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Why Does My Dog Pee When I Pet Them?

Known as submissive urination, this issue isn’t a training problem — it’s a social issue.

by Karen B. London, PhD
September 27, 2019
A Boston terrier hanging out in a teal blue chair
Sarah Lalone / Stocksy

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If your dog pees when they are being approached by people or dogs, when they are being greeted and pet, or when they hear loud noises while displaying submissive postures (like cowering, tucking their tail between their legs, flattening their ears or rolling), you are probably dealing with submissive urination — and you’re not alone!

A lot of people have had to get down on their hands and knees to clean up the droplets of urine that their puppy made while wiggling their body and wagging their tail with great enthusiasm. (Submissive urination is a common and normal problem among puppies.) Some dogs who are otherwise completely house trained release at least some urine during greetings. Contrary to popular belief, submissive urination is not a housetraining problem. It’s a social issue.

When Puppies Pee On The Floor It's Normal

If you have a puppy who pees when you pet them, know that most dogs outgrow this behavior by the time they are a year old. Also, dogs with this issue almost always have lovely, sweet temperaments. So, 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, they are 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 for the inconvenience and saying “Congratulations!” with a hearty smile because they are likely to have many years with a dog who brings them nothing but joy.

What to Do About Submissive Urination In Older Dogs

I recently consulted with a family whose sweet, three-year-old Newfoundland was urinating inside the home. Because their veterinarian could find no medical reason for it, she referred them to me to handle the “housetraining” problem. To many people, house soiling without a medical cause is always related to housetraining, but behaviorists recognize that many issues involving urination indoors can be signs of appeasement behavior or a need to mark territory, among other possibilities.

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Initially, it was challenging to get contextual information from the family about the problem because they just kept saying, “He pees everywhere, and it’s such a mess!” Then, they would detail the clean-up, which was no doubt considerable given that the dog weighed 125 pounds. With persistent inquiry, however, I was finally able to get a fuller picture; it turned out that the dog’s issue was not a housetraining problem. The dog’s housetraining was solid, but they peed during greetings. As a puppy, they urinated whenever they greeted anyone. But now, they only did it when greeting the husband or the occasional male visitor, especially if the visitor reached for the dog.

Recognizing that the inappropriate urination was a specific type of social issue rather than one of bladder control — or not knowing or caring where it was appropriate to eliminate — made it easier to address the real issue: the husband’s approach to his sensitive dog. Though he thought he was doing right by his dog by being firm and applying stern, consistent discipline, he was open to a new approach.

I was able to help the family by teaching the husband kinder, gentler and more effective ways to interact with his dog and influence the dog’s behavior. 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.

Red Flags to Consider

In contrast to feeling hopeful about dogs who are submissive urinators, a red flag goes off in my mind when I hear people say that their dog was so easy to house train that there were only one or two accidents ever, and they totally got it by 8-10 weeks old. In my experience, many dogs who later go on to have issues with aggression were housetrained early and easily. This is an impression I have based on my experience as a behaviorist with clients and their dogs, and it is shared by several other trainers and behaviorists with whom I have discussed it. There are no solid data on the subject.

This theory does not apply to people who prevented accidents with top-notch housetraining methods. Many dogs have very few accidents because the people are on top of the situation. This is commendable but does not mean the dog really gets it yet — just that they are not being allowed to make mistakes. I’m only referring to dogs who really are housetrained at an early age and no longer require the constant vigilance of the people in the household to prevent mistakes. Of course, there are always exceptions to these observations. As a scientist, I love the patterns, and I love the exceptions, too.

karen london

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.