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Why Some Dogs Pee When You Pet Them

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

submissive urination in dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • For dogs that occasionally (or frequently) pee or dribble when they’re being petted, after improper housetraining and a medical problem are eliminated as possible causes, dog behaviorists say it may be a sign of submission
  • Being petted or touched is one common trigger, but dogs may involuntarily pee when a person or another dog approaches them or they suddenly hear a loud noise; often it’s the sweetest, most compliant dogs that exhibit this behavior
  • Ways to change your dog’s behavior means changing your approach; examples include speaking in a calm tone of voice rather than a stern one, making sure your posture is soft and relaxed, not tense, and avoiding direct eye contact
  • Try not to react in anger when there’s an accident; deal with it calmly, and before playtime, let your dog pee outside without restrictions rather than inside out of excitement

There’s a term for dogs that meekly comply when people want to pet them but simultaneously give them the added bonus of a golden shower. It’s called submissive urination, a term that hints at the reason behind this problem.

Scenarios may include times when a dog is being petted, but also if they suddenly hear a loud noise or they appear nervous. Dogs often exhibit submissive postures such as tucking their tail between their legs, flattening or rolling their ears, rolling their whole body over, exposing their stomach or cowering under furniture.

When dogs pee in the house and it’s not associated with a medical issue, many assume it’s a “housetraining” problem, but dog behaviorists believe it could stem from a handful of possible root causes.

It’s important to note that submissive urination is common and normal, especially among young dogs, and one of the most prevalent causes can be placed under the heading of “excitement.” They may wriggle with excitement at someone’s attention. The problem is when the encounter is followed up by their owner having to wipe up the evidence with a damp cloth.

But don’t despair. Experts say submissive urination often disappears when a young dog gets to be about 1 year old, and that the issue is frequently temporary. It may be his way of signaling his willingness to defer or comply; he doesn’t want to cause any trouble, but often, he gets that and more. That’s why it’s important to identify this scenario early and address it with patient behavior modification.

What Types of Dogs Usually Exhibit Submissive Urination?

When a dog seems to have a peeing or dribbling problem when he’s being petted, The Bark notes that the underlying reason isn’t necessarily all bad. The good news is that you very likely have a dog with the sweetest disposition. As PetMD1 puts it, submissive urination is a way to avoid confrontation.

Of course, that’s a cause that may not get immediate forgiveness by the ones having to follow their dogs around with a cloth and a can of odor eliminating spray. But consider comments made by certified applied animal behaviorist and certified professional dog trainer Karen B. London, who works with dogs that exhibit behavioral problems:

“While the urination can be irritating and a pain to clean up, the fact that dogs greet in this manner actually speaks well of them. Ironically, when a dog urinates during greetings, she is showing respect for the other dog or person.

When people tell me they have a puppy who does this, I am torn between expressing sympathy to them for the inconvenience they are dealing with now and saying ‘Congratulations!’ with a hearty smile because I think they are likely to have many years ahead of them with a dog who brings them nothing but joy.”2

When Inadequate Training and Health Issues Are Ruled Out

Recognizing that inappropriate urination was generally done in social situations rather than the dog not being adequately trained to know it was not the time or place — or worse, not caring — went a long way toward helping London figure out a way to stop the behavior.

A dog peeing when they’re petted is frequently a social issue, London contends, relating the case of a 3-year-old Newfoundland that peed every time he was greeted. One clue was that as he got older, the dog peed only when approached by the male human of the house, or when the occasional male visitor reached out to pet him.

The “trigger” seemed to stem from the Newfoundland’s male owner’s approach, London explained. In other words, it was the case of a sensitive dog being paired with an owner who thought the best approach to ensure obedience and even the dog’s safety was to be a stern disciplinarian with his dog, which he believed was the most effective way to approach the dog’s training.

Learning that it may not be out-and-out disobedience on the part of the dog, the owner was open to a different, softer approach. The behaviorist suggested a gentler, kinder attitude whenever the owner initiated interaction with the dog, which influenced the dog’s behavior and proved to be effective over time. According to The Bark:

“As a result, the dog stopped urinating in the house. No program designed to solve a housetraining problem would have achieved this result, which had the added benefit of improving the overall family dynamic as well.”3

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What Can Be Done to Discourage This Behavior?

The bottom line is that for dogs exhibiting submissive urination behavior, owners and canine caretakers are encouraged to approach the problem by changing their approach to their dog. One of the first and best ways to do that is to speak in a normal tone of voice rather than a stern one, make sure your posture is relaxed, not tense, and avoid direct eye contact.

Other tips include not reacting in anger or exasperation when there’s an accident, but rather dealing with it calmly and quietly. Get down to your dog's level, and when reaching out your hand, do so gently and under the dog’s chin rather than the top of his head.

Before playtime, let your dog pee outside without restrictions, which may lower the chances of him peeing inside out of excitement. It’s also important to both reward your dog and lavish praise on him when he urinates where he’s supposed to. In addition:

“Instead of greeting your dog immediately when you arrive home, try delaying your greeting and allow your dog to come to you when he’s ready for interaction. You can also try scattering a few dog treats on the ground when you arrive, which will get your dog to focus on finding the goodies instead of focusing on you.”4

It's helpful to know that while your dog’s peeing problem likely won’t be eliminated in a day or even a few weeks, consistent calmness and implementing these tips may be important ways to show your dog that you can be trusted to be a gentle, loving human with great potential to be his best friend.

Oftentimes there are several underlying triggers that can be hard to identify. In these situations, I recommend finding a fear-free trainer who can help you identify what you’re doing to elicit the behavior and, most importantly, how to reshape it without exacerbating underlying fear.

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