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Submissive urination is a common behavior problem in dogs. Unfortunately, this behavior problem is pretty gross and quite messy. It’s easy to get frustrated with a dog that submissively urinates, but that’s the last thing that will actually help.
In today’s Ask a Behavior Consultant, we answer the query:
My dog pees when he is scared. He thinks that you are scolding him if you talk a certain tone and he will pee all the way to his kennel. Cleaning with vinegar isn’t helping. I don’t scold him but I think my mother does when he pees. Help?
– Sincerely, Submissive Peer in the House
Submissive urination is a common problem, especially in young puppies or dogs who came from less-than-stellar backgrounds (though it can still happen in well-raised dogs).
Submissive Peer in the House noted that her dog came from Mexico, but is generally outgoing. She didn’t mention exactly what seems to cause her dog to submissively pee, so that’s our first step.
Step 1: Document When Your Dog Has Accidents
Who was there? What was going on? What did your dog’s body language look like? Until we know what causes your dog to pee, we can’t really fix the problem.
For submissive and excited peers, it’s VERY important to stop ALL punishment, scolding, or corrections. These only serve to increase the stress in your dog, which reduces bladder control.
Step 2: Rule Out Medical Reasons
Sumbissive Peer in the House already mentioned that she’s tried cleaning and limiting water intake. I generally don’t like limiting water intake as a training intervention, because water is SO necessary for survival. Plus, in this case, it’s not helping.
It’s time to get this pup in to see the vet to ensure that it’s not a UTI or other medical issue.
When my father’s lab started having accidents, at first he was frustrated. Then he eventually took her into the vet, and it turns out she had a pretty serious UTI. It’s always best to check.
Come armed with the information on what causes your dog to urinate indoors.
Step 2.5: Ensure Your Dog is Actually Potty Trained
Sometimes, what looks like excited urination or submissive urination is actually a dog who doesn’t know he’s supposed to “hold it” yet. Go back to square one with potty training.
A belly band can help reduce marking and accidents in male dogs – a necessary step for some households. This band goes around your dog’s belly and prevents his pee from leaking out.
We’ve got a few different guides to potty training:
- Why Does My Dog Keep Peeing on the Carpet?
- Why Does My Puppy Prefer to Pee in His Crate?!
- Why Does My Potty-Trained Dog Poop in My In-Laws House?
Each of these articles will help you work through fully potty training your dog. If your dog seems to only pee in one spot or there’s no real cause for your dog’s accidents, it’s time to go back to the basics with potty training.
Step 3: Build Your Dog’s Confidence
Submissive urination is generally a result of a dog who’s just a bit sensitive about the world.
Rather than trying to toughen your dog up by expecting her to “get over it” or “work through it,” you’ll be more successful if you shrink her world a bit. Remove, reduce, and control the things that cause her to have accidents.
This might mean eliminating yelling, swatting, moving quickly, or much more. Whatever causes your dog to have accidents needs to stop.
Now that your dog isn’t constantly being spooked by stuff that happens in your house, it’s time to build confidence.
Method 1 for Building Confidence: Free Shaping
I like to do this through a process called free shaping. Basically, you’re going to set up a training scenario where every answer is “correct.” Here’s how it goes:
- Get some of the tasty dog treats listed above.
- Put something interesting nearby, like a
- Wait for your dog to do something – anything – that involves either you or the box. This could mean looking at you, pawing at the box, standing up, or even walking away. Any answer is correct – this is a confidence-building exercise.
- Click using a clicker (or use a marker reward) and give your dog a treat.
- Over time, as your dog offers more and more behaviors, you can turn things into a “real” shaping session with a goal. Read all about how to shape using successive approximations here.
Method 2 for Building Confidence: Desensitization and Counterconditioning
The next method for building confidence is called desensitization and counterconditioning. Thanks to Step 1, we know what causes your dog to urinate submissively.
Now your job is to do a smaller, less scary version of that action – say, only moving your hand quickly instead of moving your arm, or moving your arm slowly instead of quickly.
When you do, drop some tasty treats. This teaches your dog that scary stuff makes treats happen.
Give your dog treats as part of this even if she acts scared. The goal is to teach your dog that fast movements, loud sounds, or entering guests = treats, always.
This will dramatically help teach your dog to be more calm around those situations.
If you’re still struggling, try conducting these training sessions outside to reduce the consequence of accidents.
Step 4: Super-Clean Accident Areas
Lastly, it’s important to ensure that your couch doesn’t smell like a doggie urinal. Vinegar won’t cut it here – you need a cleaner that’s specifically made for dog pee.
Clean Carl’s is my favorite pet specific cleaner.
Sometimes, dogs just grow out of submissive peeing – but often they don’t. This problem requires a lot of patience and persistence. Good luck!
Kayla grew up in northern Wisconsin and studied ecology and animal behavior at Colorado College. She founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She’s an avid adventurer and has driven much of the Pan-American Highway with her border collie Barley. She now travels the US in a 2006 Sprinter with her two border collies, Barley and Niffler. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams.