… a wee problem that is oh so easy to fix
When I adopted my dog Rusty from a shelter at age 8 months it didn’t take me 5 minutes to recognize that he was a submissive urinator. When he greeted me, my wife, or strangers at the door, he would wiggle like a worm – in pure pleasure – as he dribbled urine in interesting and extensive patterns on the hardwood floor. I knew what that meant – it was really a great compliment; a sign of excitement and flat out respect – but peeing on greeting was not a routine I relished.
Having to get down on your knees and mop up urine every time I came home – or someone came to my house – became quite tedious after a surprisingly short time. Enough already, I was thought to myself and implemented the program outlined below. Sure I was happy to be his fearless master, (in his mind) one to be worshiped and kowtowed to, but I did not want or need such extreme supplication every time I came home.
Submissive urination is a behavior problem that some people just can’t or won’t tolerate. It can even lead to dogs being surrendered to a shelter – or returned post-adoption – yet is so simple to fix. Failing to recognize it for what it is – an annoying compliment – can cause owners much grief and frustration.
Some owners yell at their dog for doing it, which actually makes the situation worse. The dogs thinks, I obviously did not grovel enough to “he who must be obeyed” so next time I will make a better job of it – I’ll up my game. A vicious cycle thus results and perpetuates the problem. One woman friend I knew at my gym had tried the yelling approach with no luck (of course). She then went to her local vet and was told to put the dog on antibiotics (pointless). Then the dog was given a second course of antibiotics – still no joy (and no surprise there).
So she switched vets. The next vet told her that her dog could have a “plumbing problem” (anatomic issue) and needed fancy radiographic testing to find out what was going on. Some $6000 later, the dog was still urinating each time anyone approached him and the woman was getting really frustrated and was almost to the point of giving up on her dog. I told her that it was submissive urination when she described what her dog was doing and told her what to do. “Why didn’t you make an appointment to see me,” I asked. “Because you’re too expensive,” was her reply. Sigh. I reminded her that there is no such thing as cheap or expensive, just good value and bad value. Luckily for the dog, the problem was resolved in short order, as was my dog Rusty’s.
Here how to deal with it:
1. Do not walk directly toward the dog when entering the home or approaching it. Rather take a circuitous path and become seated as soon as possible until the excitement associated with your entrance has lessened.
2. Do not look directly into the dogs eyes as direct eye contact is often construed as a challenge or threat by a dog. Instead look past the dog into the room as you sail by on your circuitous path like an ocean-going schooner.
3. Do not lean or loom over the dog as this action constitutes a challenge. Remain upright and simply ignore the little feller. No bending at the waist, no petting, no outstretched hand to sniff.
4. Do not reach for the dog’s collar or scruff. That will really intimidate the “you-know-what” out of him. If you wish to apprehend him, pre-attach a “drag line” (a.k.a. a light-weight, loop-less training leash) so you can pick up the leash without looming over him. You might have to choose the right moment to attach the drag line so as to avoid inciting an incident. Do it when he is relaxed and comfortable or call him to you when you are seated. One owner had to walk backward to their dog, crouching at the same time, to avoid his dog having an accident.
5. Build your dog’s confidence. I do this using what I call a “reverse dominance program.” This program entails NO punishment at all (the dog can do no wrong), positive reinforcement training, free-choice feeding, and encouraging interactive games, like tug of war, which you allow the dog to win.
6. For really tough cases, medicines to tighten bladder sphincters can be employed (similar to the ones used to treat bed wetting in children) so that leaking urine is less likely.
A word of caution about the tug of war strategy: You can go too far with it. I once treated a young female cocker spaniel exhibiting submissive urination using that very approach. The good news was that it worked – problem solved. The no-so-good news was that I failed to tell her to quit tug of war once the problem had resolved. The net result was that her dog became overconfident and became quite demanding. Too much of a good thing, I suppose.
Dogs that engage in submissive urination are usually often some of the very best pets to own – once the problem has been addressed. Engaging in this over-the-top display of deference to people implies that the dog has a sensitive nature and will often become a loving family member.
Submissive urination should never be interpreted as an act of defiance, because it’s not. Quite the reverse, in fact. It’s clearly not the same as routine house soiling — when dogs have simply not been properly trained to “go” outside. And can’t be trained away using the usual “house breaking” methods. I saw a cartoon that explained submissive urination in a nutshell. The drawing showed a dog on the psychiatrist’s couch saying, “If I’m being honest with myself, they’re not really accidents.” And that’s the way it is with submissive urination – no accident, just sending a signal of respect and deference.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.