There’s always something to howl about

A little bit of honey cake for Desdemona as she makes her last escape

We’re going to lose Desdemona, our English Coon Hound, tonight. She’s been with us for more than ten years, and she was an adult when we adopted her. A long life for a big dog.

Desi is by far the smartest dog we’ve ever known, the most willful, the cleverest escape artist, the most vociferous howler. She is maybe six brain cells short of writing angry poetry and howling on stage like the canine version of Tori Amos. There is nothing about this dog that is not astonishing.

This is Desdemona with my son Cameron, a long time ago:

Here’s an encomium Cathleen wrote to Desdemona’s intelligence in September of 2001:

Desdemona’s going to have a sweet year

Because our coon hound, Desdemona, runs away so easily and so tenaciously, we let her stay in the house when we aren’t home. This acknowledges that Desdemona has won the war. Well, of course she has… she won every battle. You’ll recall, she escapes over our 6′ block fence, even after we added an electric wire to the top; even when we strapped her into a full body harness and tethered her; even when we tethered her at both her collar and her harness and attached the two together; even when we put her into a kennel and tethered her at both her harness and collar and ran the two cables out of separate sides of the kennel; even when we drugged her.

The only thing she couldn’t escape from was a $200 solid plastic shell of a kennel, but after a few times in that box she learned how to splay herself so that anyone who tried to stuff her into the kennel came out of the box bloody and Desi, of course, never came close to going in. So, after spending about $600 on gadgets guaranteed to keep dogs where they’re supposed to be, Desdemona won the war and now gets to stay in the house when we’re not at home.

The spoils of war include more than the simple luxury of staying indoors. They include staying indoors unsupervised! Which means we’ve had to make changes in how and where we store garbage. And we’re sure she terrorizes the cats, and we’re sure she bounds from one piece of out-of-bounds furniture to another.

Now Desdemona no longer becomes anxious when she sees us prepare to leave. Now, when we put the other three dogs outside and we’re wearing clothes that she recognizes as "going out" clothes, she gets into position where she can watch the door, but not close enough to try to run out of it, and smiles. Desdemona never smiled before she won the war. In fact, we didn’t believe she could smile.

Now, Desdemona is a very happy dog. Yesterday got even better. Yesterday at lunch, Tamra and I went to a Jewish deli and we each bought a honey cake for Rosh Hashanah. We eat honey cakes this season to start our year out right, sweetly. When I brought the wrapped cake home last night I put it away where we always store our bread, which has always been a safe place. Of course, you know how the story ends. When we got home last night, we learned that the safe place is not really all that safe… and Desdemona was smiling.

Happy New Year!

One Christmas I had made peanut butter cookies and left them on the same counter. When we came home, not only had Desdemona stolen the cookies, she had eaten them in front of the sliding glass door, so that the other dogs would know she was getting the treat and they weren’t.

I learn a lot from our dogs. They’re the perfect little epistemological laboratory, willing, helpful — and conceptually clueless. They are god’s original cargo cultists, and they illuminate the idea that, while the seed of the Greeks inheres in homo sapiens genetically, the Greek mind requires cultivation. In any case, this is an essay I wrote in 2001 about Desdemona’s outsized willfulness:

Apprehending willful Desdemona

We have four dogs, all big, all beautiful, all very smart, all very willful. The smartest and most willful of the four is Desdemona, a big white English Coon Hound, 65 pounds, all very willful muscle.

There are two ways out of our house. One way leads to the back yard, where the dogs can run, play, snooze, urinate and defecate. The yard is circumvallated by a six-foot block wall. The other way leads the vast, unwalled, scent-rich great big world outside. Most significantly to all of the dogs, it leads to the cars.

Desdemona hates the back yard.

Desdemona loves to ride in the car.

Even people who have dogs do not at first understand the depth and vigor and undiluted purity of Desdemona’s hating and loving. Unless she has to pee very badly, Desdemona almost always has to be dragged to the back door to get her to go outside. And if we leave her there too long — where too long can be less than a minute — she leaps over that six foot block wall and sails forth to explore that vast, unwalled, scent-rich great big world outside.

On the other hand, before I have one leg all the way into a pair of trousers, Desdemona will have figured out that I am going out, and she will be leaping and scampering and howling playfully, campaigning to be taken along. When I put my wallet and keys in my pockets, her frenzy increases, since she is that much more certain that I am going. If I put the other dogs out, she leaps to the next level of excitation, since whatever is the dog-analog of implication is that she’s going and they’re staying. She becomes uncontainable when I lay my hand on a lead, since that is proof positive that she is going to get to go.

Desdemona loves to ride in the car.

The epistemology of this is all pattern-matching, of course. Desdemona does not reason in any sense that would apply to human beings, she simply has a good memory of what happened in the past subsequent to certain recalled events. For this reason, even though we often desperately want for her to go to the back yard — for example, to pee so that we can go to bed without fearing for the carpets — we do not ever "trick" her by presenting stimuli that will lead her to believe she’s going out the front door and not the back. Sometimes this means that Desdemona gets to go for a ride at ten o’clock at night; she hides from us until she knows which door she’ll be going out.

Interestingly, she can distinguish between these two very similar exhortations:

Desdemona, do you want to go outside?

Desdemona, do you want to go for a ride?

Say the first and she will squirrel herself all the way back into the corner under my son’s bed. Say the second and she’ll scoot her way out in an instant and leap and yelp until she gets to go for a ride.

The point is not her epistemology. The point is her will. I have zero doubt that Desdemona has will, which reflects her desires, which reflects her values and disvalues. She cannot conceptualize, and thus her will is not free in the way we speak of free will among human beings (and that freedom of will is not biological in origin but is nurtured into being only by human upbringing). Free will is an attribute of the human brain, but will itself — desire, value, disvalue, emotional expression — is a mammal-brain phenomenon. This is why pre-conceptual children and genetic homo sapiens raised by animals are able to express will even when they are unable to express any concepts.

Now that we understand Desdemona, I must ask you to excuse me. I have to run out and retrieve my dog.

She’s always been the hardest of our dogs to love. Whoever raised her showed her no affection, so she never learned how to express it. She glommed onto me as her alpha when we found her. But she is not herself a true alpha bitch, so she spent her entire life with us competing with the other bitches, mainly Shyly, for dominance. Shyly kicked the shit out of her twice, and after that they learned to get along. But she has never tired of bossing Ophelia around — but Ophelia is just omega enough to put up with it. Nevertheless, Desdemona has never been at home except with us, and she gave up running away a long time ago. Hall-monitor, schedule-keeper, the Barney Fife of our menagerie. I know it’s only pattern-matching, but the damn dog can tell time. I can’t imagine that we’ll ever meet a smarter animal.

And she’s done. She’s been fading for months, wheezing for weeks. Since last night, she’s been splayed in one spot in the hallway. She wouldn’t eat this morning. If she doesn’t improve today, tonight she will make her final escape. She’s been with us for so long I can’t imagine what life will be like without her. The dynamic will change. The other dogs will play more playfully with Desi gone, and that’s sad. She was never anybody’s favorite dog, never anyone’s “pet,” and that’s even sadder. But she was always herself, always a thing unto her own — never really comfortable, never truly at her ease, but as satisfied as she could be to be the smartest dog, the most willful, the cleverest escape artist, the most vociferous howler.

Rest in peace, Desdemona. You’ve earned it.


14 Comments so far

  1. Gary Frimann June 24th, 2009 9:14 am

    So sorry to hear this.
    Sounds like she was a wonderful companion.
    For solace, read Robert Service’s “My Dog”.

  2. Flynn Gentry-Taylor June 24th, 2009 9:38 am

    One of the happiest moments in our lives is when we get that special dog…One of the saddest is when we have to say goodbye, God Bless…Flynn

  3. Russell Shaw June 24th, 2009 9:49 am

    Amazingly beautiful writing.

  4. Don Reedy June 24th, 2009 10:31 am

    When I grow up to be a dog, I want to live with you and Cathleen.

    I like cars, too.

    Much love to you both,

    Don and Beth

  5. Mark Green June 24th, 2009 11:55 am

    Greg, my sincere condolences. I know how brutal putting a beloved pet is – having just done that a few months back myself.

  6. Debbie Cook June 24th, 2009 11:56 am

    Remembering Skipper,

    The pet missed the most is always the one that was the most willfull and bad.

    We once had an Irish Setter named Skip who sounds a lot like Desi. Always jumping the fence and running off. We had to bail him out of the pound or pick him up from some kind neighbor’s house at least once every couple of months. When left inside the house he would jump up on my (0nce beautiful)teak dining room table so he could see out the window (scratched it all to hell). Ate a huge 12 serving pan of Lasagna that was cooling on the stove. Left us that big glass pan broken in half with not a bit of Lasagna on it. The worst was the WHOLE Bone-In Smithfield Ham he ate at Christmas time. He threw up grease for a week after that!

    Skip was already grown when we got him too. He also came with a serious case of heartworms. I guess he deserved to be bad after surviving the treatment for the heartworms. The treatment is awful, painful and dangerous because it uses arsenic based drugs. He lived to the ripe old age of 17 which is long for an Irish Setter. Your post brought tears to my eyes remembering my willful, bad boy Skipper.

    I hope Desi is in Doggie Heaven playing with Skip!

  7. Teri Lussier June 24th, 2009 12:16 pm

    My heartfelt condolences to the pack.

    Desdemona was a very lucky dog, but like all great dogs, sounds like her owners were the more fortunate to have had the privilege of knowing her.

  8. Karen Highland June 24th, 2009 3:00 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story, Greg. 3 weeks ago tomorrow we sent our beloved black lab, Rocky, to ‘run through heathered fields forever’, as one of our friends put it. He was 3 when we got him from a rescue, and lived for 11 more years. On our doorstep, 3 days later we had a rescued boxer named Tag. 1 1/2 years old and full of spunk.
    What a joy these rescued dogs are, My heartfelt condolences.

  9. SuiteSusan June 24th, 2009 4:57 pm

    I loved your story. I read the following in a magazine,
    When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food and water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.

    The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing: they miss someone very special to them; who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. The bright eyes are intent; the eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to break away from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. YOU have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
    Your memorial to Desdemona made me think of it and I hope it gives you comfor during this time of grief. Brewer Caldwell

  10. Brad Rachielles June 24th, 2009 6:36 pm

    Nice tribute – well expressed – the memories will be special moments and less painful with time. Your memorializing the character of your friend and family member will insure that nothing is lost even when memories fade. You are fortunate to have had such a personable pet that could inspire you and stir such feelings. Desdemona has made a difference.

  11. Thomas Johnson June 24th, 2009 10:40 pm

    “she was always herself, always a thing unto her own — never really comfortable, never truly at her ease, but as satisfied as she could be to be the smartest dog, the most willful, the cleverest escape artist, the most vociferous howler.”

    Greg: That is a lovely tribute to your canine kindred spirit. Thank you for that lovely farewell to a loyal companion. We had to ground our Sophie as well. Three strikes:

    1. Snake bit, probably a cottonmouth. She came home with her sleek elongated Husky head puffed up the size of a football.
    2. Came up a bit worse for wear when she got too close to a mama raccoon. The vet had to reattach her face.
    3. She too, loves to follow her nose. Apparently a rancher didn’t understand the joy of running free, and I am a slow learner. Her grounding to the backyard came after the gunshot wound. I should have grounded her much, much sooner.

    Sophie is a Siberian Husky, I know, Texas is not the right climate for an Arctic fur ball, but she acquired us.
    Her most joyful time of year is in the dead of winter when a blue norther rolls in. I cannot get her inside at night. In freezing weather, she just curls up and points her nose like a compass, north toward the Arctic. When the time comes, there will be no “heathered” fields for Sophie. In my mind’s eye, she will forever lead a sled team on a blinding white snowpack. But for now, we are doing our best to keep our girl watered and comfortable in this searing drought.

  12. Greg Swann June 25th, 2009 8:48 am

    Thank you all for your kind thoughts and your shared remembrances. Desdemona died as she lived, proud, resolute, indomitable.

    Because I am a wild human, I never forget that to be a pet is to be a prisoner. Jailed or chained, always, your actions always circumscribed. Unsexed, with no chance of progeny. Your diet a matter of dictate. Desdemona never forgot that, either. She reconciled herself to her confinement, but she never once renounced her conviction in the fundamental rectitude of the illimitable liberty of every living thing. We gave her every good thing we could, and all we took from her was what mattered most to her.

    We met her in the parking lot of what used to be the Smith’s store at 43rd Avenue and Cactus Road in Phoenix. We were pulling away and I looked up and said, “What a gorgeous animal…” We opened the car door and she jumped right in, a lifelong pattern. We never found her owners, and I know she loved being with us, despite her many escape attempts. And I know the pound kills big dogs in four days, because they eat too much. She got to live out her full lifespan because she lived with us.

    But still… I know that Desdemona would rather have taken her chances on the run — free to starve, yes, but free to wander, to explore, free to see every wonderful thing there is to be seen in the world. She used to stand in the back yard, her nose against the wind, letting the world come to her on the afternoon breezes.

    We build for our dogs a penitentiary of riches, clean and comfortable, with endless fresh water and scientifically-vetted dog food. And, of course, most of the dogs we’ve had — and all of the cats — are welfare slaves, perfectly content to trade everything they might have had from life for three hots and a cot. And as much as I love these animals, the bargain they’ve made offends me — as does that same bargain as it is made by the real welfare slaves.

    And I loved that in Desdemona above everything else, that, even though she could not successfully escape our malignant benevolence, she never once conceded it as a matter of right. She knew in her every sinew that it was right for her to be free, that the only matter of right was for her to be free.

    This do I wish for Desdemona’s afterlife: A boundless forest full of rabbits and raccoons to chase. And no other dogs. And no people, unless they can love her for what she is and then leave her alone.

  13. David Orsini June 25th, 2009 11:52 am

    Losing a beloved pet is truly losing a member of your family. You and yours have my sincerest condolences. It is hard to even imagine my life without my 2 rescues at home.

  14. Geno Petro July 1st, 2009 8:30 am

    Amen Desdemona.