Dog Behaviour – Submissive Urination

Dillon arrived at puppy training classes with Suzanne, or should that be Suzanne arrived with Dillon? Such was his excitement at seeing several other puppies and lots of people that he could not contain himself and a small puddle appeared on the floor, he then flipped over onto his back, legs waving furiously in the air, tail wagging ninety to the dozen: Not a good start for them, but Dillon was not the only excited puppy and a young Labrador did exactly the same on arrival.

Now four years old, Dillon still gets very excited when people approach and he generally ensures undivided attention by flipping over onto his back, inviting anyone to tickle his tummy, however, the urination has stopped – to Suzanne’s great relief.

Dillon has a little bit of history – he was found in a tattered cardboard box on wasteland along with his seven littermates and his mum, who looked like a Tibetan terrier. Quite clearly the owner didn’t want any of them and probably didn’t want to pay out for veterinary care either. The person who found them was walking her dog near her home in Maldon, Essex, when the dog discovered the box and became so excited that the lady went to investigate. The result was that all the dogs were taken to a vet to be checked over and eventually found homes. Dillon clearly was blessed when Suzanne took him home, because he has always had an abundance of energy and can be a real live wire!

The problem of submissive urination in dogs is not uncommon, particularly in puppies, re-homed, timid or over-sensitive dogs and it can last well into adulthood. It can be very frustrating and embarrassing for owners when their dog urinates all over the floor, them or guests when the dog becomes aroused, excited or intimidated. Loud noises, over-affectionate greetings, scolding and arguments between people are also known to trigger the involuntary action. Suzanne decided to tackle Dillon’s problem and asked me for advice.

The starting point was to get Dillon to calm down, which was a task in itself given that he just loves people and dogs – they are all his friends! I gave Suzanne some background information on Dillon’s behaviour and explained the concepts of dominance and submissiveness in dogs, which puppies learn from their mother. Body language such as averting the eyes, turning away, lowering the ears, lowering the tail between his legs, lowering the body, rolling onto their back and urinating indicate submissiveness and if a puppy feels intimidated the learned response is to use such behaviour to avoid reprimand, injury or worse. The puppy is effectively recognising the higher status of the dominant dog or person. Urination is neither deliberate nor spiteful; it can be purely a mechanism of self-preservation. Suzanne was certain that Dillon was not unwell or did not have a urinary infection, because his behaviour only occurred when he was particularly excited, but she was aware that in some cases submissive urination needs veterinary attention.

Dillon being Dillon caused Suzanne a good deal of exasperation and frustration, so I stressed the importance of remaining calm and in control when dealing with him. He is a particularly submissive dog and in no way aggressive, so scolding or punishment would not help solve the problem; the last thing that any dog needs is for the owner to introduce fear into the relationship and it would in fact make the problem much worse. Praise and encouragement would be essential ingredients in helping to build his self-confidence, as well as building up a strong bond between them both. I encouraged Suzanne to praise him when he went to the toilet in the right place.

I suggested that when arriving home, Suzanne should not fuel Dillon’s excitement by giving him excessive attention and fussing; instead she should take things calmly, say “hello” to him, but take her coat off, put her belongings away and make a cup of tea before interacting with him. I suggested that she did not bend over Dillon, but crouch down and allow him to come to her and if he became too excited to withdraw, enabling him to calm down. At first he continued his submissive behaviour including urinating, so I pointed out that this was a process likely to take time and it needed to become a ritual when returning home.

With regard to visitors into the home, by keeping Dillon on his lead Suzanne would be able to control him and I showed her how to stop him jumping up. He had to sit to receive attention, and remain sitting until allowed to do otherwise. This is an ongoing project and even at four years of age Dillon’s excitement often gets the better of him! The alternative that I suggested was to put him into his indoor kennel or into another room when visitors arrive and when the initial excitement has subsided Suzanne could introduce Dillon on his lead, but only receive fuss from the visitors when he is calm and sitting.

Submissive urination often occurs when the bladder is under pressure, i.e. full, so the dog should be allowed to relieve itself regularly and if visitors are expected, the intake of water could be restricted shortly before their arrival. (I must stress here that dogs must always have access to fresh water, so limiting access to it in these circumstances must be only for a short period.)

Puppies and older dogs that are particularly timid or shy often benefit from a programme of regular socialisation with other dogs and people. Attending training classes where they meet other known dogs is usually very helpful in rehabilitating even the most shy dogs and basic training undertaken in a calm, pleasant atmosphere certainly helped Dillon, who is now one of the fastest and enthusiastic dogs at agility classes. He just loves it and whilst he is there his concentration is centred on the job in hand. There is no submissive behaviour, certainly no submissive urination and both he and Suzanne really are the best of friends.

Written by Sue Gilmore

This article appeared in Dogs Monthly magazine in winter 2012