Why does my little Boston Terrier pee when strangers, or even my family for that matter, try to pet him?
Will he grow out of this? How can I help him?
–Patty, Morgantown, W.Va.
Thanks for your question. Urination stemming from fear is a very common problem – for both you and your dog, because he’s stressed out each time it happens. Thankfully, there’s a way to train him that will help him feel safe when being approached and when someone’s trying to pet him.
Whether you got him as a puppy, or he came to you from a rescue situation, the Rx is the same.
Your little guy needs all of you to help him feel happy about hands approaching to pet – not fearful, which is why he’s peeing. It’s called submissive peeing, but that is usually seen upon greeting; in his case, since you reported he only pees when hands approach him, it’s clearly fear based.
Let’s do some trouble shooting first. There is a reason he’s afraid of hands approaching:
Have you or any member of your family ever swatted him for any reason (he had an accident on the carpet, got into something he shouldn’t have, etc.)? If so, this must stop now for the program to work.
Did he come to you from a shelter or rescue organization? If so, that could explain the fear of hands, because of him possibly being swatted by the previous owner.
What do you look like to him when you try to pet him? Are you bringing your hand over his head to try to pet him? This may seem odd, because that’s how most people pet dogs, but unless the dog’s been properly socialized as a puppy and gotten very used to this aggressive-looking movement and learned early on to associate it with friendliness and love, it is a natural instinct to be leery of a hand going over him.
Here’s a program to get your little guy much more comfortable with being pet.
Sit back and watch people’s interactions with him – really look at his body language when someone approaches him. Does he seem a bit tentative? An unintimidated dog, when approached, is very loose-muscled, often wiggling around, tail wagging, acting nice and goofy, happy to welcome the person; a dog not sure about things may appear kind of stiff, head a bit low, and looking away somewhat. Where is your dog on this “approach” scale? If he’s not excited when someone walks over to him and bends down to pet him, the way he’s greeted needs to change temporarily.
It’s human nature to approach a dog with a lot of unintentional, potentially aggressive-looking postures and gestures; straight on, eyes wide, hand coming up to pet him, getting “in his space.” Even if your dog has been petted like this from a very young age, he still may feel a bit intimidated, so be as analytical of his reaction to people approaching as you can. And look for all these signs when you approach him, too. Get in the habit of squatting to greet him, no direct eye contact, and let him approach. Your dog will have a much better time with strangers who pet him starting with his head if you follow this training program!
While doing the following basic training described below, everyone needs to temporarily stop petting him so that he doesn’t regress. You’re going to bring up his confidence level and show him that hands are okay. And of course his grooming is on hold, too – I suggest you use the training program for “hands approaching” for his brushing, if “brush approaching” makes him appear fearful, too.
Everyone in your family, and people who come over regularly, need to participate in this training program.
1. If you don’t have one already, come up with a word he associates with you being pleased with his behavior. I use the word “Yes,” because it’s short, allowing you the best timing when training him.
2. Get some of his very favorite treats and cut them up into tiny pieces. Sit on the floor with him. Hold out one small treat with your hand very low, palm turned toward floor. Just wait. You can gently coax him, but the more he thinks the approach is his idea, the better. The moment he takes the treat, say “Yes!” and repeat a few times, then stop. Do this throughout the day, with a half hour in between training sessions. If your dog approaches your hand at any time between training sessions, say “Yes!” The last thing you want to do is unintentionally punish him by reaching over to pet him. His reward is knowing that you’re happy with what he just did. (Since everyone will be doing this, please be careful to not overwhelm him with this exercise; pace it so that it’s just one, brief session and then wait at least a half hour before anyone else has a turn.)
3. Continue this until he’s comfortable with your hand being near him. The next step is to bring your other hand low and toward a flank, and barely touch him as he’s taking the treat from your other hand, and say “Yes!” at that moment. Resist the urge to start petting him – that will set the training back.
4. When he’s very comfortable at this stage, keep your hand touching his flank there for just a second before taking it away, saying “Yes!” during that second he’s holding still and you’re touching him, while giving him the treat. Of course, if at any stage your dog looks like he’s too stressed and may pee, go back a step and build him back up. My general rule of thumb is to get 10 out of 10 consecutive, really good responses before going on to the next step.
Work your way up to his shoulders after each successful step. Remember to slightly increase the length of time he’s touched.
When you’re getting tail wags at being touched on the shoulder, in your next session, keeping your hand very low and making no eye contact, reach toward his chest and scratch him as you’re feeding him the treat.
5. Your next goal is to have him learn to accept a hand petting his head, so you can start working up to this, but only from his back, not from a hand approaching his head. That’s the toughest part – getting him to accept your hand going over his head to pet him. Back off a bit at this step and praise him for accepting your hand just approaching him from that height before actually touching his head, and be sure you’re on the floor with him, so he knows he can escape if he feels the need. After a very quick touch on his head, switch to scratching his chest. Go very slowly with this step, and make sure that as usual, everyone works with your dog.
Take as long as you need to, particularly with the last step. When someone your dog hasn’t met comes over, ask them to please sit on the floor for a minute as described above – your guest should make no eye contact, sit a bit sideways (not directly in front of your dog), and offer their hand by resting it on the ground and waiting for your dog’s approach. When that happens, praise him for that! Be your dog’s advocate. If your guest isn’t cooperating, just ask them to please not pet your dog.
You will become much more aware of your dog’s comfort level with everything, not just hands approaching, which was the last straw to him. Your new awareness will help you continue his rehab, noting his subtle reactions to hands approaching, and go back to basic training for a bit if needed.
If someone forgets and reaches out to pet him during the training, and he doesn’t pee, immediately say “Yes!”, and give him a small treat. Be very aware of what’s going on with your Boston when you or anyone is interacting with him, and praise him any time he’s acting a bit bolder.
Teaching your dog to come over to you and stick his head under your hand would be a great training tool. Most people consider it kind of pushy when a dog does that, but in your dog’s case, it would be a perfect trick for him to learn. I strongly suggest you seek out a trainer who uses positive reinforcement and motivational techniques to help you with the training, or at least teach your dog this trick. There’s just no replacement for working one-on-one with a trainer, and in cases of fear, it’s the most loving thing you can do. A great place to start a trainer search is www.apdt.com (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) – you just click on Find A Trainer, type in your zip code, and a list of trainers in your area pops up. Call at least three trainers before you choose one.
Please let me know how the training is going!