by Fred L. Pincus
Our lives changed on Mother’s Day 2013 when Phineas came into our home. We drove an hour to Hanover, Pennsylvania to meet him in his foster home where he had been residing for about 10 days. All we knew is that he was rescued from a kill shelter in South Carolina by Operation Paws for Homes, an animal rescue organization, and that he was about 4 years-old.
As we entered the door of the foster home, a 21-pound grey and white miniature schnauzer rushed in to greet us. He was the right size – Natalie wanted a lap dog – and the right temperament – he warmed up to us in just a few minutes. After a 15 minute meet-and-greet, we signed the papers, put on a new red collar that went with the new red leash, and bid goodbye to the foster family. As we left, Phin looked back once and then rushed headlong into his new life with us. He lay calmly on my lap for the entire trip home.
Our major concern was where he would sleep at night. The foster mom said he slept in the bed with her, her husband and two other dogs. Never! I have enough trouble sleeping without a roving animal on the bed. After discussing several strategies, we settled on the most simple. Since he ignored the $50 doggie bed that we had bought, Natalie folded a small, blue blanket and placed it next to our bed. Phin curled up on the blanket and slept through the night.
We have a keeper, I thought. Affectionate. Didn’t hassle us at night. Rarely barked. Slept near us when we were at the computer or watching TV. Liked to take walks. A friend even told us that “Phineas” is the English translation of the yiddish name “Pinkas,” which is close to my own family name. What more could we ask for?
He had developed loose bowels the day before we picked him up so I lovingly cooked up some boiled chicken, rice and canned pumpkin and fed it to him for a few days until things hardened up. Not as convenient as dried dog food but no big deal.
Natalie was concerned that since he didn’t bark much, he had no way of telling us that he wanted to go outside to do his business. If we were upstairs on the second or third floor, what would he do? So, she rigged up a set of bells that hung from the door nob in the kitchen. He soon learned to ring the bells with his nose when he wanted to go out into the yard, which was all the time.
After a few days, I began to realize that he wasn’t shitting or pissing in our backyard, only on walks. This meant that we had to walk him several times a day. While we enjoyed taking him for walks, we didn’t want to feel required to take him for walks. I’m not walking him in the rain, or in the snow, or in single digit winter weather. This wasn’t what I had signed up for.
One walk a day was fine with me. He needed the exercise and the escape from lying around the house. Otherwise, Phin should fend for himself when it came to elimination.
After seeking advice from fellow dog owners and on line, the conclusion was unanimous: positive reinforcement for the desired behavior. In short: give him a treat when he shits or pisses in the yard. Great idea except for one minor thing: He’s not doing the desired behavior for us to reward him.
We tried walking him around the yard on a leash. Nothing. He walked, but he didn’t eliminate. He just stood there and looked at me.
We then sat in a lawn chair for a half hour with him on a leash. He walked around a little and then went to sleep.
We tried pee-pads, which meant taking the pads and putting it under him when he peed or shit on walk and then putting the pad in the yard. Nothing
I banged a pee-post into the yard which was supposed to have irresistable feremones that would couase him to pee. Nothing.
We even tried taking his shit and dumping it in strategic places in the yard. Still nothing.
If we wait him out, he’ll have to go eventually, won’t he? Was this his major flaw?
We took him for his late-night walk and resolved to not take him on a walk the next day until he shit and pissed in the yard. Of course, we had to monitor him in the yard so that we could positively reinforce him if he came through.
The next morning, I went downstairs and he ran to the door. I turned off the alarm, opened the door and he rushed out with great gusto. Finally! As I watched from the kitchen window, Phin ran to the gate and stood there. After a few minutes, when he realized that a walk was not in the immediate future, he slowly walked back to the kitchen door, sat down and looked at me.
As I opened the door, he dashed to the gate again, with eager anticipation. When I sat down on the deck, he slowly walked back to the deck, sat down next to my chair and stared at me. I got up, opened the kitchen door and went inside. Phin followed.
This isn’t good. I felt a deep sense of anger beginning to bubble up deep inside me.
Five minutes later, he was at the back door again. I let him out and he ran to the gate. This process repeated itself for the next two hours. He’s training me, rather than the other way around. Will he shit or piss inside the house because he can’t hold it any longer? I let him out whenever he wanted.
When Natalie woke up several hours later, I explained what was going on. She tried taking him out once or twice. Nothing. We finally resolved to let him out only once an hour and see what happened. Nothing.
By noon, Phin had gone more than 12 hours without any elimination. His bladder and colon must be expanding to their limits. I envisioned a balloon getting bigger and bigger. He’s got to go soon.
At 1:00, he ran to the gate again. This time, rather than coming back to the deck, he began to sniff around the yard. Is this going to be it? Did we wait long enough?
Finally, he lifted his right leg against a tree and began what seemed like an endless pee. We were jubilant. Phin ran to the deck and we poured on the positive reinforcement. “Good boy.” “Good boy.” We petted him, gave him treats and praised him to the sky. Half the job was done. Shitting was next.
We repeated the process for the rest of the day, but no shit. By dinner time, he had gone almost 20 hours without a shit. When it got dark, we had trouble monitoring him so we took him on a leash with a flashlight to walk him around the yard. Still nothing.
I began to get angry. Who the hell wants to worry about a dog’s bathroom behavior all day? When he looks at me, I feel like he is mocking me. I hate feeling helpless. The truth of the old cliche “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” was all too apparent. This 21 pound dog is not going to get the best of me. This isn’t acceptable.
By 9:00PM, Phin was camped at the back door all the time. When I took him out, he still headed for the gate. When I pulled him away, he pulled to back to the gate. Finally, he began sniffing around the yard, first by the bushes, then by the fence. Just shit. You’ll feel better. I’ll feel better. Nothing.
“What are we going to do?” I asked Natalie. “He won’t go. I’m really getting pissed.”
“We can’t let him roam the house at night,” she said. “I don’t want him shitting on my mother’s rug.”
“Me neither,” I said. “We’ll have to put him in the crate, I guess.”
“His foster mom says he is used to the crate,” she said. “We’ll give it a go.”
We agreed that the 11:00PM outing would be the last one for the night. He pulled at the leash and headed for the gate. I pulled him back. He looked at me and began sniffing around the yard, but this time he seemed more frantic. I followed him along the fence, behind bushes, thorough the ivy, along the other fence, through the bushes again. In the midst of the ivy, he squatted and let loose. Finally! I was never so happy to see diarrhea in a dog.
We smothered him with positive reinforcement. “Good boy.” Petting. Treats. We hugged each other and then took him for a walk as another reward. He shit twice more on the walk. Twenty-four hours seemed to be his limit. I was thrilled that we stuck to the program and it had worked. We had won.
The next day more or less paralleled the first. No walk. Running to the gate. Pissing a few times. Shitting late at night. A walk as a reward. We were getting someplace.
We had to break the routine on the third day by taking him to the vet for his first visit. Dr. D praised us for our resolve and encouraged us to stick with it. Phin deposited a huge shit in the vet’s front yard. We walked him later that night and began the no-walk routine again the next morning. The day was a carbon copy of the first two days with one major difference: he refused to shit, even at night. Apparently, 24 hours was not his limit.
Natalie was disappointed but I was furious. Why was he being so stubborn? Why doesn’t he do what I want him to do? Why was I losing the battle with this little, 20 pound dog?
I threw him in his crate for the night since we didn’t trust him to be able to hold everything in while we were asleep. I had a fitful night’s sleep, imagining that I was going to wake up to a dog smeared with shit. I’d have to wake up Natalie to give him an early morning bath.
As I walked downstairs and entered the kitchen, I sniffed for the odor of shit. Phin was even influencing my five senses. But nothing was unusual. Phin had made it through the night. I figured that he was about to explode so I opened the kitchen door and then the door to his crate, expecting that he would head straight for the door. Instead, he did his normal out-of-the-crate routine by running back and forth, jumping on me with excitement, wanting to be petted.
How can he do this? Doesn’t he have to shit, badly?
We went outside, he ran to the gate, stood there and then slowly walked back to the deck. You’d never know that this dog hasn’t shit for 32 hours. I sat down but Phin just looked at me. What was he thinking? “Do you think you can control me? Fool. I shit when and where I want to shit.”
We continued with our once-an-hour outside routine for the rest of the morning: 33 hours, 34 hours, 35 hours. Was he going to explode? He has to go sometime.
Both Natalie and I were growing increasingly agitated. I was getting increasingly angry. She was getting increasingly worried about him. By dinner time, it had been 42 shitless hours. How long can he go? Aren’t there biological limits?
After giving him a little to eat, Phin vomited up a pile of undigested food. Is he so stuffed up that the food has no where to go? Is he making himself sick? I don’t want that. Please, Phin. Just shit and get it over with.
When I shared the vomiting news with Natalie, she became even more concerned.
“What should we do?” she said.
“Can Phin make himself sick before the biological urge to shit wins out?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I wish the vet’s office were open but it’s the weekend.”
“That would be helpful,” I said.
“Do you think he’s constipated?” she asked.
“My guess is that he’s just got tremendous holding power. I wish I could hold like that”
We agreed to wait until 11:00PM and then take him for a walk if he still hadn’t shit. 8:00 – nothing. 9:00–nothing. 10:00– nothing. As the hours wore on, my anxiety and anger levels began to spike. I worried about his health and stewed about his willfulness.
At 11:00, we both took him for his final try in the yard. He walked slowly to the gate, the bounce in his step having disappeared several hours earlier. He was clearly uncomfortable, for good reason, but he simply refused to go. Not even any sniffing behavior. Did his previous owners train him not to go in the yard? Was he being stubborn, defiant?
At 11:30, we gave up and took him through the gate. He pissed almost immediately, but it took him another two or three minutes of sniffing to find the perfect spot to let loose. How can he be so picky when he hadn’t shit for two days? Why is this piece of grass better than some other piece of grass? What incredible holding power he has. Over the course of a ten minute walk, he shit about four times.
He seemed happy and chipper when we got back to the house. No wonder. He had shit when and where he wanted to shit. He won. More important, I lost.
He came up to me to be petted, but I pushed him away. Screw you. Go somewhere else to get petted. I knew he didn’t understand but I wasn’t in the mood to be affectionate. He looked at me, turned, hopped into Natalie’s lap and went to sleep. Having two “parents” has it’s benefits.
Seven Months Later
Somehow, Phineas has gotten with the program and has learned to take care of himself without being walked several times a day. The turning point came on a weekend when we dog-sat for our son’s dog, Laila, who loves our back yard. Phin is now welcome on my lap.
Copyright Fred L. Pincus