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Canine Behavior/Moderate but Stubborn Separation Anxiety Urination


My dog Sherlock has what I would call moderate separation anxiety. When he is home alone, he doesnít chew, destroy, bark, cry, or whineÖ but if I leave him home by himself for more than an hour, 90% of the time, he urinates. Itís always in the SAME place in the hallway (even though we always washed, steam clean, and remove the scent).

Sherlock was a rescue that came with his own little bundle of anxiety issues that, for the most part, we have resolved. We just cannot seem to fix the urination. Iíve tried exercising him hard before I leave the house, de-sensitizing him to me getting ready (putting my makeup on, getting my jacket and keys, etc), pushing his nose in it when I get back, teaching him tricks to build his overall confidence, leaving him one of those complex puzzle toys with his favorite foods in it (which he doesnít touch until I get home, and then he goes to town on it), and leaving a puppy pad on the floor in the hallway where he usually pees. Nothing has worked. Iíve gotten him to a place where the act of me leaving doesnít stress him out seemingly at allÖ but at some point, while Iím gone, he urinates.

Here is what I know about his history: he was born in West Virginia, and dropped off at a shelter within his first year. When he arrived at that shelter, he was violent, aggressive, and anxious. They were going to euthanize him, but a border collie rescue group picked him up. He bounced from foster home to foster home for a year or two before he finally came to me. He is a VERY relaxed (pretty lazy) dog who HATES the outdoors. He goes outside to pee and poop, stays twenty seconds, and then runs back in the house. His anxiety issues are minimal to none inside the house, but as soon as he takes a step outside, heís on high alert, and acts as though every sound is terrifying to him.

Let me just say that Sherlock isnít going anywhere. He is with me for life. If he pees in the house every single day until the day he dies, thatís fine. Iíll deal with it. Iím not sure there has ever been a dog as loved as this dog is by me. He is a piece of me, and thereís no way I will ever turn him away for something as menial as urinating in the house. HoweverÖ it would be really nice to have a solutionÖ

Thank you for your question. There are many things you're doing that are setting you up on the right track.

To start, making sure Sherlock is getting enough exercise (but not more than appropriate for his breed and age as tht can also cause problems), providing him activities to occupy him while you're gone, cleaning up the potty and being sure in your heart that he is not going anywhere, even if you can't ever fix this probelm are all a great starting place.

Here are a couple things I would suggest that might help...

First - he should get those Kongs (food stuffed puzzle toys) regularly when you're home. My dogs eat their dinner out of Kongs probably 50%-75% of the time. This means that if I'm not home and someone else gives out the Kongs or if I give a Kong before leaving the house it's not such an obvious clue that I'm about to leave. Dogs are masters of learning routines. And if he only gets the food puzzle toy just before you leave, then it reliably predicts your departure. And if he's distraught at your departure, this will put him off th food until he's relaxed enough (when you return) at which point he'll finally dig in. So by making it a standard part of his life experience several days per week, and then giving it to him at varying times before you leave (between 5 - 20 minutes prior to leaving), we can avoid the food puzzle toy becoming a reliable predictor that you're leaving. He may still disengage with it at your departure, but he may be more likely to relax and go back to it while you're out if he has lots of experience with it when you're home (giving it to him as his dinner when you're sitting down to watch TV or check your email, etc).

The next step is making sure that you're cleaning the area properly with a product that actually removes the smell of urine sufficiently that Sherlock can't smell it. We need to remember that a dog's sense of smell ranges (depending on breed) between 10,000 and 100,000 times more acute to ours. And they will stick their nose directly onto the floor/carpet to sniff. So it's not enough to clean it so that we can't smell it. We have to clean it to the point that HE can't smell it anymore.  There is a popular product that uses enzymes only to clean. I have never had luck with that product. And when I used to work at a major pet store, I found that product returned more than half the time becasue it didn't stop the dog going potty in that spot.

I have found great success with Simple Solution Pet Stain and Odor Remover. This product does contain enzymes. But more importantly, it contains a live bacteria (safe for pets and children) whose sole purpose on earth is to digest the enzymes in urine and feces which make it smell like urine and feces. I've found this product to be extremely successful even in cleaning areas that have been peed on multiple times. PetCo also has a house brand. Just read the ingredient lists on prodcuts meant for odor remover and make sure you see either "live freindly bacteria" or "nonpathogenic bactiera" (that means not disease causing).

Follow the instructions on the bottle based on the flooring type you have. You may also need a black light to look for urine stains to make sure you're spraying every area that has pee on it.

Now here's where things get tricky... It seems he's comfortable with your leaving the house. You're not seeing any overt signs of anxiety or stress as you leave. But somewhere around the 1-hour mark or after he pees. It would be interesting to set up a video camera (computer cams that can record to the computer can be great for this) so we could see if he's doing this just after you leave or if it's happening just before you get home.

My concern is that there is actually anxiety around your return. You mentioned that you have tried pushing his nose into the pee when you get home. The thing about that idea (which I totally used to do before I learned more about dog behavior) is that we are not punishing him for peeing. The only time you can correct a dog for peeing in the wrong spot is if you catch him in the act of going and interrupt him. After he's done going, even if he's literally just finished, any punishment we introduce is going to be associated with the activity he's doing at that very moment. Also, dogs generally do turn around and sniff their potty after they go and they'll go back and sniff it later to make sure it still smells like their potty (and not another dog's).

So... from Sherlock's perspective there is confusion about why you are obsessed with him smelling his pee. And, by physically manipuatling his face toward to the potty spot (from his perspective, he may be feeling assaulted), then we set up a situation where it may have been one day he really had to go and couldn't wait for you to return, or was feeling anxious about being alone and peed due to that anxiety and then you got home, got irritated, pushed his face to the pee and scolded him. And now we've inadverently set him up to feel anxious about your return. So now it's a double-edged sword. He may be feeling anxious at being alone and then also anxious at your return.

The best way to handle nervous potty is to ignore it when you find it. When you get home, greet him like he's the light of your life - the piece of your heart that can never be replaced. Love him, play with him, dote on him. Then after you've put your stuff down, wander past and just make a note if he's peed or not. If he has, don't immediately deal with it. It's already been there a while so leaving it another 10 minutes isn't going to change how well it cleans. Take him outside to potty, play with him a bit, give him something to do like a Bully Stick or Antler to chew on in another room and then clean up the pee when he's not watching.

The less of a deal you make the potty, the more comfortable he'll be about your return and if his potty is now happening out of concern over your return (rather than because you left), then changing the dynamic of your return is likely to eliminate the issue once he trusts that you never come home mad at him.

Videoing him will help us determine if it's happening early (shortyl after you leave) or if it's in relation to your return (within 10-20 minutes of your arrival home). This can help us determine which end of the alone time is causing the anxiety - if that's what's going on.

Now, you said that you've put potty pads down. Does he pee on them if they're there or does he pee somewhere else if there is a potty pad? If he uses the pads, then after cleaning with Simple Solution or another product containing the live bacteria, I'd use the pads daily until you've had 3 months of no potties while he's alone. At that point you can feel pretty confident that he's over the anxiety that was causing him to go.

Does he ever go potty in the house when you are home? Are you sure that he is fully potty trained?

Have you tried blocking his access to the hallway where he is going? A baby gate or something? If you block his access to the hallway where he normally goes, does this stop the behavior or does he pee in another area? If it stops him from going in the house at all, then I would block his access to the area and combine that with the super happy reunions when you get home so that he never feels anxious about your return.

Thse would be the places I'd start.  If you haven't tried some of them, I'd encourage you to do so. If you have tried some of them and want to share how those experiences worked or didn't work, you can reply to this response and we can further refine or discuss other potential reasons for the behavior.

You mentioned that he's quite nervous outside in general. So he may be experiencing a more generalize anxiety than you realize. I don't know if you've ever tried a Thunder Shirt or other anxiety wrap, but they can be quite helpful for many anxious dogs. The effect of such products only lasts between 30-90 minutes before the dog habituates (tunes out) the sensation of the shirt. But it won't harm the dog if it's left on for a few hours. You just have to know that the effect wore off after about that first hour. You can take the shirt off for a few hours and then put it back on to reestablish the effect. My own dog who is quite sound sensitive and worried about strangers in our home and inanimate objects that move (vacuums, boxes that get nudged when he can't see you touching it, etc). He is very definitely calmed by his Thunder Shirt. I've left it on for as long as 7 or 8 hours becasue I had to leave the house. So I know the comforting effect wore off after that first hour or so, but it's not harmful specifically to leave it on longer than that. It's just not meant to be work 24/7.

You could also try other calming things like Comfort Zone (dog appeasing pheromone). I prefer the spray which you can spray onto his bedding or remove his collar and spray it on his collar (wait 10-15 minutes before putting it back on him as it's in an alcohol medium which is quite potent in smell). Comfort Zone can be quite soothing for some dogs. Like the Thunder Shirt, the effect will wear off in an hour or so as his brain habituates to the pheromone. But you can reestablish the effect by spraying it again a few hours later.

I hope some of these ideas prove helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance. Or just to update on how it's going.

Los Angeles Behavior Specialist

Canine Behavior

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Jody Epstein, MS, CPDT-KA


IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR DOG IS ILL OR INJURED, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT THE FORUM TO ADDRESS URGENT MEDICAL ISSUES. I AM NOT A LICENSED VET AND HAVE NO DIAGNOSTIC SKILLS. ***I have been answering questions on All Experts for over 8 years now. I enjoy being able to offer assistance in this forum. I do need to be clear, though. If youíre looking for free advice about a specific behavior question, you MUST submit your question to me via All Experts. If you bypass All Experts and write to me directly through my website, I will ask you to submit via All Experts. On the flip side, if youíre local to Los Angeles and you wish to speak to me privately about an in person consultation, please go through my website. I appreciate your assistance in keeping my volunteer work on the volunteer site.*** I can answer questions about the following canine behavior issues: obedience, timid/fearful & fear-based aggression, nuisance behaviors, families that are expanding with either new human or new animal members and many other issues. If you have potty training questions please first read my trio of blogs at If you still have questions after reading the blogs you can post your specific questions here. PLEASE be as specific as possible when asking a question. Give me a detailed example of the situation - dog's behavior, body language, circumstances surrounding the issue, what the consequences are (another dog's response, your response), etc. I can only provide insight if I can get a picture of the whole scenario. If I ask for further details, please provide them. In person I would normally observe for at least 90 minutes to assess the situation and the dynamics before offering tools and suggestions to modify it. In writing it is ever so much more difficult. Thank you for your participation in the process.


I have been a professional obedience trainer for 9 years, and specializing in behavior modification for 8 years. I have owned dogs my entire life. I own my own dog training and behavior modification business called Nutz About Mutz.

I am a Certified Profession Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), #2133301 ; I am a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), #77763 ; I am an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen evaluator (CGC), #71253

Publications ; ; Multiple articles in the local pet magazine Pet Press (found across Southern California)

I have a masters degree (MS) in Animals and Public Policy, with a minor in Animal Behavior, from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. I also have 3 years of graduate education in Animal Behavior and Learning from UM-Missoula and UL-Lafayette. I continue to educate myself to canine-specific behavior through extensive reading, online interactive workshops, vidoes and attending canine behavior conferences, workshops and seminars. Beginning in March, 2017, I will be the Behavior & Training Manager at Second Chance Center for Animals in Flagstaff, AZ.

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