Yes, it’s definitely dead dog month around here. I am much informed by the storgic love of dogs for their people, and I am much informed by dogs as such. This sequence of ideas dates from four years ago today, when we lost the very willful Desdemona. —GSS
June 24, 2009
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.