,
- Keep the head down and ears flat.
- The dog may avert his eyes so as not to look at you or another animal.
- Lick other dogs or people to show he is passive and means no harm. They'll usually lick in the face.
- Lick their lips frequently.
- When playing, they will usually lower the front of their body, stretch out their paws, and raise their butt high, in a play bow.
Some dogs that have submissive tendencies may just be nudging you to get your attention or rolling over for a belly rub, but those dogs that use it as a means of self-protection are genuinely fearful and timid are a whole other situation.
Submissive dogs are generally very gentle, but you want to evoke confidence in your dog. You don't want your dog to be easily intimidated easily. You don't want your dog to use his submissive temperament as self-protection (although you don't want him to jump and attack for self-protection either).
You can build confidence by stop babying your dog. Don't encourage your dog to be submissive.
the dog rolls over, don't immediately rub the dog's belly. Walk away
until the dog calms down before petting him. By immediately rubbing his
belly, you're telling him to roll over and be submissive.
- Be calm and assertive but not frustrated and angry. Use a normal voice when giving commands; don't yell and bark orders.
- Praise your dog when he obeys.
- Don't baby talk him when he shows signs of submission because you're telling him it's ok.
- When he shows submissive behaviors, just ignore him, and when the dog is back to normal, or at least changes his behavior, get down and pet him.
- Try confidence building games such as tug of war, letting him win once in a while. Just be careful of playing too rough because it can be bad for the dog's teeth.
- Grooming and exercise can build confidence. Brush and handle the dog for a few minutes and day, and take him for at least one long walk a day. Walks will help the dog get used to other sounds, smells, and sights than what he experiences in your home and yard.
- Socialize the dog more with other people, animals, and
experiences. The more the dog sees, the less he will have to be scared
and submissive to. Generally, dogs are more submissive to new things,
so by socializing him, he's gaining experience. If the dog shows
submission to something, tell him in a normal voice, "it's alright" and
walk past it again. Don't baby talk the dog.
take time to build confidence and re-train how you act when your dog is
submissive, but over time you can help your dog. He will have a happier life, as will you.
Mikaela on May 07, 2012:
My 4month old pit bull/lab seems to be a bit of both . He is kinda mouthy at play , he's starting to bite more but we are trying to teach him not to . He's starting to get the idea though . We started his obedience classes yesterday , he was doing pretty well with the other dogs , except for a golden retriever that seemed to be bothering him . The only problem I have with him is that he HATES when I take out my phone around him . He'll start biting at me everywhere . I normally don't growl at him , I've only growled I think once . But i growled at him today and he backed off . It seems that when I growl he backs off . After he backs off I give him something else to chew on. Am I doing the right thing ? Also , my dog gets super excited when I get home from school . Like , too excited . It's hard for him to calm down . How can I teach him to be calm ? Also , he only listens to me . Is there anything I can do to get him to listen to my parents as well ?
Dubuquedogtrainer from Dubuque, Iowa on March 28, 2012:
Dominance and submission describe a relationship. Individual dogs are not dominant or submissive.
Sturgeonl on January 15, 2012:
From the descriptions you presented my dog is definitely submissive. Interesting information.
wend on August 20, 2011:
A lot of people on here are not seeing the signs... or am seeing them wrong. Just ask yourself who is in control? Is your dog complying with you or has taken over the situation completely. This last one makes me laugh. He lays between my legs and I rub his belly for hours... Who's in control? Stubborn means he doesn't like to comply!
Vicky on April 01, 2011:
My dog is very submissive in the household. He rolld over to everyone who comes in and wants his belly rubbed. Out walking though when other dogs approach he is the complete opposite. He has stopped lunging and growling but he does not like it when other dogs are in his space. I have had a dog behaviourist out to look at him and he said the fact that my dog Stanley (border collie x german shepherd 3 years old) did not attempt to attack his dog and also we can go out with my friend and her dog, he is not aggressive, but sometimes I feel like his is!!!! We are going to socialisation classes at the end of April. BUt until then I am at a bit of a loose end as he is as stubborn as hell!!! But I do love him and I do let him be very submissive while I am watching TV in the evening with him, he lays between my legs and I rub his belly for hours!!! :-)
chris on December 25, 2010:
one thing my dog has grown up with my cat they fight often play fight i mean my dog has learnt to fight like the cat on its back this is not a submissive sign it is just how he has learnt to play. so when i play fight with him he often takes this defensive position using his back legs to scratch and front to block like a cat
corgi on August 14, 2010:
ah! thank you so much very helpful i have a 2 year old Pembroke welsh corgi who is mostly dominant and kinda scares me but i am dealing with it in some ways he is submissive we just went on a trip and we boarded him for the first time we were gone a while he was scared i think but before we left he felt the tension but this article was very helpful and he has started to calm down.
Sukie's Mum from Kent UK on August 06, 2010:
Sukie is beautiful so intelligent as she 2 yr old collie cross she is too submissive especially when i take her for walks always sits down and looks at people, as they approach us but i intend to pull her away and make her sit and stay till they pass, sometimes its embarrassing when she wont move when i tell her to, she just wont budge, then the people make a fuss over her which i dont want them too, just wish she go for a normal walk with out wanting attention from others when were out.
Gi11ibean on July 28, 2010:
I don't quite know what my dog is!!! He tends to back off if another dog growls at him but if a dog shows submission by lying down in front of him, he just attacks!!! I thought they were meant to stop after a dog became submissive but that's when my dog starts!!! Any ideas why? He was attacked by a couple of terriers when he was younger but wasn't badly hurt... Could it be out of anxiety rather that aggression? Any comments would help me loads!! This is the only problem I have. He is not protective over anything except himself it seems and it's only with dogs. People of all ages he is great with. Thanks
David 470 from Pennsylvania, United States on June 24, 2010:
Most dogs I see can switch between both. It seems certain people can make them dominant while ones they are content with will be more submissive with.
opismedia on May 26, 2010:
Well i guess my dog is a Dominant one since all other dogs seem to take the submit position when he shows his teeth.
Norah Casey on February 18, 2010:
Great Hub Whitney! My Aussie pup is quite dominant, but not aggressive at all. She licks people and things as a way of establishing they are her possessions, and she is the second dog I've had who has done this. Apparently not all dogs lick for that reason, but that behavior isn't always a sign of submission.
qingcong from Virginia on December 08, 2009:
Excellent points, I'd also like to point out that just because a dog displays some of those signs of dominance, they are not necessarily a dominant dog. Often, they simply do not know any better or they have been unintentionally rewarded for performing that behavior in the past.
Audrey Kirchner from Washington on October 05, 2009:
Great article - I have noticed though with our new pup Griffin (malamute) that has changed, whereas with my Kodi boy (mal mix) it never did. I think sometimes it is about their "life experiences" and they change accordingly though some remain submissive forever! Kinda like people!
Florida Sunrises from Tampa, Florida on September 25, 2009:
Excellent article, very informative and necessary to know.
Whitney (author) from Georgia on September 24, 2009:
tripawds, Thanks. It's definitely a good idea to nip it in the bud now. Shepherds can be very powerful dogs.
Wesley, the dog's probably more protective than dominant, but then sometimes there can be a fine line between the two, depending on the overall temperament. More than likely, though if the dog follows more of the submissive properties, it's probably just protection.
wesleycox from Back in Texas, at least until August 2012 on September 24, 2009:
Beautifully done. My boxer is submissive to an extent. He is very gentle around my daughters and my wife. On the same note he is very protective of them both. Not sure if this falls under dominance but I lean towards loving protection, because he is loved by us. Great job.
Tripawds on September 24, 2009:
Great suggestions, you have such good info for dog people.
We are currently dealing with a large Shepherd puppy who wants sooo bad to be dominant! But with teeth like his, we're trying to nip this thing in the bud.
Carmen Borthwick from Maple Ridge, B.C. on September 24, 2009:
Great hub Whitney05, some suggestions work for cats,too. Thanks for sharing.
Charnita Fance from Dothan, AL on September 23, 2009:
Nice article. My dog is a little of both but he's more submissive. He's dominant when it comes to his food and toys, that's it.
Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on September 23, 2009:
Hopefully my two hold the middle ground. They border on submissive I guess :)