Customer Reviews: Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog
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VINE VOICEon July 4, 2007
"Wow. What a book." These are the words that I breathed out when I reached the end of Merle's Door.

Ted Kerasote is to writers what Mozart is to composers. His writing is that good. If he were to write about how the grass grew in his yard over summer, I have no doubt it would be a page-turner.

But that's not the story he wrote. This story is so much more. This unforgettable story begins when a big golden dog emerges from the dark to introduce himself to a small group of people camping in the desert. One of those people was Ted Kerasote, and the dog went home with him. As the story unfolds, we are taken on an amazing journey that goes well beyond "a boy and his dog."

Good relationships are built on mutual respect, and this relationship was better than most. This book is the story of that relationship. These two were the best of friends, and this account of their life together shows how each grew and learned from the other. Love, patience, and understanding are evident throughout the book.

At times, this book is humorous, and at other times it's instructive. But always, it's interesting. One of the lessons Merle taught Ted was that great things can happen if humans will change their behavior instead of always trying to change the behavior of their dogs. The prevailing wisdom is that dogs must be trained and molded a certain way, and treated as though they have no independent powers of judgment. Merle proved this isn't so wise.

The problem is that people don't let their dogs grow up. They make the dog into a perpetual child, and then are surprised when anxiety surfaces in the form of behavior problems. But how would you feel if you always had someone telling you what to do, and not letting you make any decisions on your own? This treatment, while often well-intended, disables a person. It disables dogs as well.

Ted suggests loving in a different way, one that provides more personal freedom and is less about controlling the dog. He says, "His (Merle's) lessons weren't about training, but about partnership. They were never about method; they were about attitude."

The partnership between these two took them on a far different path from one they would have taken if, for example, Ted had decided to make a bird dog out of Merle. Rather than make Merle into something to fit a desire of his own, Ted allowed Merle to be himself. And in so doing, Ted would eventually find his own deep needs met in ways that he could not have predicted. This made for a story worth telling and one definitely worth reading.

In addition to providing us with a wonderful story masterfully written, this book presents an impressive amount of science and technical information on a range of subjects. The list of sources runs 15 pages (in small print, at that). Yet, none of this seems out of place. Whether it's a quote from a biologist, an explanation of cognitive maps, or a summary of experiments with dolphins and mirrors, it's all good and it all fits. The wolf research is especially interesting. For anyone wishing to look up those facts after finishing the story, the extensive index will prove helpful.

This book has 18 chapters spanning 364 pages. Not a single one was wasted.
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on July 10, 2007
I bought this book knowing nothing about it or the author. I love dogs and had the love of my life dog pass away about 2 years ago. I've read Marley and Me and other dog books, but somehow they didn't come close to expressing the bond between man and dog as this book does so flawlessly. I read the book right away as we are now raising two puppies and I thought the book would be instructional. Wow. Although the book is instructional, it is so much more than that. This book touched me like nothing has in a long time. I finished it last night and I still can't think about it without choking up. What a life! It makes me want to go put my arms around the author and tell him I understand.
Bravo!! Well written. 5 stars. I loved it. I wish I had known Merle.
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on June 29, 2007
First, the cold facts. Ted Kerasote has an uncanny ability to mix the sociology and history of dogs with humans and the very personal story of his life with his extraordinary Labrador mix, Merle, and makes it work like no other dog book I've read (and that's a lot of books). He is such a good writer that it's fun to read science part. But what really makes Merle's Door sing, or howl, is the poignant love story of Ted and Merle as they get to know more about each other over the years. Merle's story as told through Ted, who can put the words on the page since Merle could not, rings so true. When you read this book you are reading the story of two friends who share a life of adventure and love that is simply all too short. Millions of humans have had loving relationships with our canine halves, and never has it been so eloquently distilled in a single volume as this book. Read it, shed some tears of joy, give it to your friends, this is a magical book.
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on September 10, 2007
This book was UNBELIEVABLE. This was quite possibly the best book I have ever read. It was so intelligent, interesting, well written, suspenseful, insightful, heart rending and hilarious. I was up half the night AFTER I finished it contemplating its many facets. I cannot recommend this enough. Make no mistake, this is a story of deep, life changing friendship that few, if any, of us ever experience in our lives with anybody. It is a love story, and a tale of life's deepest lessons, told with such flair you cannot stop reading. Ted Kerasote is a man I would really like to meet. He is insightful and above all one of the most compassionate people I have ever read about. And what a life, full of excitement and adventure, and Merle is along for every experience, contributing his unique input at every opportunity.

I also admire a tale about letting your dog be a DOG and not treating it like a stuffed animal....i.e. carrying it around in a pocketbook like a fashion accessory. I only wish I could provide my dogs with a mountain range teeming with wildlife and a town full of other friendly people and dogs to romp with off leash.

I was literally sobbing at the end, and I felt this book opened my eyes in the sense that it brings home a point we all know but seldom think about. Life is so, so short for all of us, and if we pay attention, we can make sure our time on this earth is filled with happiness, earth shattering love, beauty, peace, and deep meaning if we let it.
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on December 6, 2007
I am a bit surprised by some of the negative reviews of this book, especially the chap that suggested that you "skip this book." If you skip it you will have missed a gem. It is not a dog training book or a "treatise on animal behavior" as someone suggested. It is the telling of a thirteen year relationship between a man and a dog and the life that they shared together. The author intersperses the narrative with research that support his observations over the years. He makes no attempt to state that his research and conclusions are absolute or scientific findings;just the results of asking questions and having a curious mind. You will laugh, you will cry and you will be left with a special feeling of being allowed to vicariously share the life of Ted and Merle. Anyone who has loved and lost a great, special dog will understand and cherish the book.
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on July 14, 2007
Kerasote's writing is exquisite, the story poignant and Merle was a great dog. I would guess that somebody will fault the book for being too anthropomorphic, but I'd suggest that those folks get a dog and make him or her part of their lives and see if it doesn't all make more sense, then.

I live just across the Jackson Hole valley from Kelly, the hamlet where Merle was mayor. I know a few of the people who pass through the book's pages (although I've never crossed paths with Kerasote). The detail and depth of the author's description of the physical environment in which he lived with Merle is a great delight, too, and adds another good reason to spend some time with the book.
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on August 7, 2007
Ted Kerasote, in his moving novel, "Merle's Door", allows us a window into the mind and soul of his companion of 13 years, Merle. Merle enjoys the freedom that few dogs ever have, and in his stunning masterpiece, Kerasote manages to let us really "see" and feel the emotions that Merle is feeling. This book is special because Kerasote, due to the geographic location in which he makes his home, is able to provide Merle with the freedom and decision-making capabilities that are not part and parcel of the life of most American dogs who live in an urban setting.

Those of us who have opened our hearts and our homes to these precious family members, will relate to the deep love and compansionship that develops between Merle and Ted. Although our dogs may not have been privy to the many adventures that Ted and Merle shared, they are no less loved.

This book is a treasure, and everyone who loves dogs should own a copy. It's a book that I have no doubt that I will re-read in the future.

I must add that many of the things which Kerasote does with Merle, one could and should not do if living in an urban area. At times, even though Merle is able to make his own decisions about where he is going, etc., those decisions aren't necessarily in his own best interest. It is our duty, in fact, our "job" as pet parents, to keep our beloved family members safe from harm. Merle was very lucky that he didn't come to great harm with all of the liberties that he was given. I reread this book, and although I treasure it and it's clear that Ted Kerasote loved Merle deeply, I'm not so sure that some of the things that he advocates are in the best interests of his readers. (or dogs in general). Still, a beautifully written, thought provoking book. Merle lived a happy life, and Kerasote meant well in writing this book.
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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.
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on June 18, 2007
This book is superb. The writing is flawless, the information is solid and the story is powerful. It is funny, unselfconsciously honest and touching, but never maudlin. I didn't want this book end.
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on July 20, 2007
I really like biographies: Potter's Nimitz, Edmund Morris's The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, William Manchester's MacArthur. Ted Kerasote has written my favorite so far. Merle's Door is a brilliantly written biography of someone I'd never heard of, the author's best friend, a Lab mix dog who found him on a trip in the American wilderness. In this book, we are privy to a wonderful lifetime relationship between the author and Merle, the Freethinking Dog from the point of view of both. Kerasote, like T. Roosevelt, is an informed naturalist who has a reverence for our beautiful world and a keen desire to understand it. Dog books generally pull heartstrings. So true in Merle's Door but Kerasote very effectively touches both the reader's heart and brain. Ted Kerasote in this book recalls conversations between his dog and him, translating for us Merle's part. This is not Lady and the Tramp. Kerasote peppers throughout the book scientific sources from archeology, anthropology, psychology, and biology that are clear and as interesting as the love story itself. He challenges in a convincing way conventional thinking about and practice of keeping dogs. I think anyone who has ever loved a dog who reads this book will feel validated concerning conversations (two-way) they have had with their own dogs. For some people, this biography will likely serve as a self-help relationship type of book (watch out Dr. Phil). I truly enjoyed this book.
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