In my puppy class recently, the owner of an adorable Golden Retriever puppy expressed her frustration, "Every time I touch my puppy, he leaks urine all over himself, me, and the carpet." She said she took him outside often, praised him for relieving himself outside, and said that for the most part she felt his housetraining was going well. It was just when they interacted that he had no control. When I asked her how she greeted her puppy, her problem became clear. She loved to greet him with a high pitched, excited tone of voice. She would pet him, rub his ears, massage his body, and loved to see him get excited. Unfortunately, those excited moments were when he leaked urine. When a puppy gets excited and leaks a bit of urine, that's called submissive urination. Although adult dogs can do this, too, it's much more common with puppies. Some owners feel this is a housetraining problem; however, even though urine is involved, it's not a housetraining issue at all. In fact, it's related more to communication than to training.
What is Submissive Urination?
This leak of urine is called submissive urination because the puppy is trying to convey that he is a puppy, a baby, and that he's not a threat in any way. Confident, healthy, adult dogs rarely leak urine in such a manner; it's usually young puppies or worried, anxious young adults. Puppies may do this when excited about greeting people or adult dogs. It can also happen during play, when being petted, or when he's being scolded. A sudden startle can also cause a leak of urine. Submissive urination is also often accompanied by submissive body language. His ears will probably be back, his tail may be tucked close to his back legs, and he may be licking his lips. He may also be squinting his eyes and his hips will probably be wiggling.
Responding to Submissive Urination
If you know your puppy is prone to leaking urine in certain situations, try to prevent it from occurring. For example, greet your puppy outside rather than inside on the carpet. Then greet him calmly, with love and affection, but with as little excitement as possible. Touch him gently but don't hug or squeeze him. Talk to him affectionately but quietly and calmly. Look towards him but don't stare at him. Find where his level of over-stimulation is and try not to go beyond it. Don't yell, scream, scold, or otherwise punish him for submissive urination. Your puppy isn't doing this on purpose and he doesn't have any control over it. Instead, concentrate on preventing it and if unable to do that, just clean it up.
Most Puppies Grow Out of It
Most puppies who have submissive urination tend to grow out of it by seven or eight months, although some continue to do it until about a year of age. If punished for urine leaks, however, he may become more anxious and less confident and then will continue leaking when stressed. It's important to try and prevent episodes but, when they do occur, don't make a big deal out of it. If you feel there is more going on behaviorally than simple submissive urination, talk to your dog trainer or behaviorist for some help. If your puppy stops leaking and then begins again, or if your puppy who never showed any tendency to have submissive urination suddenly start leaking, talk to your veterinarian. There are medical conditions, including urinary tract infections, that can cause urine leakage or increases in urination.