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Merle's Door Book Review PDF Print E-mail

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 12/28/08
By: Gail T. Fisher

Last spring I wrote a book review of RESCUING SPRITE, by Mark Levin. In response to that column, a reader recommended “MERLE’S DOOR, Lessons from a Freethinking Dog” by Ted Kerasote (Harcourt, Inc., 2007). I bought the book, but it sat on my bedside table for months until I felt ready to read another true story dog book, knowing that it would ultimately be emotionally wrenching. Finally, I read it – and I am so grateful to the reader for recommending this book. It’s a wonderfully written story about a man and his dog – but it is so much more.

Kerasote is a nature writer and avid outdoorsman who found an abandoned or lost adolescent Lab-hound mix while on a camping, river-rafting trip with friends. He brought the pup home to the little town of Kelly, Wyoming, and named him Merle. Thus began a wonderful 13-year partnership of mutual respect and acceptance as Kerasote allowed and reveled in Merle’s life as a “freethinking dog.”

Kerasote both accepted and encouraged Merle’s development to his full potential by installing a dog door, allowing Merle to freely come and go. But more than a door to a yard, Merle’s door opened on the world. Unfettered and unrestrained by fencing, Merle was free to explore, play and visit with his friends. I’m not advocating this level of freedom as a lifestyle for dogs, as it is a testament to Merle’s intelligence and ability to learn (and more than just a little good fortune) that he was not shot by a rancher for worrying livestock, nor killed by a car or a predator, as was the fate of many other pets in town. But Merle’s freedom forms the basis of this beautifully-written book.

A gifted observer, Kerasote delighted in watching and learning from Merle, sharing his wonderful story, seamlessly interspersed with fascinating subjects like cognitive mapping (internal GPS) and behavioral information on a variety of species. Kerasote ponders topics from training and canine learning to wolf behavior and its correlation in dogs, as well as philosophy. He delves into those life and death decisions every dog owner faces, and while we may not be comfortable with some of the choices made, they are nonetheless thought provoking. More than just the author’s opinion (with which I didn’t always agree), Kerasote supplies detailed references for anyone wanting to study further, and the book has a helpful index.

Some people might view Kerasote’s interpretation of Merle’s reasoning, motivation and especially his communication as anthropomorphism, but I found myself quite believing him. If you’ve ever known a dog that has mastered the art of communication, you’ll believe it, too. Not all dogs are good at communicating, and not all humans can interpret what a dog is saying, but such mutual understanding – as Kerasote and Merle clearly had – is the foundation of a truly special relationship.

It’s impossible to know whether Merle’s heightened awareness, ability to communicate and intelligence is a result of his early experiences as a survivor, enabling him to learn how to problem-solve and make his own way; or conversely if he survived because he was born with these abilities and intelligence. It’s a Darwinian, survival of the fittest, chicken-and-egg conundrum that I thought about often reading this book.

Over the years I’ve known dogs that were far above average in intelligence and wisdom. At the top of my list (not necessarily alone there) is our rescue dog, Kochi. A survivor much like Merle, Kochi was a two-year-old stray “street dog” in Okinawa, Japan when he was captured. I often thought of Kochi while reading about Merle. An extremely intelligent, bright, fast learner, Kochi displays many of the same characteristics Merle had. I wonder whether a dog like Kochi (or Merle) survives because of his intelligence, or does he develop a heightened intelligence through learning to survive. Whichever it is, such bright dogs are a special gift to those of us fortunate enough to receive it.

Finally, I must admit that parts of the book had me scratching my head in disbelief or even dismay that Kerasote would use a training technique the way he chose to, or trust Merle’s safety to fate to the extent that he did, but these are minor objections to an otherwise wonderful and wonderfully-written book. If you’re looking for a belated Christmas present for yourself, I recommend MERLE’S DOOR.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2008. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.

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