Submissive urination is normal canine communication. Dogs do it to show social appeasement. When a dog submissively urinates, he’s trying to convey that he’s not a threat. Not all dogs submissively urinate. However, some will urinate when they’re exceptionally excited or feeling submissive or intimidated. Dogs who submissively urinate usually do so when greeting people or animals (especially unfamiliar ones), during exciting events, while playing, during physical contact, such as petting, or when scolded or punished. It’s as though they lose bladder control. Some dogs produce dribbles of urine, while others void large puddles.
When in a situation that seems to trigger submissive urination, a dog will tend to display submissive postures, such as cowering, lowering the body, raising the front paws, tucking the tail, flattening the ears back, licking the lips or displaying a submissive grin. (Although a submissive grin often looks like aggression because it involves a dog showing his teeth, it’s not really a threat. The submissive grin, which is almost always accompanied by other signs of submission like those listed above, functions as an appeasement gesture. Many dogs display submissive grins while wiggling, squinting their eyes and licking their lips. Like submissive urination, this behavior often occurs during greetings and sometimes during stressful social interactions with people.)
Submissive urination is most common in puppies, but some adult dogs submissively urinate as well, especially those who seem to lack confidence. The behavior is more common in some breeds than others, such as retrievers. Some dogs submissively urinate only when interacting with their pet parents, some only with visitors, some only with other dogs, and some with everyone.
Rule Out Possible Medical Causes First
If your dog urinates indoors or at inappropriate times, it’s important to visit his veterinarian to rule out medical causes before doing anything else. Some common medical reasons for inappropriate urination and defecation follow.
Gastrointestinal Upset (Medical)
If your dog was house trained but now defecates loose stools or diarrhea in your house, he may have gastrointestinal upset.
Change in Diet (Medical)
If you’ve recently changed the amount or type of food you give your dog, he may develop a house-soiling problem. Often, after a diet change, a dog will defecate loose stools or diarrhea. He may also need to eliminate more frequently or on a different schedule than before the change.
Spay/Urinary Incontinence (Medical)
Some dogs’ house soiling is caused by incontinence, a medical condition in which a dog “leaks” or completely voids the bladder. Dogs with incontinence problems usually seem unaware that they’ve soiled. Sometimes they void urine while asleep.
Urinary Tract Infection (Medical)
A urinary tract infection (UTI) can cause a dog to void small amounts of urine frequently. In addition, a dog who has a UTI might engage in excessive licking of his genitalia.
Miscellaneous Medical Causes
Other medical reasons for house soiling are abnormalities of the genitalia that cause incontinence, diseases that cause frequent urination, and medications that cause frequent urination. These and all other medical causes should be ruled out before evaluating or treating a dog for submissive urination problems.
Other Behavior Problems to Rule Out
Untrained Young Puppy
If a puppy is less than 12 weeks of age, he might not be house trained. The lack of house training might be because he simply hasn’t learned where to eliminate and where not to eliminate yet. Alternatively, the problem might be entirely physical. Many puppies under the age of 12 weeks haven’t developed bladder and bowel control, and they can’t “hold it” for more than a very brief time. For more information about house training your young puppy, please see our article, House Training Your Puppy.
Incomplete House Training
Some dogs have been incompletely house trained. An incompletely house trained dog might occasionally soil in house, soil if he’s not given frequent opportunities to eliminate outside, soil only when left alone in the home for long periods of time, soil first thing in the morning or during the night, or soil if there’s a change in his family’s daily routine that alters his access to the outdoors. Some incompletely house trained dogs soil anywhere in the home, while others soil only in infrequently used rooms. Many sneak out of their pet parents’ sight to soil in other rooms. Sometimes, an incompletely house trained dog simply doesn’t know how to indicate to his pet parents that he needs to go outside to eliminate. To learn how to train your dog to tell you when he needs to go out, please see our article, Teaching Your Dog to Ask to Go Out. For more information about how to resolve incomplete house training, please see our article, House Training Your Adult Dog.
Some dogs urinate in the house because they’re scent marking. Dogs scent mark for a variety of reasons, including to claim territory, to identify themselves to other dogs and let them know they’ve been there, and in response to frustration, stress or an anxiety provoking situation. A dog scent marks by urinating small amounts on vertical surfaces. Most male dogs and some female dogs who scent mark raise a leg to urinate. For more information about urine marking, please see our article, Urine Marking in Dogs.
If your puppy only soils when left alone in your home, even for short periods of time, he may have separation anxiety. You may notice that he appears nervous or upset right before you leave him by himself or after you’ve left (if you can observe him while he’s alone). For more information about separation anxiety, please see our article, Separation Anxiety.
What to Do About Submissive Urination
Dogs usually grow out of submissive urination by the time they reach one year of age, even if their pet parents do nothing about it. However, many people find it messy and unpleasant, and some dogs never grow out of it. If your dog or puppy submissively urinates, the following suggestions might help you manage, minimize or stop the behavior.
- If possible, greet your dog outside.
- Toss a handful of small treats or a few favorite toys in the direction of your dog as he runs up to greet you.
- Ignore your dog when you first come home and walk through the door. Wait until he has completely calmed down before interacting with him. When you finally greet your dog, do so calmly. Look off to the side instead of straight at him. Sit on the floor or squat down—and avoid looming over your dog as you bend toward him.
- Teach your dog to perform a behavior, such as sit, when he greets people. First, practice the sit behavior outside of the greeting context, in a calm place, without other people around. To learn more about teaching your dog to sit, please see our article, Teaching Your Dog to Sit.
- When you pet your dog, touch him under the chin or chest, rather than on top of his head or ears.
- Keep play sessions with your dog low-key and play games with him that focus on toys rather than bodily contact.
- If you need help, don’t hesitate to contact a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) for assistance. To find one of these qualified experts in your area, please see our article, Finding Professional Help.
What NOT to Do
- Do not look at your dog, touch him, bend over him or speak to him if he starts to submissively urinate or if you think he might.
- Do not hug your dog or pat him on the top of the head when greeting or interacting with him.
- Do not scowl or frown at your dog, especially in response to submissive urination. You should even avoid making frustrated comments, as doing so might make the behavior worse.
- DO NOT VERBALLY SCOLD YOUR DOG OR PUNISH YOUR DOG IN ANY WAY. Scolding and punishment are likely to make the problem worse. The more you yell at your dog, the more he’ll feel motivated to submissively urinate in an attempt to make you less angry.