Submissive Urination in Dogs

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Submissive urination plagues about one in ten dog owners (the dogs don’t know it’s a problem), and is essentially a personality trait. This is not a housetraining problem, and should not be treated like one.

Dogs, like humans, are social animals. Similarities in human and canine social structure (e.g., living in groups, extended care of the young, communal hunting) have contributed to dogs becoming “man’s best friend.” A complex communication system has evolved among dogs to help establish and maintain stable pack dominance hierarchies, which are essential for a pack to work together in caring for young, hunting, and defending territory. Dominant animals use vocalizations, gestures, and postures to communicate their status. Subordinate animals use submissive displays to turn off these dominant social threats. When dogs live in “packs” made up of their owners and other humans, they use the same gestures to communicate. Problems arise when humans do not understand these gestures or expect dogs to understand things about human society that do not come naturally.  The many differences between canine and human social behavior and communication can lead to miscommunication, misunderstandings, and what humans consider “behavior problems.”  From a dog’s perspective, for example, submissive urination is perfectly normal; but owners have real concerns about this behavior.

Submissive urination is the ultimate gesture of submission. Submissive urinators communicate that they are absolutely no threat to other dogs. In response to the submissive signals, dominant dogs stop their display.

Your Dog May Be Submissively Urinating If:

  • Urination occurs when he’s being scolded.
  • Urination occurs when he’s being greeted.
  • Urination occurs when someone approaches him.
  • He is a somewhat shy, anxious or timid dog.
  • He has a history of rough treatment or punishment after the fact.
  • The urination is accompanied by submissive postures, such as crouching or rolling over and exposing his belly.

Common situations where dogs get excited or fearful, and urinate are:

  • over affectionate greetings
  • when you arrive home
  • guests entering your home
  • arguments between people
  • scolding
  • loud noises

Submissive urination can be seen in dogs of any age or sex. It is most common in puppies, which makes perfect sense because they are automatically subordinate to all the adults in the pack. It is also more commonly seen in females and smaller breeds. Many puppies experience submissive urination either due to a lack of neuromuscular control over the bladder or by previous treatment that frightened or intimidated the puppy.  Submissive urination occurs when dogs are confronted with facial expressions, body postures, or gestures that they perceive as a threat including humans reaching for them; petting them on the head; leaning over them; talking to them in excited, deep, or harsh tones; making eye contact with them; or punishing them verbally or physically. In canine communication, dominance gestures include staring, standing over, putting a paw across the back of another dog’s neck, and low growls. Dogs simply interpret human actions as they would another dog’s actions.

While submissively urinating, dogs usually show other submissive signs, including laying their ears back, tucking their tails, cowering, and avoiding eye contact. They may also give a submissive “grin” in which the corners of the lips are pulled back, exposing molars and premolars. This should not be confused with an aggressive lip lift, which shows the incisors and canines. Some dogs roll onto their sides, exposing their bellies, while giving these signals and urinating. This is not a request for a belly rub; it is a request to be left alone.

Dogs that submissively urinate expect that their behavior will stop “threats” from humans, but well meaning humans continue leaning over, petting, and trying to comfort these dogs as they would another person. Dogs see this as a continued threat rather than a comforting gesture. Punishing these dogs will only exacerbate the situation. A typical scenario is the owner who is frustrated because his dog urinates on the carpet every time he comes home. Believing that he has “caught the dog in the act,” the owner scolds or otherwise punishes the dog for what he believes is a housebreaking lapse. Thus a dog that is already intimidated and trying to say with its only “words” that it respects the owner’s authority is met with further threats, resulting in more frequent and intense displays of submission.  It’s important to remember that this response is based on the dog’s perception of a threat, not the person’s actual intention. Submissive urination may resolve as your dog gains confidence. You can help to build his confidence by teaching him commands and rewarding him for obeying. You should also gradually expose him to new people and new situations and try to make sure all of his new experiences are positive and happy.

Excitement Urination

Excitement urination, a variation of the submissive form, usually occurs during greetings. Dogs with this behavior often do not show other signs of submission. Instead, they seem happy and excited to be greeted by humans. These are the puppies that urinate when greeted and then wag their tails and jump on humans, splashing urine all over.   Excitement urination occurs most often during greetings and playtime and is not accompanied by submissive posturing.

During excitement, young dogs often spontaneously urinate. They have no control over this and sometimes do not even realize it has occurred. Other dogs may urinate as a sign of submission in the presence of another animal (or person) that they consider dominant. Submissive urination is sometimes seen in puppies or young dogs that have been abused. However, many puppies that have submissive urination are perfectly normal and from good backgrounds. These types of urination problems seem to be caused by either a lack of neuromuscular control over the bladder or by previous treatment that frightened or intimidated the puppy.

You should try to determine what actions or events cause the involuntary urination to occur. For some, this will be easy. Excitement or sudden movement toward the puppy may cause her to urinate. For others, it might be something as simple as direct eye contact. Many puppies urinate when you bend over them, so instead, kneel down to their level. Whatever the cause, do your best to eliminate these situations or actions. Most puppies will outgrow this behavior by six months to a year of age, especially if we let them mature through this stage of their life in a gentle and calm environment. Be patient. When an accident occurs, do not make a fuss. Clean it up and forget it.

Excitement urination usually resolves on its own as a dog matures. In some cases, however, the problem can persist if the dog is frequently punished or if the dog’s behavior is inadvertently reinforced—such as by petting or talking to your dog in a soothing or coddling tone of voice after he urinates when excited.

Your Dog May Have An Excitement Urination Problem If:

  • Urination occurs when your dog is excited, for example during greetings or during playtime.
  • Urination occurs when your dog is less than one year old.

Changing the Behavior

The prognosis for dogs with submissive urination is good: most puppies and young dogs outgrow the problem as they mature and gain confidence in social situations. Treatment relies mainly on owner education and patience. You must learn to accept submissive urination as a normal part of canine social behavior. The battle is half won when you accept that your dog has not lost their housebreaking skills and is not being spiteful.

The next step is identifying and avoiding the stimuli that lead to submissive urination. Everyone (e.g., owners. their friends. veterinary caregivers) who interacts with dogs that exhibit this behavior should avoid doing anything that causes urination. For example, dogs with submissive urination should not be rushed toward when greeted; instead. they should be allowed to approach on their own. Humans should speak softly, avoid prolonged eye contact, and kneel down to avoid towering over these dogs. Ignoring these dogs for the first 5 minutes after arriving home may prevent overexcitement. These dogs should not be reached for, especially over the head; they should be petted under the chin, on the chest. and on the side of the neck.

Dogs with submissive or excitement urination may be helped by being taught an alternate greeting behavior or to associate greetings with a different set of emotional responses. These are forms of counter conditioning. Meet your dog at the door with a treat or toy. The dog will learn to anticipate food or play when you come home and be less likely to urinate. You can shape your dog’s behavior from an excited or submissive greeting to a calm one. When the dog begins looking for the treat, you should wait for them to sit calmly before giving it. Later, a treat should be given while their dog is sitting calmly, being petted, and not displaying any submissive gestures. Dogs with submissive urination should not be punished. Some dogs are so sensitive that even upset facial expressions or tense body language from owners is enough to elicit urination. The best way to avoid punishing dogs is to guide them toward appropriate behaviors. For example, instead of yelling “no” when your dog jumps on you, teach them to sit. Dogs should be told the right thing to do, something that will result in praise and a reward, rather than being allowed to decide what to do, potentially resulting in scolding and punishment. Reducing the amount of punishment will help build the confidence of submissive dogs and reduce their tendency to show such exaggerated submissive behaviors as urination. Other good confidence builders for dogs include basic training for obedience or dog sports (e.g., agility, fly ball). These activities also help strengthen the owner/dog bond, which may have been damaged by frustration over urination.

What To Do If Your Dog Has A Submissive Urination Problem:

  • Take your dog to the vet to rule out medical reasons for the behavior.
  • Get cooperation from all members of the family.
  • Keep greetings low-key. When you first get home, quietly walk in the door and go about your business. Let your dog outside to pee as usual, but without any fanfare. If you talk to him at all, just say “Hi Rover” in a calm, casual tone of voice. Don’t make eye contact with him or pet him. After he settles down, very gently crouch down to his level presenting to him sideways (this makes you very non-threatening), then calmly and quietly praise him and tell him he’s good. Be sure to tell your family and visitors to do the same.
  • Dogs, especially shy or submissive ones, are very sensitive to body language and tone of voice.  When speaking to your dog, use a calm, confident, moderate tone of voice. Avoid very high or low extremes in pitch. Don’t “coochy-coo” or babytalk to your dog either. These tones can create excitement that results in submissive urination.
  • Bending over a dog is a “dominant” posture that may provoke an accident. Get down on his level by bending at the knees rather than leaning over from the waist and ask others to approach him in the same way.
  • Pet him under the chin rather than on top of the head.
  • Approach him from the side, rather than from the front, and/or present the side of your body to him, rather than your full front.
  • These dogs are often intimidated by direct eye contact as well. Look at your dog’s face without looking directly into his eyes, and only for very short periods. Avoid direct eye contact — look at his back or tail instead.
  • Give him an alternative to behaving submissively. For example, if he knows a few commands, have him “sit” or “shake” as you approach, and reward him for obeying.  Obedience training does wonders for a dog’s confidence! An untrained dog is doesn’t know how to communicate with humans or how to behave, but the trained dog understands what’s expected of him, and the words you say to him. He’s confident because he has the tools with which to please his superiors.  It also can open your eyes to the ways that you can unconsciously reinforce a negative behavior, and teaches you the importance of praise in a healthy relationship with your dog.
  • Incorporate basic obedience (Sit, Stay, Fetch, Come, etc.) into your daily life and when your dog obeys, he gains confidence through your praise. Just don’t overdo the praise (this can result in a puddle!). A simple “Good boy” and gentle pat is enough.
  • Minimize the occasions your dog makes you want to scold him; think about what your dog does that causes you to scold him. For example, does he get into the trash, steal your children’s toys or chew on your sneakers? By simply putting a lid on the trash can or putting it into a closet and requiring your family to pick up after themselves, these situations can be eliminated. The easier you make it for your dog to do what you want, the quicker he’ll learn and his confidence will grown. On the other hand, discipline, scolding and physical punishment will simply reduce his confidence and worsen your submissive urination problem.
  • Encourage and reward confident postures from him. Do everything you can to boost your dog’s confidence.  Always encourage and PRAISE the dog for what it does right. This helps to build self confidence and cements the bond between you and your pet.

What To Do If Your Dog Has An Excitement Urination Problem:

  • Take your dog to the veterinarian to rule out medical reasons for the behavior.
  • Keep greetings low-key.
  • Don’t punish or scold him.
  • If you are expecting guests, take your dog for a walk and get his bladder emptied ahead of time, and restrict water consumption for an hour before your guests are to arrive.
  • To avoid accidents, play outdoors until the problem is resolved.
  • Take the excitement and stress out of the periods that previously triggered submissive urination.  You should also gradually expose him to new people and new situations and try to make sure all of his new experiences are positive and happy.  Socialization at training classes, dog daycare, at the park, or just going with you on errands and to visit friends can do wonders for your dog’s confidence. Have guests over who are willing to help out with this problem.  Agility training is another wonderfully fun way to boost your dog’s confidence using physical obstacles and mental stimulation as well as new human words to understand and obey.
  • When he’s excited, ignore him until he’s calm.

Conclusion

Submissive urination is a commonly encountered, normal canine behavior. It is considered a behavior problem because humans do not want their dogs to urinate in socially unacceptable locations and situations. Submissive urination plagues about one in ten dog owners.  However, it is easily manageable. By learning a little about canine social systems and communication, you can understand your dog’s behavior. After you understand and avoid eliciting the behavior, the submissive urination stops. Confidence building activities between you and your dog can help end submissive urination and strengthen the owner/dog bond.  How long will it take? Every dog is different and it’s impossible to say for sure. With most dogs, following our directions will show a noticeable difference within a short time. Solving the problem altogether depends on your hard work, patience, consistency and willingness to stick with it. If you find that your dog’s problem can’t be remedied by changing your interactive behaviors, there may be other options which can be discussed with your veterinarian. For example, drugs can sometimes be given to very excitable, hyper dogs to calm them down.

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