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on October 15, 2007
As a dog biography, Merle's Door is both humorous and tear-jerking. The ending definitely calls for tissues.
But Merle's Door is not simply a dog's biography and can't be judged merely on that score. It also attempts to be something of a treatise on dog behavior, and the biography is excerpted and annotated with reports on dog behavior and research. And the title of the book itself "Lessons from a Free thinking dog" implies this isn't a mere dog's tale, or the reader isn't supposed to take it as such.
The book tries to be two things, then, and one tends to hamper the other. The behavioral treatise on dogs interrupt the flow of the biography, and tend to be a little boring. And this is from someone who read all of Konrad Lorenz as a teenager. The behavioral asides seem somewhat cherry picked -- that is, rather than be a true behavioral treatise on all dogs, they are used to support some point that the author wants to make toward his own theories based on his one single dog, and all other evidence to the contrary being ignored. To generalize from a sample of one never makes for good teaching or good lessons.
The point of the "open door" policy in a nutshell seems to be that if dogs had their freedom to roam, and make their own decisions, that would resolve a great deal of the undersocialization, underexercised, overly frustrated aggressive dog behavior we see in many dogs. He uses Merle as an example of this perfect dog. But aside from the fact that very few people can live in a purported dog utopia like Kelly, the reality beyond Merle himself wasn't quite as rosy, if you read beyond Merle. And Merle himself was just very, very lucky.
The first day that the author brings Merle to Kelly, he lets this dog, that he doesn't know an awful lot about, out free to roam. Two hours later the dog returns. In that time, Merle could have been shot by a rancher for cow or sheep running, as other dogs later were, and as Merle would have done. He could have been hit by a car, as other Kelly dogs were. Merle proved to be car smart, but the author didn't know that when he let him roam. He could have gotten into fights and injured -- or even killed. He was later taken to a vet to be stitched back together after one of these fights. He could have been picked up by the dog catcher as he also later was. Nor did he know how good the dog was with children, and a dog that had run down other prey animals might need to be evaluated in that regard. These are all dangers that could happen to dogs everywhere, and that some fall prey to. Isn't that what we protect our dogs from? And they do happen to dogs in Kelly.
For the open door policy clearly doesn't work for all dogs in Kelly, the ones who were hit by cars, picked up by the dog catcher, killed for harassing livestock, or who were caught up in dog fights. Merle was lucky, particularly in the beginning. But Kelly was also small enough that he managed to scrape by.
I'm not seeing any magical lesson there for the dogs or dog owners of Kelly, or for those of us outside of Kelly. Further, there were property owners in Kelly who were apparently bothered enough by free ranging dogs to call in the dog catcher. If you look at the total picture, and not just Merle, the lesson of Merle's Door is thus hard to see. Merle was a stable dog, probably partly because of his breed as much as his upbringing. Labs and retrievers aren't very territorial, and are bred to be social around a "camp". The open door policy that worked so well for Merle and the author and sounds so tempting, didn't work so well for all the dogs in Kelly, or for all the people in Kelly. But it probably wouldn't work for all dogs even as well as it worked for Merle, even if they had his genetics. And as you expand in size of towns, you exponentially increase the interactions and the problems. Take the other case of the tiny village in France who also had very social free roaming dogs. The author makes friends with the "mayor" dog of that town and compares him to Merle and uses him as a similar object lesson and example. Yet when he goes back, that dog is no longer there. We don't know his fate. The author doesn't seek to find out his fate. He's only used as an example when he fits the premise the author is painting -- when that dog disappears, the author uses the next dog in that village as a perfect example.
In addition to the risky lessons Merle learns for himself, unsupervised, we also get some rather horrific recountings of the author teaching him not to run cattle. And even more disturbing was the use of the shock collar to teach him not to accept filet mignon handouts from a neighbor who was over feeding him. I won't debate the use of a shock collar, and clearly the author felt it was justified. But the recounting of how he used it for this purpose sickened me.
So Merle's Door inspired a jumble of reactions in me -- humor and sorrow, disgust and at times, sheer disbelief in some of what was purported. At one point the author implies that because Merle eats bits of elk and meat (though he seems to live largely on kibble) he has higher status than other dogs in the village. But that's just the author's impression, and I think, fed a bit by his own ego. My dog is entirely raw fed, prey model fed, no kibble at all, but I wouldn't make that supposition for her. I feed my dog that way for health reasons, I don't get any egoboo out of it. I don't know of any research or science that supports the claim of higher status on prey fed dogs. Those sorts of claims permeate the book and leave me skeptical of all of it, even though I really enjoyed the tale of Merle's life.
But that's Merle's Door, a mixture of dog biography, cherry picked quotes from dog behaviorists, and personal assumptions. It's interesting and at times heart-rending, and sometimes hard slogging through the excessively scholarly parts. It's not one to swallow uncriticaly. But if you can't whole-heartedly love the book, or accept the author's claims without a grain of salt, you can love the dog. As the author did, even if you can't agree or could ever follow his methods of caring for him. Or believe there are any great lessons there for other dog owners. As a dog biography, it works for me. The lessons were harder for me to divine. And because of that, I give it 3 1/2 stars.