New Dog Book

Steve’s friend Ted Kerasote, winner of the National Outdoor Book Award, has a new one at B&N I could not resist. Merle’s Door, Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, is parts memoir, polemic and canine biography. It is also an unapologetic love story and, I admit, a tear-jerker there toward the end.

Merle is a mostly-lab mixed breed who sniffs Ted out on a camping trip and makes a remarkable connection with this man, who, against twinges of better judgment, adopts him on the spot. As Merle says, in translation by Ted,” You need a dog, and I’m it.”

This translation business is a hallmark of the book. Blurbs on the back alluded to the feature, calling it the best human/dog translation in print. I’m not an expert here, but I can attest that as a tool for character development, Kerasote’s dog dialog is dead on. I feel I know Merle now pretty well.

Merle’s many opinions as expressed by his companion person help to develop the book’s central argument, which is that dogs given the freedom to roam and make choices become complex thinking beings, in fact tantamount to people. It’s clear from early in the story that Kerasote views this dog as possessing the full range of emotion, cognition and willingness to comment he would give any human person.

Indeed, he extends this view liberally along the way, granting the same by analogy to wolves, coyotes, cats, crows and of course, other dogs.

I am sympathetic to this view. Like Kerasote, I’ve been blessed with the company of dogs from birth to death and never doubted what goes on behind their eyes. Likewise, I grant my hawks tremendous powers of memory, forethought and opinion—assumptions I feel are necessary to successfully training and hunting with them.

So why am I on edge?

I think it was the guilt trip, layered on pretty thick by Kerasote, against those of us who do not live in a small village in the middle of a National Forest, and thus cannot set our captive dogs to roaming. It is arguable, and Kerasote concedes this, that even in his and Merle’s idyllic setting, the dangers of open range to domestic dogs are considerable. The author notes neighbors’ dogs being shot, run over and eaten, and recounts many close calls with Merle.

Yet Kerasote’s conscience with regard to his freethinking dog is unassailable: Merle is a person, therefore Merle must be free. To his credit, Kerasote seems the most doting of dog companions, and spares nothing (save confinement) to see that Merle is safe. In point of fact, Merle lives a very long time and has, by this accounting, a rich and wonderful life.

My small annoyance with Kerasote’s disapproval of “normal” suburban life for dogs did not prevent me from enjoying this book. I read it fast and cried real tears at the end.

But I have to wonder if personhood for dogs—and this book accepts nothing less—is the best thing we can give them? How many of us are ready to release our dogs unto their own recognizance? How many of our dogs are ready for that?


  1. Having just written all that, let me say I am worried about seeming critical—in general, usually, but especially here.

    Steve’s relationship to the author is one thing, but Kerasote’s feelings for his dog, Merle, are beautifully expressed and profound. This is a mightly love we’re talking about here.

    To wag a finger at anyone’s love is unseemly and unfair.

    That was certainly not my intent, and if you know Rina, you know why. 🙂

  2. Steve asked me to add that he just received a copy of Merle’s Door and is excited to read it and will send his thoughts afterward.

    Steve reminds me that his dogs are people too and says: “Merle was quite a character, and I thought Ted treated him about like I do Atai.”

  3. Perhaps I read the post wrong, and I certainly understand the feelings that a person can have toward his dog and the distinct personality each one has, but isn’t anthropomorphasizing (sp?) something that you guys usually laugh about and caution against when the Animal Rights folks bring it up? Sentances like, “Merle is a person, therefore Merle must be free.” or “Steve reminds me that his dogs are people too…” ring funny in my ears given the authors of Querencia!

  4. Hi Issac,

    I don’t think that’s it at all. Kerastoe makes the case, and documents well with numerous examples, that anthropormorphism is not the danger to understanding animals that it has been thought to be.

    He does this in support of his translating for Merle, by which I think he meant to tell us as much about himself and how he views the dog as the convey what he thought the dog was communicating. But it also happens to square with what the dog actually does, and over a lifetime of examples, assuming dog emotion and cognitions proves as good a predictor of behavior as anything else.

    I think that’s his point.

    All of this is a difference more in degree than in kind from what Steve and I have written about our animals. One of my favorite Bodio lines is that “some animals are persons.” And my description of the hawk Charlie in In Season invests in him all kinds of free will and opinion, which I feel Charlie and all hawks have.

    Ditto and moreso for dogs!

    My discomfort in reading Kerasote’s book comes from the fact that unlike me (I can’t speak for Steve here), there is enough of the scientific worldview left in my head to keep me from taking my descriptions of animal motivation to the extent of literally speaking for them. Kerasote does this liberally and unselfconsciously.

    The implications of presenting such an “articulate” animal as Merle are clear to the author (Merle is a person), but uncomfortable to me, regardless the fact I go a long way toward agreeing with him.

    One of those implications is the issue of Merle’s roaming, which is central to this dog’s life but I think a dangerous way for most of us to husband our animals.

    This book may add fuel to arguments in support of rights for animals in the sense Querencia posts generally rale against. But then, ANYTHING can add fuel to insane arguments, so that is not much of a criticism!

    Besides, Kerasote hunts—in fact eats only wild meat—so whatever argument for their side they think his book makes, it will have to tackle that fact, too.

    In short (too late!) I believe “some animals are persons” too. The difference is that I don’t think we can fairly give up our responsibility to be in charge. I feel this way about my kids, too, for better or worse.

    Hell, it’s a complicated thing.

  5. I was going to respond but find Matt has beautifully articulated my viewpoint.

    I can only add that “person” to me does not necessarily mean “human”. I don’t have a rigid definition but it includes individuality, intelligence, consciousness and communication.

  6. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that anthropormorphism is a danger to understanding the animals themselves. We’re restricted to the only language that we have and emotions that we know when explaining why a dog wags its tail or rushes to the door when you come home. The dog is “happy” seems a fitting way to explain it and it’s a cold soul who will only describe the behavior as some sort of simple instinctual response to stimuli.(And would make for a rather dull book I imagine!) I think we are beyond the era of thinking of animals as mere machines.

    Knowing a little bit about who you and Steve are and your love for your animals I wasn’t particularly concerned for your sanity with those sentances, I just found it interesting that essentially the same language that AR folks use and get chidded for appeared on a blog that often rails against the AR movement. (And railed on it should be! 😉

    It was a semantic quirk that sat funny is all. I was a communications major, forgive me!

  7. Issac

    Yours is a good point, and even after droning on with an answer, I didn’t really address it.

    The truth is probably that the closer our genetic relation to any other animal, the safer it is to assume it thinks like us.

    This conclusion, far from unscientific in my mind, is perfectly parsimonious: It is the simplest explanation.

    But are “animals just retarded people in fur coats,” as so much of the AR agenda seems to treat them? After reading this book, I don’t think Kerasote would agree, and I certain never have.

    No one who has ever known an animal over the course of its life, especially a working animal, could conclude they are retarded furry human beings. Animals are what they are, fully realized creatures; and so are we.

    The question Kerasote’s book raises is what our role with regard to our dogs should be. I’m not certain the author would even agree that Merle “belonged” to him except in the eyes of the law. He treated him as friend and an equal.

    I think that’s maybe possible under certain circumstances but never without risk of disaster.

    As someone who works with birds and dogs in the field in a fast-paced, chaotic activity (falconry), I can say that there is already plenty opportunity for disaster—-No benefit in my view to upping the ante.

    Clearly, this book has me thinking. 🙂 Give it a read, Issac, and tell us what you decide.

  8. I’m not about free-ranging my dogs, but they do need varying degrees of freedom, depending on personality. I’d like to do more reading on domestication, but it seems to me that since we humans made dogs into what they are today, our responsibility is to safeguard them to the best of our abilities while giving the freedom to do what they are designed to do best. I think that’s why I’m attracted to reading this blog, I see how others interpret the needs of their animals and implement their solutions to meet these needs.

  9. I have to admit, I’m surprised that Merle’s Door hasn’t shown up in anyone’s book stack until now. But I’m not surprised that it’s shown up…

    I am in accordance with Matt’s…criticism may be too strong a word, so let’s say notation…that few of us have the luxury to give our dogs as much freedom as Merle enjoyed. Too many cars, bigger dogs, dog thieves, etc. But for those relative few who are so happily situated, “taking off the leash” both literally and figuratively is an experiment worth trying.

    The rest of us will have to keep it mostly figurative, giving our canine friends selected freedoms within the context of our urban and suburban lives.

    Re: the discussion started by Isaac, I’ll plead a certain amount of ambiguity along with Matt and Steve. None of us buy into the “little humans in animal suits” nonsense promulgated by the AR activists. But we do recognize a different variety of personhood, one that recognizes animals’ personalities without forgetting their canine, avian, or other identities. (This includes their predatory aspects, as well as our own.) Matt has articulated this well already, so I’ll quit now.

    I will say, though, that Ted Kerasote does a great job of translating for Merle in the book. Some writers might have taken the concept too far, but I found the dialogue attributed to Merle totally convincing. The “comments” voiced are appropriate to a dog living the life of a free-ranging, elk-hunting companion dog in the wilds of Wyoming: not too complex to be believable, but not dumbed-down, either. Merle is a fully-realized character, as real as (without being the same as) the human characters. Which is probably why I, too, cried without shame at the end.

  10. Thanks to Todd, Mark, Isaac, and Steve for your comments. We welcome more.

    Like Todd, I’m always looking at how others handle the animal husbandry questions; and if you throw in animal cognition, ethics, wildlife, landscape and a good story, I’m gonna be tuning in.

    Thanks much to Ted Kerasote for sharing Merle!

  11. By chance, got this book this week too. Still reading, and after all he’s Steve’s friend, so I’m not saying all I think right now – but for this, which I hope comes out ok:

    Not for a minute do I confuse my dogs with people. We all anthropomorphise to a degree, sometimes laughing at ourselves as we do it. Howsoever, dogs get in more trouble and lose more real standing faster than any other way than by this ‘dogs as little people’ movement. (I’m not far enough in the book to know what this author is doing – some observations here have me a bit more on edge with it.) I live with sighthounds – the Elizabeth Marshall Thomas notion of walking free, me and mine, or me setting mine off on their own to explore Boston as hers did or The Wilds — NOT IN MY WILDEST DREAMS! – and no guilt about it! (Even Arrian and Xenophon slipped leads.)

    As much as dogs plenty inspire admiration by their attitude, qualities, any and all things recognizably and usually by association identified as >human< (or the stuff that we humans strive for) - not for a minute do I think they are less than or 'something else than' or really ‘people’ --because they >are< dogs. I’ve had glimpses when they show how they are Other; but truly, the words "non human animal" actually make me cringe. There is great pride in being Dog and to enjoy walking with a dog, MY dog, >at liberty< - which I think is likely what I’ll read about in the coming chapters in this book - few things are better. An old friend now gone wrote to this quite a bit, influenced me greatly; still does. It may get more confused because I find they so help us find our own humanity, these dogs do. I thought this book to be a break from working against bad proposed law – I don’t know if there is such a thing.

  12. I was going to comment on this, but my comment began to get out of hand when I started talking about human interaction with artificial intelligence. 🙂 I’ll have to post on OpDD and link you Matt.

  13. I believe the friend who Margory mentions is the late Vicki Hearne. Every reader of this blog should read her Bandit and Adam’s Task. (The second can be difficult but is worth it– she was a philosopher who taught at Yale for a time, good poet,and professional animal trainer!)

    I’ll post a sighthound poem of hers, maybe when it doesn’t take three refreshes and two disconnects to get here.

    Rebecca– I can hardly wait!

  14. I’d like to claim four hours of weeding and housecleaning from Mullenix and Kerasote, but since neitherof them made me go by the used bookstore yesterday, which just happened to have a copy prominently displayed in the “new arrivals” section, nor take the fatal step of “just checking out the first chapter”, I suppose I’ll have to keep the blame where it belongs. Never would have read it without the post, though, and it is a fine book. Thanks, Matt!

    I can’t say that I gave it the same reading I would going in blind. I was surprised at the list of references and the frequent resort to thoughts by animal behaviorists, having expected more of a sort of literary memoir (which it is, too). For all that it is a lovely book, it is a little hard to read

    “I had reached a point in my relationship with my dog from which there was no going back. I had come to admit that he had a life of his own. At least I couldn’t go back easily, and, if I tried, I’d have to resort to the ‘just’ phrase, the phrease every privileged class has used when trying to protect its interests while disregarding thos of whom it considers its inferiors: He’s just a slave; she’s just a woman, it’s just a dog.” (italics omitted).

    and reconcile the sentiment (taken out of context and referring to not wanting to get up in subzero weather to let the dog out in the middle of the night, p. 146) with general care or training of working dogs, though I have little experience with the latter.

  15. Thanks, Steve –
    for place to talk about books and writing and other stuff we love.
    If Vicki Hearne were here, I know she’s be “here” too. I don’t know about copyright for poetry, but since some poems are truly prayer, well, then –

    An Historical Note: Staghounds.

    Early in the time of the griffon’s
    Actual existence, we crafted
    An odd holiness. There were whelped long
    Hounds, with a vision that could love the
    Shy, subtle motions of light left by
    Deer in those forests of softening
    Horizons. Searching by deerlight, hounds
    Lengthened into the branching calmness
    Where nothing at all was owned except
    By knowledge (as of the plans smaller
    Creatures made in the civil mosses).
    In a forest made lucid by deer
    As if leaves were a plan for a text
    Illuminated by feral monks
    Who would keep their vows even though the
    Light might harden against them. In that
    Wide forest text hounds stopped reading
    The paranoid old wolvish custom
    Of huddling in dens. How kindly they
    Bounded, predators as always but
    Now with what dreamy, elegant strides!

    Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

    An Historical Note: Staghounds.

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