Why Does My Female Dog Get Submissive When I Pet Her?

Be grateful for your naturally submissive dog, as long as she is confident in her relationship with you. If she’s not exhibiting unhealthy behaviors to signal her submissiveness, she merely recognizes you as a good leader over her, which -- even though your female dog may not be as affectionate as a male -- is a dog’s nature regardless of gender. Your behavior, including the simple act of petting, can influence how she submits to you.

Active Submission

When your dog displays active submissive behaviors, it means she’s asking her leader -- you -- to pay attention to her. It’s a healthy form of submission because she wants to appease you, even if some of her behaviors annoy you. In addition to relaxed ears and a wagging tail, she might push her nose against some part of your body, such as your hand, to get you to pet her. Other active submissions include licking you, crouching very low to the floor, placing her paw in your lap or on your arm and even jumping up on you. If you see her crouch with her hind end up in the air, or she “wraps” her body around your legs, these are also active submissive behaviors. Some dogs also snarl so it looks like they’re smiling, or clack their teeth together.

Passive Submission

If your dog avoids looking you in the eyes with her tail tucked between her legs or has positioned her head and body much lower -- or even lying on her back -- she is still being submissive, but is afraid of negative attention from you. This is called passive submission. She may also stay completely still in one position as though afraid to move. In extreme cases, she will urinate in conjunction with these other behaviors, although if she is a puppy, she may grow out of the submissive urination phase. If you consistently see your dog exhibit these deferential behaviors, examine your own demeanor to see if you are inadvertently signaling to her that she should feel threatened. Squat down instead of bending over her to pet her; don’t approach her head-on or make eye contact, and speak softly.

Forcing Submission

Fortunately, reputable trainers eschew the outdated notion that human owners should establish their “pack leader” roles early on by forcing their dogs to be submissive by physically forcing them to take a submissive posture and then restraining them. Taking this approach leads to passive submission based on fear, not loyalty and respect. In fact, your dog’s deferential behaviors -- tucking her tail between her legs and so on -- are likely to increase as she tries harder to demonstrate her submissiveness. In a worst-case scenario, if she continually feels that her efforts are pointless, she may actually turn on you and become aggressive. In addition to monitoring your body postures, eye contact and how you speak to her, examine how you pet her. If you are petting her head, back or muzzle, stop -- these are dominant gestures. Instead, pet her under her chin or rub her belly. As she gains confidence, occasionally pet her head to remind her you're dominant, but keep a healthy submissiveness as your goal.

Corrections and Reinforcement

If any of your dog’s behaviors bother you, don’t punish her. Even if your relationship of dominance and submission is healthy with her displaying appeasing behaviors, you may need to curb some, such as jumping on you. Rather than pushing her down, don’t pay attention to her unless and until she has all four feet on the ground and then praise her. If she exhibits deferential traits that show she is more fearful than confident, such as excessive urination, work on building her confidence. For example, if she urinates whenever she greets new people, have treats on hand to feed her when newcomers arrive. Over time, she’ll associate visitors with something pleasant rather than with fear. Of course if excessive urination continues, rule out a medical cause. If you run into a brick wall with your training efforts, contact a professional dog trainer.

By Karen S. Johnson

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References
ASPCA: Submissive Urination
Fort Wayne Journal Gazette: Dogs Should Not Be Forced Into Submission
The Whole Dog Journal: Understanding How Dogs Communicate With Each Other
Pedigree Database: Choosing a Male or Female Dog: What is the Difference?
VeterinaryPartner.com: Submissiveness
Univeresity of Wisconsin, Stevens Point: Dr. P's Dog Training: Rapport Skills
Modern Dog Magazine: How To Read Your Dog’s Body Language
Paw Rescue: Assessing Shelter Dogs and Temperament Testing
Animal Planet: Laid-Back Dog Breeds

About the Author
Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.