Merle’s Door: Lessons from a free thinking Dog

Just finished reading Merle’s door. I can see why it became a best seller. Ted Kerasote is a wonderful story teller and can put a great voice to a dog. It’s almost like he is in the dog’s mind, as he puts subtext to his interactions with dogs. For a dog lover, it brings a brings a great amount of joy to engage in small banter with a joy and makes one giggle at the thought of such conversations.

Bonjour Monsieur“. His read end swayed in a greeting. “Votre odeur m’intrigue“. Your smell intrigues me. “Le cerf, peut-etre?” Deer, perhaps?“Very good,” I replied. “Nous avons les cerf aussi ou j’habite.” We also have deer where I live.The Mayor of Chamonix took another appraising breath of my leg and let out a small sigh: “Ah, Monsiuer, j’aimrais bien rester plus longtemps et vous connaitre, mais comme vous voyez je suis un chien tres occupe.” I would like to stay a little longer and get to know you, but as you can see I’m a very busy dog.Raising his shoulder, he gave me one more look: “Alors, au revoir et a beitot, j’espere.” Good-bye then, and see you soon.And with that he hurried off, touched noses with several dogs around the fountain, and headed towards the river.”

Kerasote’s respects the free thinking mind of a dog and makes a very compelling case in his book. This is reflected in his views on training. He shares a relationship of equality with his dog and presents the joys of such a relationship and his ruminations on why such relationships are superior to the ones based on obedience. 

“But such training-which would have made my commands into absolute law-inevitably would have changed Merle’s and my relationship. We would have become the sort of dog-human couple that millions of down owners aspire to: an alpha human giving  orders to a subordinate dog, orders that must always be obeyed…I doubt, however, that it always produces the happiest of dogs or real harmony. What it often produces is a simmering conflict between the social ambitions of the maturing dog and the human who believes that the dog sincerely welcomes staying a perpetual child. When the dog then goes ballistic – chewing furniture, peeing on the carpet, barking, or engaging in power struggles with it’s human-dog experts offer a variety of reasons for the sudden appearance of these dysfunctional behaviours. The dog is bored, it needs more exercise, it’s anxious, or it’s trying to be the dominant individual in the relationship and needs to be put in its place of he’s an uncut dog, castrate him. The dog wants not dominance, but equality. No one ever makes this suggestion because it sounds preposterous.” 

A particularly interesting view on this subject is when he likens the this relationship of a domination human with a dog to Stockholm syndrome. “By a thousand different cuts – our control of ingress, egress, food, water, elimiation, and fun – we reduce dogs to a state of quiet capituation, a softened version of the Stockhome Syndorom. The hallmarks of the syndrome – a powerful individual’s coercing a captive into submission and even the demonstration of affection – have now been identified in cases of dependent children, battered wives, prostitues, prisoners of war, and victims of hijackings”
Kerasote also very interesting lifestyle of granting the dog complete freedom of movement. This means that he uses no crates for his dog. He makes his case for not using crates by citing Elizabeth Marshal Thomas and studies in Italy show that not all dogs like dens, how they are built for specific reasons and not all dogs get good rest if in dens. However, the alternate he suggests seems a bit extreme where his dog has a free run of the entire village. While it’s a luxury he can afford, it can easily alienate his audience, due to it’s impracticality. The suggestion of the free run of the out doors borders on dangerous based on where one lives and hence is something that needs to be given sufficient caution. 
Kerasote has some great illustrations on how to provide a dog with great mental stimulation and enrichment. 

“As we scribed and laid each log in place, he smelled them, and when the interior walls went up he inspected each room. As soon as we had put up a skeleton staircase Merle scrambled up it. I had gone to the great room and heard his pant from the balcony above. He was looking down at me, lashing his tail and grinning from ear to ear: “This is so cool.” He followed the electrician around. He pushed his nose into the plumber’s toolbox. He stayed on with the crew. Sometimes, at the end of the day, the crew long gone, I’d wander over to see what progress had been made, and I’d find him walking around the house as if he were tallying the day’s work.” 

This could inspire several dog owners to allow dogs to explore. On the flip side, though, he talks about far too many activities that he does with Merle, that eventually leads to injuries in the dog. 
The book sways in it’s own opinions. There is a whole chapter dedicated to debunking the dominance based training used these days and it uses the latest reports of David Mech to explain why the older studies on wolves can no more be used in dog ethology. Yet, there is another chapter that talks in detail about Merle being top dog and maintaining his status thus. 

This lack of consistency is visible on the training front as well. While the authors view on training are rather refreshing, he does illustrate the use of some very out dated training tools like the choke collar and shock collar. He also uses desensitization that seems rather unnecessary to things that seem very traumatic to the dog. 

“Some animal behaviourists suggest that, in the case of gunfire, some dogs can be cured of their fear through gradual exposure to what they call an increasing range of potentially traumatic experiences from an early age…I loaded the .22 target pistol. He watched me with apprehension. He cocked his head. I fired the pistol in the air. He tried to flee. I held him. Panting terribly, he looked at me with distress. “Easy”, I said, “easy”, stroking him affectionately and offering him a biscuit. He wouldn’t take it. I fired once again. Merle began to yelp wildly. I unloaded the pistol, cased it, hugged him  and took him off the leash. He immediately jumped at my face in relief. “No more bird dog training,” I exclaimed”

But the author repeated goes back to the topic of trying to get the dog to go bird hunting, trying several other tactics later.
Overall, it’s a great narrative and a refreshing new perspective on giving a dog the respect it deserves. It recognizes the mind of a dog. However, it stops there. The book, by no means should be mistaken for a text book or a training book and parts of the book that have to do with training or behaviour need to be taken with a pinch of salt. The book does have some great insights that leave one thinking. 

“The “just” phrase, the phrase every privileged lass has used when trying to protect its interests while disregarding those of whom it considers inferior: He’s just a slave, she’s just a woman; it’s just a dog.”


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