On the Death of a Dog I Should Have Loved Better
All photos courtesy of the author.
When I am depressed I must write. But I am surprised to find myself depressed upon the death of my dog this past Sunday during our fishing trip on Lake Pontchartain. I am surprised I’m even calling Meshcha “my dog,” as I was never very fond of her. But now she seems perfect, as so many dead things do in retrospect.
Meshcha was a skinny, medium-length, short-haired Kelpie with boundless energy that even our spacious Ninth Ward backyard couldn’t burn out. She came to us last year after several of our neighbors had passed her around, each too dog-loving and polite to admit to us or themselves that Meshcha was destructive. “She’s just a puppy!” they all declared, choosing to focus instead on how much they loved her. That part was sincere. Meshcha was remarkably sweet and submissive, exposing her belly upon my slightest (infrequent) kind glance.
Despite loving all animals, I’ve never wanted to own a dog. Dogs are too hyper, and often loud. Their shit is too big. I’ve watched dogs in need of excessive mental and emotional maintenance turn their owners into something like hospice nurses. After burying my last beloved cat Stone (who I found behind a dumpster at the Stone Lounge in Tampa, Florida, before playing a show there) in 1999, I’ve come to hate even the idea of “owning” another (very possibly strong-willed) mammal. When I moved to New Orleans in 2001, I made a point to befriend the city’s millions of stray cats, but swore off the burden of ownership. When I met my wife, that burden became inevitable. For our first seven years she mooned over Craigslist’s dog ads. I managed to stave her off, but upon the birth of our daughter in 2010, I knew I would be outnumbered as soon as the little one could speak.
My trump card was our goat, Chauncey Gardner, who we bought in 2004 after moving into a big Ninth Ward house with a huge yard we knew we’d never mow. At first my wife claimed to be only window-shopping when we visited a goat farm in the Louisiana sticks, but that day we, coincidentally, watched the birth of three boy goats. When the farmer told us that only female goats mattered and that the boys would all end up in tacos, we purchased one of the little guys, whom we bottle fed for the first six months of his life. Chauncey now weighs 70 pounds and has used up ten of his projected 15 years of life; through it all he’s always been easier to take care of than a goldfish—monklike quiet, no begging for table-scraps, no slavish behavior since he doesn’t really care if you “love” him. I love him for that. He’s been a pleasant companion during several hurricane evacuations. The ideal pet, he lives outside, the verdant yard taking almost complete care of him. Like the more famous Chauncey Gardner of page and screen, he could probably live out there independently forever if we happened to die inside the house.
For years Chauncey helped me block my wife's attempts to get a dog—I mean, what if they didn’t get along? Chauncey hates nothing more than a wet dog nose up his butt, and obviously dogs can’t proceed with a new animal relationship without first sniffing that ass a bunch. Chauncey has had a couple respectful dog friends, but if we adopted our own, and things didn’t work out, the Humane Society doesn’t do returns.
Unfortunately, Meshcha behaved well when the last of her previous owners dropped her into our yard "just to see how she’ll treat the goat!" She gave Chauncey the utmost respect, leaving his butt alone. My fate seemed so sealed that I myself finally invited the dog into our home on behalf of my wife and daughter, who both took to Meshcha immediately.
Meshcha and Chauncey Gardner.
I grew to fucking hate her, at times. She mostly lived outside with Chauncey but couldn’t refrain from destroying every object she was ever left alone with, from my flip-flops to the garden hose to a push broom twice her size to a large swimming pool—though oddly, I never witnessed any of the action, only the aftermath. Nor did I ever see her dig any of those two-foot-deep holes in the yard. And though she remained relatively respectful of Chauncey, her herding instincts often told her to chase him. We knew this was good for the fat old beast, but he hated it. He’s just too old for it. Once, while trying to escape her, Chauncey stepped in one of her deep excavation projects and twisted his knee. Chauncey forgave her soon after, when she ripped open the silver wrapping around the AC ducts under our house, exposing what to Chauncey was delicious pink insulation—their first collaboration.
Even worse than all of that, she focused her mind and soul on figuring out how to run out the front door and down the street to a nicely paved street (a rarity in New Orleans), where she could chase cars at 25 MPH. Not just chase them, but dive in front of them, under them. As cars swerved she maintained a solid 20-foot distance from me, preventing me from nabbing her. Tears glazed my eyes as I helplessly watched her kamikazi up underneath oncoming cars, somehow never dying. Finally a stranger would agree to stop their car and lure her back to my house. “You need to whup that dog,” every one of them told me. “There’s no other way.”
In many cases I will scoop a roach up with an envelope and put it outside rather than kill it, so nothing made me want rid of this dog more than realizing I would need to slap her silly. Still, I did it. Several times, with the chewed flip-flop I'd saved. I had to either punish her in a language she understood, or else watch her get killed by a car. So I did it. And the bad behavior lessened. But it didn’t stop. Eventually I refused to ever slap or chase her, or conspire with strangers to lure her home. When she'd escape I'd remain in the house listening to the intermittent screeching of tires outside.
“She’s just a puppy!” I was told over and over again as my family blocked my attempts to give her away. They truly loved this sweet, misfit dog. And she loved them back. Meshcha didn’t just let my three-year-old daughter tackle and maul and abuse her, she lived for it. During their loud tussles the dog would bite my daughter all over her body and head, sometimes wrapping her teeth around her face—but always so gently that she never left a mark on the new white skin. It was pretty amazing, and told me a great deal about the dog. Meshcha and my daughter’s intense mutual love was pretty much the only thing the dog had going for her. But it was a big thing, the thing I think of most, now that she is gone.
The author, his daughter, Chauncey, and Meshcha.
The dog’s behavior either kept improving, or else she simply ran out of things in the yard to chew on. If she had calmed down, she was still chasing Chauncey more than the old goat could handle. We were moving to a new house in July, and I lobbied to leave Meshcha behind, but my wife wasn’t having it. So all I could think to do was to coldly bear down on the dog in hopes of further taming her. I’d never been mean to an animal before, but she seemed to need it. I honestly felt like she would learn. And I swear she did. By the time she died, she’d just become bearable.
And thus we took her fishing.
I’d obsessed over fishing as a child in Florida and had taken to it again since the birth of my daughter—nowadays it's easier to wake early and fish than it is to stay up late partying. I'd always thought of Lake Pontchartrain as poisoned before Katrina, but they’ve supposedly cleaned it up, so on a recent lark I fished a decidedly urban seawall, where the water looked really nice and clean, and watched my friend catch a 23-inch redfish—the holy grail of Louisiana fishing. I was eager to return to the lake with my daughter, my wife, and my dog. Their dog.
Meshcha destroyed shit because she felt cooped up; a vibrant puppy stuck on a lazy goat’s schedule. So at the lake, Meshcha relished the chance to go full throttle. She leapt from the car and tore across the grass with such abandon she slipped on a metal drainage grate and cracked her head very hard. She howled for a second as she kept on running for the water. For the next hour she attacked the waves lapping against the seawall’s steps, barking at the tiny whitecaps, swallowing mouthful after mouthful of briny water. The whole time she carefully avoided the personal space of strangers, and we complimented her behavior. I admitted she had gotten a lot better lately, and that she would probably do well at our new house.
Happier than I’d ever seen her, leash-less and biting the lake’s now supposedly “clean” water, after almost two hours she finally laid down with a huge, chilled-out smile. We thought nothing of her resting like this for a good half-hour.
As the sun set and we readied to leave, we finally noticed that she looked ill. Her neck bent at a strange angle, she couldn’t stand up, and thick saliva hung from her jowls. Before any emotion or even comprehension could set in for anyone, I whisked my daughter away to one car and took her home while my wife drove Meshcha to the emergency vet. On the way, she stopped breathing.
Our daughter is too young to comprehend or consider it as sad as my wife and—surprisingly—I do. Now July approaches, and with it our move to a neighborhood across the river about which we know very little. I can’t help wishing Meshcha were coming with us to the new house to chase my daughter around the extra-large yard we shopped long and hard for. It's impossible to imagine ever finding another dog that I would trust to bite my daughter all over so gently.
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the dog's name.
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