Dealing With Submissive Urination
Submissive urination is annoying, but you can learn how not to cause it.
The phone call came into the front office of the Marin Humane Society from a woman who had glanced over her fence and noticed her neighbor’s adolescent Dalmatian, apparently tangled up in her tie-out rope so badly that she couldn’t move.
Rushing to the address, the Society’s humane officer did, indeed, find the tangled dog, but there was something suspicious about the scene. The rope was coiled and knotted so neatly around the dog’s legs that it was obvious to the officer that it had been applied to the dog on purpose. On a warm, sunny California day, the dog had been deliberately hog-tied and left for hours with no access to water or shade. The dog was given veterinary care and taken into protective custody, but an investigation was clearly called for.
When questioned, the 19-year-old owner of the dog explained that he had put her on the “punishment rope” because she had peed in the house, and he had forgotten to release her before he left for work. You must, he asserted with confidence, punish your dog for peeing in the house or she would never be housebroken. His method of punishment-based training clearly wasn’t working, since at the age of 10 months, the young dog still peed in the house.
The Dalmatian’s owner was unclear on at least two major concepts: First, punishment is a highly ineffective means of housetraining a puppy, and second, his dog didn’t even have a housetraining problem. The dog was actually a submissive urinator, and all of the punishment her owner had meted out only made the problem worse.
In the canine world, when one dog wants to show deference to another, more dominant dog, he may urinate as a sign of submission. The more threatened he feels, the more likely he is to urinate. This is an involuntary reaction, an instinctive behavior that all dogs are born “knowing” how and when to exhibit.
In a pack of dogs, this programmed behavior is a valuable survival mechanism. Puppies are extremely vulnerable to the wrath of adult dogs in the pack, and built-in submissive responses signal normal adult dogs to automatically shut off the aggression, thus keeping puppies from being hurt. These programmed responses (submission from puppies, turning off adults’ aggression) support survival of the pack. As puppies mature, they eventually become more skilled at detecting and avoiding aggression sooner, and no longer need the submissive urination to protect them (except in dire situations, where under a fierce attack, this involuntary response may again get triggered).
Speaking different languages
Unfortunately for humans, as we raise young puppies and dogs, actions that seem perfectly natural and innocuous to us, such as bending over a puppy or patting him on the head, can be very threatening gestures in the DogSpeak dictionary, and inadvertently trigger the involuntary bladder-release response. It is a relatively common behavior in puppies, and more prevalent in some breeds than others. Cocker Spaniels, for example, are notorious submissive wetters, giving rise to the trainers’ joke:
Q: How do you get a Cocker Spaniel to urinate on cue?
A: Pat him on the head!
If properly handled, puppies usually grow out of the behavior as they mature. However, if an owner misperceives the behavior as a housetraining challenge and punishes the puppy, the problem worsens.
That’s because, unlike normal elimination, which the dog has some control over, submissive urination can quickly become a classically conditioned behavior; the presence of a particular stimulus automatically triggers the response.
Think of Pavlov’s dogs, who drooled at the sound of a bell that had been associated with the arrival of food. Pavlov’s dogs didn’t decide to salivate when they heard the bell – it just happened. A submissive dog doesn’t decide to pee when approached – it just happens.
It might take only one episode of punishment for peeing to condition the dog to automatically pee when she sees or hears stimuli that she associates with the punishment. Sadly, the harder the owner punishes, the more the puppy pees in order to acknowledge the owner’s superiority and deflect his wrath. The more the puppy pees, the harder the owner punishes.
And “punishment” in this case doesn’t only refer to cruel and unusual treatments such as hog-tying the dog outside. One loud squawk of alarm from a surprised person may frighten an extremely sensitive individual enough to classically condition her to pee every time she hears a shout, whether it’s a happy shout of “Good dog!” or even just, “Honey, I’m home!”
This is clearly an interspecies communication problem that begs the intervention of a translator before it does permanent damage to the relationship between dog and human. Humans don’t like dogs who pee in the house, and dogs become fearful and mistrusting of humans who are always yelling at – or worse, hitting them despite their best efforts to appease.
Get out the cork
The most effective way to modify a dog’s submissive urination is to stop doing the things that make him pee. This means avoiding all of the behaviors that are considered threatening to dogs and are likely to trigger the involuntary response.
This may be more difficult than it sounds, as many of the behaviors that are threatening to dogs are instinctive greeting behaviors for humans, such as making direct eye contact, approaching in a straight line (head-on), bending over the dog, patting him on top of the head, and speaking in a loud or deep voice.
Visitors, as well as all family members, must be counseled and frequently reminded to approach and interact with Spot in a non-threatening way until the dog matures and gains enough confidence that he no longer releases his bladder so easily.
It is critically important to avoid getting angry with your dog when an accident or some other misbehavior occurs. Dogs are masters at reading body language, and even a slight stiffening of your body or change in the tone of your voice can release a stream from a very sensitive dog. It is easier to stay calm if you can remember that Spot has no control over his submissive urination – when the stimulus is presented, the response occurs involuntarily. He can’t help it.
If you take full advantage of all available behavior management tools it will prevent most incidents from occurring, and will greatly reduce the environmental damage done when an incident does occur, making it easier for you to stay calm in the face of Spot’s occasional flood.
Excitement urination is a little different, but a very close cousin to submissive urination. It occurs when a puppy gets so excited that he “wets his pants.” Again, this is an involuntary response that the dog cannot control, and nothing is gained by punishing him.
Calm human behavior – body language and voice – are also important with the excitement urinator. Greetings are best accomplished by ignoring the dog until he settles of his own accord, then acknowledging him very calmly and quietly. Give him opportunities to empty his bladder outside on a regular basis, and implement a “Practiced Calm” program so he learns to control his own behavior, eliminating the trigger for the inappropriate urination. (See “Practiced Calm,” WDJ February 2002.)
If you have a submissive or excitement urinator, you can be very optimistic. Most dogs can overcome these problems relatively easily with appropriate management and modification techniques.
Pebbles, our hog-tied Dalmatian, is a great example. Her owner pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation and, to the dog’s everlasting good fortune, forfeited ownership of his dog. She was adopted to a more understanding owner who successfully implemented a proper training program, and in just a few short months Pebbles’ submissive urination was no longer a problem.
-by Pat Miller
Pat Miller, WDJ’s Training Editor, is also a freelance author and Certified Pet Dog Trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is the President of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and recently published her first book, "The Power of Positive Dog Training." For more information, see "Resources."