You are here:

Canine Behavior/Submissive Behavior?


QUESTION: Thank you in advance for your advice.
I have 2 maltese (1 male (3 yo) rescued ~ 2 years ago (Rudy) / 1 female (5 yo; Maggie).  I added a male (1 yo 09/2012; Max) that was rescued from a puppy mill, adopted, then the new owners couldn't care for him.  I am essentially his 4th home.
Initially, the 2 males got along well and Maggie was left out.  Max was aggressive and would lunge at the other 2 and play rougher than they wanted.  I have done some clicker training with him for his high energy / aggressive behaviors and that has worked quite well.  Now, they are getting along much better.  My problem is that for the life of me, I cannot potty train Max. I have resolved to using a diaper during my absence because I was cleaning up 5-6 messes / day.  I am also having some difficulty intepreting his other behaviors.
When I ask if the pups are ready to go out & go potty, all 3 get excited.  When we get to the door, however, he walks to ~ 5 feet from the door and then, lies on his back which requires me to pick him up to get him out.  What does that mean?
He also rubs his face / body on me (especially on my face) at night.  What does that mean?
On the other side of the coin, he often "humps" people & the other dogs which I would think is aggressive / assertive behavior (is that right)?
He also likes to play the aggressor when playing with the other dogs.
So, I am confused if it is more of a submissive or aggressive type dog and how best to work with him to best train him and how to help get him potty trained.
Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated!!!

ANSWER: Puppy mill dogs have problems not seen in dogs from legitimate breeders (or even half legitimate breeders, for that matter).  His new owners "couldn't care for him" for a reason and you're seeing that reason.  His fourth home is his last: this dog can't make it anywhere else.

The fact that you understand clicker training well enough to turn unwanted behavior around is marvelous and I'm impressed.  Take the clicker outside, with Max, alone.  When he rolls over as you describe, keep him in your peripheral vision but otherwise ignore him.  When he gets up, click/treat.  Then wait.  It might take some time for him to move forward.  You're aiming eventually for him to move forward and eliminate, but as you know you must c/t in increments as he progresses, always raising the threshold slightly.

He may very well have a very strong conditioned fear response to going "outdoors" from his former "home".  It's possible the frustration of being unable to house train him made those people angry and he associated the anger with BEING outdoors, which explains his abject submission: this is called learned helplessness.  He has no *idea* that he is outside to eliminate.  He was whelped and spent his first few weeks on wire in a filthy environment where his dam (mother) was seriously over bred, unable to clean up after her pups, malnourished (which explains his aggression, the fight for survival among litter mates) and who knows what else.  The people who run puppy mills should be forced to live in their own filth for at least a month in small cages (just my humble opinion).  Do NOT pick him up to "get him out".  Use the clicker and let him think through the situation and slowly learn that going out is rewarding, then going FURTHER out is rewarding, then eliminating OUT is THE only rewarding behavior.  This will take time, and patience.  You also don't know (and I can't see anything from here) if one (or both) of your other dogs have made statements of social hierarchy regarding "marking" outdoors, that's why taking him out alone (until he clearly "gets it") is essential.

The humping is not necessarily assertion or dominance.  In fact, humping can be a display of subdominance.  It's also possible this dog has a retained testicle (veterinarian may be able to palpate it but sometimes ultrasound is required).  A simple blood test for testosterone levels should tell you that, actually.  If he's humping other dogs, it's clearly up to the dog(s) to deal with the situation, not you.  Your interference could confuse the issue.  When he humps people, the person should immediately get up and walk away.  You should then immediately ask for a trained behavior ("sit") which you can c/t.  Eventually, observing him as he BEGINS to initiate humping and redirecting to "sit" for c/t should extinguish this behavior.  This is a very confused dog from a very poor history.  

Using belly bands or diapers is fine when you are not at home but it won't house train the dog.  Only consistent, patient repetition (and it could take months) of his voluntary elimination for c/t will work eventually.

The dog is not aggressive.  If he's "playing rough" it's because his litter mates were not properly supervised, not allowed normal interaction, and the dam was unable to do what she would have ordinarily done were she in good health and not being exploited ("correct" unwanted behavior among her puppies).  If your other dogs are able to manage this interaction and/or are making statements of social hierarchy, you need do nothing.  If they are not, if his behavior is disruptive, interrupt (clap your hands, something benign that won't startle any of the dogs) and ask for trained behavior from him, c/t.  This sort of consistent redirection should help him to be less anxious and hopefully extinguish "rough play".  But this particular dog may never be "perfect".

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you for your prompt response.  If you don't mind, I have a couple of follow up questions. First, I am having difficulty getting Max's attention.  I can call his name in a variety of tones to get his attention but rarely get a response.  Not even a head turn or acknowledgement.  I know he hears wel because he often barks at the slightest noise outside.  
He WILL potty outside and LOVES to play and go outside.  However if I just let him out to potty he generally won't leave the deck despite only having one step to exi t.  He goes up and down 3 garage steps with no trouble.  If I carry him out put him on the ground and wait for him he will often do hiis deed in a few short minutes.  If I put him out and IsIstay in, he will wander aimlessly or scratch incessantly at the door only to releieve himself within moments of being let inside.   Now he goes into a different room when going potty is mentioned.  That just started.  Like I said previously, if I call him I get no response so the only way to get him out is to lift him.  He can't be coaxed.   Any other advice you have is greatly appreciated.  We will continue to work on potty training but would really like to boost his confidence .  If I could get him to acknowledge his name, come when called, and be potty trained that would be good enough for me.  I don't expect him to be completely normal given  history.  He has made great strides in the last 4 months he has been with me.  I just want to help him as best I can...and keep my carpeta clean :).  Thanks again for your advice. I appreciate it!

This dog might never be fully house trained.  He seems to have acquired fear responses to being outdoors, being taken outdoors, etc.  Picking him up is very dominant.  I don't understand the sentence, "If I put him out and IsIstay in, he will wander...." must be a typo.  If he is uncomfortable being outdoors without you: DO NOT put him out by himself.  It's as simple as that.  When we take on "rescue" dogs, we take on a host of problems, most of which we do not know until they appear.  Some of these problems have no easy solution.  One very large problem is house training.  Dogs learn to "ignore" any sound or word associated with something very negative, and that includes a "name".  Names are just words to a dog, and normally a dog associates this word with positive interaction.  If, however, the dog's name is used in conjunction with "come here ... name ... time to go out" or " is this mess", etc., the dog reacts to the word (name) and can do one of three things:  freeze (go "slug puppy" and refuse to move), become defensive (growl, etc.), run.  So if this dog has a strong response to this "name", the "name" must be changed.

Walk past the dog casually, use a new name, drop a piece of hot dog or string cheese in front of him in an obvious way so he sees it coming (do not bend over him to do this), walk away.  If he casually passes, say this new name and toss a small treat.  NEVER use this new name for anything negative:  "name, time to go out", "name, oh no what is this puddle", etc.  Constant association of new name with actual food reward, over time and consistently, will build a positive relationship between hearing that name and the dog's reaction (rewarding experience).  Make the name original, something not used normally, with a strong consonant at the beginning (like, "Click", for instance).  Eventually, you can begin to c/t the dog when this name is used and he LOOKS at you: that is a jackpot treat, every time, for about 30 trials.

To build confidence, a trusting relationship must develop.  This means: he cannot be "forced" or "coerced" into doing something that frightens him.  All association with you must be positive.  If you are upset about the carpets, pick them up.  Close doors so he cannot "sneak" away to eliminate.  Keep a lightweight house tab on him and teach him that following you is rewarding.  You can do this by handfeeding him one of his meals every day.

Ultimately the situation appears to be far more complex than can be addressed in a text box.  The dog is clearly in an anxious state; turning his head, licking his lips, when he knows he is being addressed (and yes, he does associate the "name"/word with himself), are calming signals that signify: I am submissive, I am not a threat.  It would be best if you found a certified applied animal behaviorist who can put an eye on the situation in its environment.  It's quite possible that the use of the clicker has confused the dog; mis-use of this training tool is common.  People inadvertently reward (c/t) a thought process they cannot "read" (because they are not in tune with dog body language).  

To find one in your area see the following sites:

Be certain this is a CAAB and not a glorified dog trainer.  It takes many months for even a well adjusted dog to habituate to a new environment and new people.  For some dogs who had poor beginnings or were in any way subjected to psychological trauma, it can take longer.

Canine Behavior

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

©2017 All rights reserved.