September-October 2019 | Bethesda Magazine

Dog Days

Having a puppy is great, except when it isn’t

Mellie, a Cavachon—part bichon frise, part Cavalier King Charles spaniel—likes to leap onto the dining room table, steal napkins and shred them. Photo by Liz Lynch

When we first brought Mellie to our Bethesda home, we took her out hourly for potty training, and then at 1 a.m. we put her in her crate to “sleep.” She barked. All. Night. Long. Desperate, I ran the bathroom fans to try to mask the noise, but the whole house was still up most of the night. “You guys wanted a dog!” I yelled to my angry kids. Brett and I kept blaming each other for allowing this whole dog thing to happen. The next night I made sure everyone wore earplugs.

My husband and I, both 49, weathered the first week like we did when we had newborns, stealing chunks of sleep between taking Mellie out until our puppy settled into a nighttime routine. As the month went by, she started snoozing in longer stretches, and we finally got her to sleep for seven hours straight. We tucked her into a sheet-covered crate (for darkness) along with a blanket and a stuffed dog that has a heartbeat to mimic a puppy sibling—and then we put on meditation music. A bit overboard, yes, but it works. Now Mellie sleeps from about 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Bethesda resident Carolyn Boulter, 31, who volunteered at a pet shelter during college, got a second Lab mix a year ago. “At the shelter, I saw a lot of people not ready to give that much time and energy to their dog, and then having problems,” she says. “If you can’t provide a lot of time, then maybe get a cat.” Either Boulter or her husband will try to take Mouse, 4, and Nelson, 2, on an hourlong jog in the morning, spend a couple hours a day on things like training and games, and then take them for another jog at night. They’ve used doggy day care when their work schedules made it hard to give the dogs enough attention. Millennials like Boulter and her husband make up the largest segment of dog owners, 34%, according to the National Pet Owners Survey. The work involved has made Boulter push off having kids. “There have been some eye-opening things,” she says. “During potty training, we were getting up once in the middle of the night, but only every other night because [we] alternated, and after two weeks [my husband] was going, ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore,’ and I thought, dear God, you do know what it’s like to have babies, right?”

The writer, pictured with Mellie, has noticed that if the dog is left alone in the backyard, she goes into adventure mode and often gets stuck under the deck. Photo by Liz Lynch

House-training Mellie was easier than potty training my kids, thankfully, but it still required more work than I anticipated. No wonder a friend in Potomac kept her nanny just to help care for her new doodle (a type of poodle mix), even though her kids were older. While my friend and her family were tied up at work or school, the nanny got the pup on a regular potty schedule. “If you buckle down and put the time in early on, it’s going to make your life easier more quickly,” says Sarah Stoycos, a Rockville resident who provides in-home training and teaches classes at Your Dog’s Friend in Rockville. The first week we had Mellie, Brett and I stayed home with her in shifts so she was never alone. For the next few months, we tried to leave her alone for no more than an hour or two a day, coordinating our schedules to either work from home or take Mellie with us. Mellie has been to many of my son’s baseball games, peeing on fields all across the county.

Stoycos says the goal is to provide puppies with as many bathroom opportunities as possible—once an hour or so—and then reward them like crazy. “I understand now why my mom got dogs in the spring,” says Bethesda resident Agnes Thompson, 48. She brought home Pistachio, a golden retriever puppy, this past winter. “In the beginning, I would get up really early and it was so cold, like 20 degrees, and he’d be enjoying himself in the snow and I’d be waiting and waiting for him to pee.”

Mellie is house-trained today, but I hesitate to even say that because it means she’s bound to have a setback. At 10 months old, she’d had zero accidents in the previous five months, and then, surprise. We had just unpacked a new $600 plush beanbag chair when Mellie hopped onto it and took a giant pee. Brett and I both screamed, “No!” and then yelled at each other for not walking her. I thought he had taken her out; he thought I had taken her out. My son and daughter hadn’t taken her out, either. I figured that my kids would be a big help with the dog, and they care for her when they’re home. But with school, sports, extracurriculars and their jobs as dog walkers—they walk other people’s dogs—they’re never home.

My vet, Shanthi Ramachandran at Alpine Veterinary Hospital in Cabin John, says making your dog a priority is key in helping to prevent behavioral issues. “Around here we’re so busy, and there are a lot of families where both parents work, have kids,” she says. “We often forget about the time we need to dedicate to an animal.” Whether it’s the pet parent or a hired helper, Ramachandran recommends that a dog gets at least an hour or more of stimulation and exercise a day, and more on weekends: Go full sprint during walks, have the dog use its nose to search for things, maybe spread the animal’s food throughout the yard. “[Stimulation] can help with almost anything, whether it’s separation anxiety or destructive behaviors in the house,” says Ramachandran, who lives in Bethesda. “A lot of these behaviors are just driven through excess energy in the system.” After this conversation, I noticed that if I make time in the morning to play fetch with Mellie, she is less likely to play her shred-the-napkin game or chew the chair leg when I’m busy on a phone call.