Why Are Some Dogs Submissive?

If you’ve ever wondered why some dogs are submissive, as opposed to dominant, the short answer is because somebody has to be.  Dogs, like wolves, have a pack social structure.  This means that there is a hierarchical social order, with a dominant leader at the top and other wolves/dogs filling other roles in the order below.

All wolves/dogs below the dominant leader will be submissive to the leader to some extent.  As you descend in rank in the social order, you find wolves/dogs who are more and more submissive to other members of the pack.  At the bottom of the pack will be the wolf/dog who eats last and gets the least amount of respect.  If he has something that another wolf/dog wants, he usually has to surrender it.  If he’s sleeping in a spot that another wolf/dog wants, he usually has to move.

Why does this happen?  There are a lot of reasons.  You can often tell the dominant from submissive pups early in a litter.  Even before the puppies can see or hear you can see some puppies pushing others out of their way to nurse first and get the best nipples.  As puppies get a little older, some of them are more assertive and outgoing.  They boss their litter-mates around.  Dominant and submissive personalities are present in dogs right from the start.

Studies have shown that first-born puppies are often larger than their siblings.  They are usually the first to nurse and, as a result, usually lay claim to the nipples containing the best milk supply.  In most cases puppies go back to the same nipple again and again throughout the time that they nurse which means that the first-born puppy may receive the best nutrition in the litter.  All of these factors can add up to favor the first-born puppy becoming the future dominant dog.

In some cases size has something to do with who will be dominant and submissive.  Large, robust puppies often grow up to be dominant but not always.  Some smaller pups can be dynamos.  Weakly pups, however, will rarely become dominant since they won’t have the strength to assert themselves.

If a mother dog has a favorite among the puppies that favorite can become a dominant dog.  He may get preferential treatment — extra nursing, extra grooming, extra time with mother.  All of these things can build his confidence.

Confidence has a lot to do with becoming a dominant dog as opposed to being submissive.  The more confident a dog is, the less likely he is to be submissive.

When it comes to interacting with humans most dogs are submissive to some degree.  If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to have much of a relationship with them.  There can be problems, however, if a dog is too submissive to people.  In these cases a dog may develop problems with submissive urination — urinating when he is anxious or feeling stressed around a person.

For instance, if you catch your puppy chewing on your shoe and tell him, “No!” and take the shoe away from the puppy, your puppy may become very anxious and urinate on the spot.  Although submissive urination is sometimes associated with dogs who have been abused, it also occurs with very sensitive submissive dogs who have never been abused.  The dog is simply overly submissive and his fear gets the better of him.

Submission in dogs is a very complex subject.  A dog’s role within a pack can change, going up or down, becoming more or less submissive according to his relationship with other dogs.  Your dog’s level of submissiveness toward you can also vary at different times.  Dominance and submission are two of the keys to understanding how your dog behaves.

Mark Mansfield

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