To The Dogs—Canine Advice Column

Passive Pooches

Though most dogs show submissive behavior from time to time, the passive/submissive dog lives it constantly.

By Hilton Butler


In this column, I’ve introduced the four personality traits seen in our canine friends and explored the nuances of the aggressive/dominant and passive/dominant individuals. Let’s continue this conversation to take a deeper look at the passive/submissive personality.

The passive/submissive personality is probably the least-common personality trait seen by canine professionals. This isn’t necessarily because it’s rare, but more so because owners believe the behaviors that stem from this personality type are due to abuse or neglect. Therefore, most humans are more tolerant of these dogs’ transgressions. This isn’t always the case, however; passive/submissive personalities can also be innate, occurring in dogs that have only had one owner from birth without ever being abused.

The most common signs of passive/submissive behaviors include:

  • Hiding—Fido suddenly runs away and puts distance between himself and what he perceives as a threat. Unlike the passive/dominant dog that will use distance to avoid correction, the passive/submissive will hide in a room, under a bed or table, or in a crate. This fear can be compounded when you try to retrieve Fido from hiding, and it’s the common cause of bites from a passive/submissive dog.
  • Submissive urination—Fido spontaneously urinates on the floor or an item. You might find the wet area hidden in a corner or in kennel bedding because the dog doesn’t always show the normal body posture associated with elimination.

The canine tail is always the best indicator of the true mindset of the dog in question. Body language can be controlled in most situations; dogs can lower their ears, cower or slink, shake or show other submissive behaviors on a conscious level. But when true fear is involved, the tail usually hides between the legs.

Behavior Vs. Personality

Submissive behavior and passive/submissive personality are not the same. All dogs can show submissive behavior in certain situations. Signs of submission might include: submissive urination, where the dog approaches in a hunched posture with the head low and ears back, and releasing a small amount of urine; cowering or slinking on approach; or overreacting to movements by the human. Passive/submissive personality, on the other hand, is seen in all situations to the point of limiting normal daily interactions.

Training can help improve your dog’s submissive behavior, but you will find most dogs with this personality revert to submissiveness quickly if allowed. Contrary to what it seems, this personality—of all the others—is not suited for a novice owner. Patience, constant training and reinforcement are needed to keep the passive/submissive dog’s confidence up. These dogs are prone to stress-related issues and illness, and educated ownership is needed to promote their health and happiness.

You will need to begin to control submissive behavior in your dog by building up your dog’s confidence and fostering a trusting relationship. A time-tested confidence builder is placing the dog in controlled-but-uncomfortable situations that end positively. For example, when your dog approaches in the cowering position, redirect him into the Sit position. Once there and not displaying submissive posturing, praise and reward the dog. Then, immediately run through the same scenario, but only reward if the behavior has shown improvement.

Encourage your dog during these interactions by utilizing praise and, on occasion, food rewards, but do not attempt to soothe him. The soft touching and “It’s OK” whispers can be mistaken as praise, which just strengthens the submissive behaviors you’re trying to eliminate.

Be sure you’re clear in your actions. Much like the passive/dominant dog, gray areas—where your dog is unsure of the proper next step—are uncomfortable for the passive/submissive canine; he’s not a leader in any sense. If your dog has a foundation in basic commands, use them to remove gray areas by telling him exactly what you expect.


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2017 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.


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