I swear my dog is not incontinent. She just smells that way. Some months ago, she began to exude an odor, an initially subtle blend of old urine with a top note of yeast. Think loaf of warm bread, fresh from its oven in a latrine.
Lexi’s exact age is unknown, but she’s somewhere in the low double digits. Although she’s lost some vigor over the years, her bladder control apparently remains formidable. So much so that she takes no advantage of the fact that her primary human companion hasn’t traveled to an office since March 2020. The dog spends long workday hours sprawled next to my chair where, apart from the occasional snore or twitch, she could be an inconveniently lumpy throw rug. And like a throw rug, she seems free of the biological imperative to void—even when I offer.
“Outside, Lexi? Want to go outside?” I cajole, deploying the high-pitched voice and faux enthusiasm we reserve for pets and the very young. No response. I try again, jiggling the leash enticingly. “Come on, Lex, it’s been hours. This can’t be good for you. Let’s go!” She eyes me and thumps her tail on the floor in acknowledgement, but remains otherwise inert. Rarely can she be coaxed outside for a pee break before 7:00 pm, as if she and I still lived by a commuter’s schedule.
And coaxing is a necessity because I am not physically capable of making this dog budge. With her 105 pounds packed into an elongated torso atop stubby but powerful legs, Lexi has the configuration of a giant Corgi. Her heft and low center of gravity make her an immovable object unless swayed by my powers of persuasion.
“Fine. Suit yourself,” I tell her. “You stay in the house. I’m going out to get the mail. Outside. In the fresh air. Where there’s grass.” I pause, hand on the doorknob, giving her one more chance. Sometimes she’ll lurch upright, stretch, and amble leashward. More often, she thumps her tail again—thanks but no thanks—and yawns herself back to sleep. An hour or two later she’ll rouse and jab my leg with her damp snout, her signal that finally, a dozen hours since her last walk, she’s finally ready to head outside.
As should be clear by now, Lexi is a bitch and as such, she does not lift a leg to relieve herself. Instead, she splays out her hips and thighs, squats, and pees. As a rescue of uncertain provenance, Lexi’s genetic background remains as murky as her age, but she seems to lean heavily toward Belgian sheepdog or some other shepherd, with perhaps a dose of Newfoundland. Whatever her heritage, she is blessed with a long, dense coat. The fur is particularly lavish around her hindquarters, so that from the rear, she looks to be wearing extravagantly ruffled pantaloons. Therein, I suspect, lies the problem.
I do not understand all the nuances of her urinary hydraulics and do not care to explore the question too carefully, but my guess is that her aging joints have affected her squat. Maybe she’s sinking too low to the ground—or maybe not low enough—but either way, she seems to be splashing her furry nether regions when she pees.
When I first caught whiff of the smell, the source wasn’t immediately obvious. That is, I could tell it was urine, but the smell didn’t seem to emanate directly from Lexi. Fearing that Lexi’s reluctance to rouse and go outside to pee was because she had embraced the laborsaving alternative of staying inside to pee, I took to sniffing suspiciously around the house, paying special attention to rugs and quiet corners. Days went by, but I could find no telltale spots. Before I could work myself up to sticking my nose in the dog’s crotch, olfactory adaptation set in—that phenomenon in which a persistent odor fades into the sensory background. When I stopped noticing the smell, I stopped sniffing and searching. Unfortunately, my nose blindness did not mean that Lexi’s stink had waned.
Au contraire, as a vet visit made clear. As this was a pandemic parking lot drop-off situation, I was spared in-person humiliation of witnessing that my dog’s stench was enough to make veterinary professionals cringe—and worry.
“The smell was so bad Doc thought Lexi had a urinary-tract infection,” the vet tech reported when I picked up my dog. “Turns out she doesn’t, but we had to spend ages cleaning around her vaginal area.” And now, I was advised, it was my turn. “You’ve got to wipe her down with a damp washcloth after she goes,” the vet tech said.
“A damp washcloth?” I echoed. I considered the daunting laundry prospect of baskets full of dog pee washcloths. “How about if I use baby wipes?” The woman pursed her lips and considered my suggestion with little enthusiasm.
“I’ll get the unscented kind,” I volunteered. For some reason, that struck me as a more reasonable choice, and the vet tech nodded in agreement. She handed over the leash and my modestly less-stinky dog and I headed home to start a new and more intimate stage in our relationship.
Once I stocked up on baby wipes (unscented, as promised), the post-walk ritual began. Before re-entering the house, I stopped Lexi on the back porch, where a pack of wipes stood ready, and apologized for the liberties I was about to take. “This,” I announced as I crouched behind her tail, wipe in hand, “will be an affront to my dignity as well as to yours.”
I was only half right.
Now that we’re past the confusion of the first few times—Why wasn’t I opening the door and letting her into the house? —Lexi doesn’t seem to mind. Once or twice she has responded to what she seemed to regard as overly intrusive wiping by simply sitting down, rendering the area of interest inaccessible. Otherwise, she pauses on the porch, waiting for me to grope between her legs. She stands patiently, even regally. Give her a human voice and her words would be, “I am ready for you to perform my ablutions, handmaid.”
To be honest, I am not consistent about wiping my canine Cleopatra’s butt. When I’m running late or I’m just too tired to bother, I brush past the package of wipes and guiltily hustle her through the back door.
Even after a string of conscientious weeks, though, the smell began creeping back. I redoubled my efforts, wiping and re-wiping, adding a spray bottle of lightly soapy water for a little extra freshening. It wasn’t enough. Lexi, and by extension my house, once more took on the aroma of a chronically understaffed nursing home. Covid protocols mean that visitors are rare. Still, I blushed at the thought that someone entering my home might jump to the erroneous but embarrassing conclusion that it was I who suffered from urinary incontinence. This would not do.
Lexi is not the sort of dog who gets coiffed. Pre-baby wipes, her beauty regimen was limited to brushing and an occasional bath, the latter furnished by my full-service vet practice. When I learned about what groomers call a sanitary cut, though, I realized that she was a candidate for a strategic clipping that would give us the literal and figurative fresh start we both needed. When Lexi’s next vet appointment rolled around, I asked if they could give her a bath and the doggie equivalent of a Brazilian wax.
This time, the post-appointment download came directly from the vet. First we discussed some test results and a trial of a new medication. Then she mentioned the sanitary cut. “Don’t be alarmed,” she said. “I didn’t do the most elegant job with the clippers.”
No matter. I wanted to get rid of the urine-marinated fur and wasn’t worried about how Lexi looked. Also, I assumed the vet was exaggerating, setting me up to expect the worst so that I’d be gratified by anything better than terrible.
The vet had not been exaggerating.
Lexi looked like she had backed into a weed whacker. Great hunks of fur had been shaved off her thighs and lower belly, but not evenly or symmetrically. White skin peeked through black stubble, studded by random tufts of hair, like a 1977 DIY punk haircut superimposed onto a dog’s butt. At the other end, the vet had taken the clippers to Lexi’s luxuriant but mat-prone mane. Although the clippers had been wielded more deftly around Lexi’s head, the loss what had amounted to a homegrown Elizabethan ruff rendered her face narrower and just a tad… feral-looking.
I did not care, not one bit. If my dog no longer smelled of fermenting urine, well then, mission accomplished.
These days, her fur is growing back and evening out. Lexi’s ruffled pantaloons have become black bike shorts, and her sleeker hindquarters make it easier to hold up my end of the deal, baby wipes-wise. Still, compared with other low-glamour pet-care chores like bagging poop or scooping out a litter box, bending, groping, and wiping residual dog pee feels just slightly more humiliating.
Not for Lexi, though. She remains game and cooperative, her dignity not only intact but enhanced. After every walk, she stops at the back door and strikes an elegant pose that conveys her unspoken message: I am ready for you to perform my ablutions, handmaid.