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The Overly Submissive Dog

Rocket, a cute little year-and-a-half Jack Russell Terrier, was a professional. He had submissive peeing down to an art. When his owner, Mark, or anyone else looked him in the eyes, Rocket would submissively pee. Mark hated it when Rocket did this, which probably came as a surprise to Rocket, since Mark had done all the right things to train Rocket to display this behavior.

Usually this problem starts between six months and a year. If owners handle the behavior correctly, the stage/problem disappears after the dog is a year old. Unfortunately, many owners don't know how to deal with this unwanted behavior, which is triggered by a misunderstanding between the dog and its owner.

Typical owner reaction is to assume the submissive dog has suddenly lapsed on housetraining. Although some dogs do rebel about housebreaking at this age, submissive peeing is a different problem. Housebreaking problems often occur when the dog is home alone, or out of sight of the person. Submissive peeing is done when the owner is in close proximity and making some kind of visual or verbal communication. Attempts to punish the dog only seem to encourage more submissive peeing. The problem with disciplining submissive peeing is that this isn't a misbehavior, it is a gift.

Dogs instinctually know to act submissive when approached by a dominant pack member. The submissive behavior is an acknowledgement of status and/or a request for the more dominate pack member to take mercy. Some dogs will roll over on their back and expose their belly, others may submissively pee. In both cases, the submissive dog is subordinating to the undisputed boss.

Unfortunately, some owners have a different interpretation. The owner sees the dog as misbehaving when it urinates. The owner often responds by yelling, scolding, or other reprimands. The aggressive action by the owner tells the dog that it didn't do a good enough job subordinating. The submissive dog's choices to resolve the problem are either to urinate quicker, or longer, or both in order to appease the owner.

Although owners need to be in charge of the dog, with submissive dogs certain owner behaviors need tempered. If you own a dog that is reacting submissively, you will need to avoid looming over the dog when you want to pet it. Squat or sit down to greet the dog.

Eye contact can also create a problem with submissive dogs. A harsh stare from the owner will communicate to a sensitive dog that it needs to subordinate. Keep your eye contact friendly. If you come home in a bad mood, don't look at that dog with a sour expression on your face. Wait until you can smile to make eye contact. The dog can tell the difference. Tone of voice is also important, because some dogs are more sensitive to harsh words. Another thing to avoid is picking up a dog by the scruff. This puts you in a very dominant position over that dog and can trigger an unwanted reaction. With a sensitive or submissive dog, you will need to avoid harsh discipline, instead, use positive training techniques.

If a dog does offer a submissive behavior, refuse it. When a dog is in that critical six month to one year of age, don't pet the dog if it rolls onto its back to expose its belly. Turn away anytime the dog crouches or looks afraid. If the dog does submissively pee, immediately break any eye contact and walk away. Don't say a single word to the dog. For some people this is tough, because they want to discourage the behavior, but you need to remember, any sign of your acknowledging the dog's gift, or any harsh responses will encourage the action to continue. Later when the dog isn't looking, you can go and clean up the mess.

In addition to ignoring submissive behavior, after about five minutes, sit on the floor and call the dog over. The floor puts you in a less dominant position. When the dog comes, don't make immediate eye contact, instead offer a treat, or throw a toy for play. This teaches the dog the kind of behavior you do want from the dog, not just the kind you don't want. Petting a submissive dog under its chin can also help raise the dog's status.

The tendency for a dog to submissively pee will disappear after a year old if you treat it correctly. If you punish the dog, you can create the behavior more permanently.

For dogs like Rocket that still submissively pee when they are over a year old, reforming the dog is tougher. Rocket came to the point that when anyone made eye contact with him, he'd respond by urinating. The first step in Rocket's reform was to have Mark change his behavior. Mark had to sit on the ground when he greeted the dog, and stop picking the dog up by the scruff, or yelling if Rocket submissively peed. Although this calmed Rocket down, it didn't reform him.

For Rocket, his breakthrough came in the kitchen. Rocket wasn't afraid to make eye contact with people in the kitchen because Mark's wife often threw the dogs treats while she cooked. I started tossing Rocket treats in the kitchen. After a few treats, I lifted the treat to my eyes before tossing it. After a few days, I started hesitating between the time Rocket made eye contact with me and when I threw the treat. Soon, Rocket and I were making eye contact for up to half a minute before a reward came.

The next step was to teach him to make eye contact without peeing, when he didn't see me holding a reward. To do this I used a technique called spitting the treat. I put a small piece of bread or cheese in my mouth, directed Rocket's attention to my eyes by pointing with my finger, then I spit the treat. When Rocket became comfortable with this exercise in the kitchen, I moved to making eye contact in other parts of the house. If Rocket did pee before I could spit the treat, I turned away and ignored the gift. Then we went back to the kitchen and reinforced the "eye contact means a treat" training before retrying it elsewhere. After a month, when Rocket returned home, he was willing to make eye contact with other people without peeing.

Submissive peeing problems are dog owner communication problems. Typically seen between six months and a year, if handled correctly, dogs grow out of the problem, if handled wrong, they become a long-term issue.

*Additional information in the book Training the Hard to Train Dog

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