Friday, September 4, 2009


     "Maybe she's having an affair," teased a friend of my French husband after listening to him complain that I had been unusually edgy the past few weeks.
     "What?" I gasped when Jacques came home and repeated his friend's bantering. I was on my hands and knees sponging a spot on the carpet with white vinegar.
     "Affair? I'm not having an affair," I barked as I looked up at him. "How could I?" I began to blot the spot with paper towels and muttered, "I spend all of my time cleaning puppy stains..."

We lived in French Flanders, and although it rained alot, our rugs indoors were beginning to feel as soggy as the ground outdoors. After two months of trying, we hadn't managed to housebreak our Cavalier King Charles puppy. And she was already five-months old.

Not only were our oriental rugs getting soaked, but our beds were being regularly doused with puppy urine. We had named her Marie-Charlotte, but behind her back we called her Pissenlit, a French play on words for the diuretic weed we know as dandelion. I had expected to deal with floor accidents, but I had never counted on having to wash sheets, blankets and bedspreads almost daily on account of a puppy.

Marie-Charlotte slept in the kitchen, but she usually had her morning accidents after a groggy family member would let her out into the rest of the house before I could see to it that she go outside. But even after a trip outdoors, once back indoors she would streak to one of our beds, leap up onto it, and let herself go--again. She especially liked doing this in the kids' rooms. Whether it was excitement urination brought on by greeting the children in the morning or simply marking, it had become a habit.

Those familiar with French domestic life will know that the situation was only made worse by the limited load capacity of European washing machines. They hold about half of what the standard-size American washer does. Most of the bulky, washable bed coverings would fit only into a commercial machine; I had to take that laundry out to do after three or four back-aching experiences heaving heavy wet comforters out of the bathtub.

This sort of domestic misery especially loves company and I found solace commiserating with a Spanish neighbor, another mother whose children also had a new puppy. Her complaint was that her French husband insisted that their puppy sleep with them to keep it quiet at night. At least I didn't have nocturnal whimpering and crowding to contend with.

Never before had I needed expert advice for housebreaking pets or housebreaking children. All had been so easy and natural, like the day when our 18-month-old son, in a hallmark moment of autonomy, dropped his diaper and took aim into the kitten's litterbox. Fascinated, our kitten, Apple, watched on, then gingerly climbed into the box and buried the puddle before scampering off with his tail high in the air.

Three years later when we introduced the puppy into what had been the cat's pristeen environment, Apple was the only one of us who didn't experience unconditional love-at-first sight for Marie-Charlotte. I say unconditional because the way she reeked she needed that kind of love.

Although she hadn't come from a puppy mill, she smelled as though she had. The seller, a backyard breeder, had a working livestock farm complete with cows, horses, ducks, chickens and a pair of vigilant Dobermans. An old dirt-floor chicken house served as the whelping area in which the puppies, although in good health and out of the way of geese and dangerous farm machinery, had spent their young lives.

At home and three baths later, Marie-Charlotte was almost rid of her pungent past. But you couldn't tell it by the cat. He made that abundantly clear by breaking into a trot anytime he entered an area that her passage had perfumed.

As the difficulties with housebreaking continued, I realized that Marie-Charlotte had never learned the difference between indoors and outdoors. She and her siblings had eaten and slept too near to where they eliminated. That explained why she did the unthinkable and wet the doggy cushion on which she slept. An unheard of practice, said our veterinarian, except in cases where puppies are forced to perform all of their biological functions in one confined space.

We needed to break this pattern and to substitute a better behavior. But teaching our puppy to unlearn her bad habit first meant policing some of our own. We reinforced supervision of both puppy and children, limited access to bedrooms and removed the water bowl after 9 p.m. I made myself wake up at 5 a.m., well before the rest of the family, to let Marie-Charlotte outdoors first, and to control traffic in the house.

But housebreaking headway didn't really come until we discovered a made-to-order replacement behavior for her. We noticed that anytime we threw a tennis ball in the yard, Marie-Charlotte would run after it, then squat and urinate. We routinely played this game, repeatedly throwing the ball to make sure she had emptied her bladder before returning indoors. She loved it and so did we.

We were no longer house training, but play training. Our Pissenlit had become Pavlov--after the pyschologist famous for his experiments conditionning dogs. From this game, combined with reinforcing voice commands, she eventually learned to urinate on command, without the tennis ball. The accidents stopped, I quit chanting chill-out mantras, and even the cat began to feel better.

From then on Marie-Charlotte could be seen in the best hotels and restaurants like any other dog in France. And being small, she could even visit the American Library in Paris, which used to include in its set of rules the endearing admonition and Americanization of the French habit of making exceptions, "No big dogs."

©2009P.B.Lecron; photos by P.B. Lecron