Merles door, p.1
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           Ted Kerasote
Merle's Door

  Merle's Door

  Lessons from a Freethinking Dog

  Ted Kerasote

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Table of Contents







  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  With Many Thanks




  Orlando Austin New York San Diego Toronto London

  Copyright © 2007 by Ted Kerasote

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced

  or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,

  including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval

  system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work

  should be submitted online at or mailed

  to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,

  6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

  Epigraph from Dogs Never Lie About Love by Jeffrey Moussaieff

  reprinted courtesy of Crown Publishers. Excerpt from "Wild Geese"

  is from Dream Work by Mary Oliver. Copyright 1986 by Mary Oliver

  and reprinted courtesy of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

  This book is printed on FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)-certified


  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Kerasote, Ted.

  Merle's door: lessons from a freethinking dog/Ted Kerasote.—1st ed.

  p. cm.

  Includes bibliographical references and index.

  1. Dogs—Wyoming—Anecdotes. 2. Dogs—Behavior—Wyoming—

  Anecdotes. 3. Human-animal relationships—Anecdotes. 4. Dog

  owners—Wyoming—Anecdotes. 5. Kerasote, Ted. I. Title.

  SF426.2.K47 2007

  636.7092'9—dc22 2006038041

  ISBN 978-0-15-101270-1

  Text set in Bodoni Book

  Designed by Linda Lockowitz

  Printed in the United States of America

  First edition

  K J I H G F E D C B A

  For Donald and Gladys Kent



  CHAPTER 1: From the Wild [>]

  CHAPTER 2: The First Dog [>]

  CHAPTER 3: The Synaptic Kiss [>]

  CHAPTER 4: In the Genes [>]

  CHAPTER 5: Building the Door [>]

  CHAPTER 6: Growing Into Himself [>]

  CHAPTER 7: Top Dog [>]

  CHAPTER 8: The Gray Cat [>]

  CHAPTER 9: Estrogen Clouds [>]

  CHAPTER 10: At Home in the Arms of the Country [>]

  CHAPTER 11: The Problem of Me [>]

  CHAPTER 12: The Mayor of Kelly [>]

  CHAPTER 13: The Alpha Pair [>]

  CHAPTER 14: White Muzzle [>]

  CHAPTER 15: What Do Dogs Want? [>]

  CHAPTER 16: A Looser Leash [>]

  CHAPTER 17: The First Passing [>]

  CHAPTER 18: Through the Door [>]


  NOTES [>]

  INDEX [>]

  Just as being in jail or in exile will produce a loneliness of spirit in a human being, so, it seems, will captivity produce the same in a wild animal. Perhaps even dogs, the most domesticated of all domestic species, long for their original lupinelike freedom.


  Dogs Never Lie About Love


  This is the story of one dog, my dog, Merle. It's also the story of every dog who must live in an increasingly urbanized world, and how these dogs might lead happier lives if we changed some of our behavior rather than always trying to change theirs.

  Merle had the good fortune to live in a rural place—northwestern Wyoming—where the boundary between civilization and the wild is still very porous. He enjoyed an enormous amount of open space and personal freedom, coming and going as he wished through his own dog door. Yet what he taught me about living with a dog can be applied anywhere. His lessons weren't so much about giving dogs physical doors to the outside world, although that's important, but about providing ones that open onto the mental and emotional terrain that will develop a dog's potential. His lessons weren't about training, but about partnership. They were never about method; they were about attitude. And at the heart of this attitude is a person's willingness to loosen a dog's leash—in all aspects of its life—and, whenever practical, to take off its leash completely, allowing the dog to learn on its own, following its nose and running free.

  Chapter 1

  From the Wild

  He came out of the night, appearing suddenly in my headlights, a big, golden dog, panting, his front paws tapping the ground in an anxious little dance. Behind him, tall cottonwoods in their April bloom. Behind the grove, the San Juan River, moving quickly, dark and swollen with spring melt.

  It was nearly midnight, and we were looking for a place to throw down our sleeping bags before starting our river trip in the morning. Next to me in the cab of the pickup sat Benj Sinclair, at his feet a midden of road-food wrappers smeared with the scent of corn dogs, onion rings, and burritos. Round-cheeked, Buddhabellied, thirty-nine years old, Benj had spent his early years in the Peace Corps, in West Africa, and had developed a stomach that could digest anything. Behind him in the jump seat was Kim Reynolds, an Outward Bound instructor from Colorado known for her grace in a kayak and her long braid of brunette hair, which held the faint odor of a healthy, thirty-two-year-old woman who had sweated in the desert and hadn't used deodorant. Like Benj and me, she had eaten a dinner of pizza in Moab, Utah, a hundred miles up the road where we'd met her. Like us, she gave off the scents of garlic, onions, tomato sauce, basil, oregano, and anchovies.

  In the car that pulled up next to us were Pam Weiss and Bennett Austin. They had driven from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Moab in their own car, helped us rig the raft and shop for supplies, joined us for pizza, and, like us, wore neither perfume nor cologne. Pam was thirty-six, an Olympic ski racer, and Bennett, twenty-five, was trying to keep up with her. They had recently fallen in love and exuded a mixture of endorphins and pheromones.

  People almost never describe other people in these terms—noting first their smells—for we're primarily visual creatures and rely on our eyes for information. By contrast, the only really important sense-key for the big, golden dog, doing his little dance in the headlights, was our olfactory signatures, wafting to him as we opened the doors.

  It was for this reason—smell—that I think he trotted directly to my door, leaned his head forward cautiously, and sniffed at my bare thigh. What mix of aromas went up his long snout at that very first moment of our meeting? What atavistic memories, what possibilities were triggered in his canine worldview as he untangled the mysteries of my sweat?

  The big dog—now appearing reddish in the interior light of the truck and without a collar—took another reflective breath and studied me with excited consideration. Might it have been what I ate, and the subtle residue it left in my pores, that made him so interested i
n me? It was the only thing I could see (note my human use of "see" even while describing an olfactory phenomenon) that differentiated me from my friends. Like them, I skied, biked, and climbed, and was single. I had just turned forty-one, a compact man with chestnut hair and bright brown eyes. But when I ate meat, it was that of wild animals, not domestic ones—mostly elk and antelope along with the occasional grouse, duck, goose, and trout mixed in.

  Was it their metabolized essence that intrigued him—some whiff of what our Paleolithic ancestors had shared? Smell is our oldest sense. It was the olfactory tissue at the top of our primeval nerve cords that evolved into our cerebral hemispheres, where thought is lodged. Perhaps the dog—a being who lived by his nose—knew a lot more about our connection than I could possibly imagine.

  His deep brown eyes looked at me with luminous appreciation and said, "You need a dog, and I'm it."

  Unsettled by his uncanny read of me—I had been looking for a dog for over a year—I gave him a cordial pat and replied, "Good dog."

  His tail beat steadily, and he didn't move, his eyes still saying, "You need a dog."

  As we got out of the cars and began to unpack our gear, I lost track of him. There was his head, now a tail, there a rufous flank moving among bare legs and sandals.

  I threw my pad and bag down on the sand under a cottonwood, slipped into its silky warmth, turned over, and found him digging a nest by my side. Industriously, he scooped out the sand with his front paws, casting it between his hind legs before turning, turning, turning, and settling to face me. In the starlight, I could see one brow go up, the other down.

  Of course, "brows" isn't really the correct term, since dogs sweat only through their paws and have no need of brows to keep perspiration out of their eyes, as we do. Yet, certain breeds of dogs have darker hair over their eyes, what might be called "brow markings," and he had them.

  The Hidatsa, a Native American tribe of the northern Great Plains, believe that these sorts of dogs, whom they call "Four-Eyes," are especially gentle and have magical powers. Stanley Coren, the astute canine psychologist from the University of British Columbia, has also noted that these "four-eyed" dogs obtained their reputation for psychic powers "because their expressions were easier to read than those of other dogs. The contrasting-colored spots make the movements of the muscles over the eye much more visible."

  In the starlight, the dog lying next to me raised one brow while lowering the other, implying curiosity mixed with concern over whether I'd let him stay.

  "Night," I said, giving him a pat. Then I closed my eyes.

  When I opened them in the morning, he was still curled in his nest, looking directly at me.

  "Hey," I said.

  Up went one brow, down went the other.

  "I am yours," his eyes said.

  I let out a breath, unprepared for how his sweet, faintly hound-dog face—going from happiness to concern—left a cut under my heart. I had been looking at litters of Samoyeds, balls of white fur with bright black mischievous eyes. The perfect breed for a winter person like myself, I thought. But I couldn't quite make myself bring one home. I had also seriously considered Labrador Retrievers, taken by their exuberant personalities and knowing that such a robust, energetic dog could easily share my life in the outdoors as well as be the bird dog I believed I wanted. But no Lab pup had given me that undeniable heart tug that said, "We are a team."

  The right brow of the dog lying by me went down as he held my eye. His left brow went up, implying, "You delayed with good reason."

  "Maybe," I said, feeling my desire for a pedigree dog giving way. "Maybe," I said once more to the dog whose eyes coasted across mine, returned, and lingered. He did have the looks of a reddish yellow Lab, I thought, at least from certain angles.

  At the sound of my voice, he levered his head under my arm and brought his nose close to mine. Surprisingly, he didn't try to lick me in that effusive gesture that many dogs use with someone they perceive as dominant to them, whether it be a person or another dog—a relic, some believe, of young wolves soliciting food from their parents and other adult wolves. The adults, not having hands to carry provisions, bring back meat in their stomachs. The pups lick their mouths, and the adults regurgitate the partly digested meat. Pups who eventually become alphas abandon subordinate licking. Lower-ranking wolves continue to display the behavior to higher-ranking wolves, as do a great many domestic dogs to people. This dog's self-possession gave me pause. Was he not licking me because he considered us peers? Or did my body language—both of us being at the same level—allow him to feel somewhat of an equal? He circumspectly smelled my breath, and I, in turn, smelled his. His smelled sweet.

  Whatever he smelled on mine, he liked it. "I am yours," his eyes said again.

  Disconcerted by his certainty about me, I got up and moved off. I didn't want to abandon my plans for finding a pup who was only six to eight weeks old and whom I could shape to my liking. The dog read my energy and didn't follow me. Instead, he went to the others, greeting them with a wagging tail and wide laughs of his toothy mouth. "Good morning, good morning, did you sleep well?" he seemed to be saying.

  But as I organized my gear, I couldn't keep my eyes from him. Despite his ribs showing, he appeared fit and strong, and looked like he had been living outside for quite a while, his hair matted with sprigs of grass and twigs. He was maybe fifty-five pounds, not filled out yet, his fox-colored fur hanging in loose folds, waiting for the adult dog that would be. He had a ridge of darker fur along his spine, short golden plumes on the backs of his legs, and a tuxedolike bib of raised fur on his chest—just an outline of it—scattered with white flecks. His ears were soft and flannel-like, and hung slightly below the point of his jaw. His nose was lustrous black, he had equally shiny lips, and his teeth gleamed. His tail was large and powerful.

  Every time I looked at him, he seemed to manifest his four-eyed ancestry, shape-shifting before me: now the Lab I wanted; there a Rhodesian Ridgeback, glinting under some faraway Kalahari sun; an instant later he became a long-snouted coydog, born of the redrock desert and brought to life out of these canyons and cacti. When he looked directly at me—one brow up, the other down, his cheeks creased in concern—he certainly appeared to have some hound in him. Obviously, he had belonged to someone, for his testicles were gone and the scar of neutering had completely healed and the hair had grown back.

  As I cooked breakfast at one of the picnic tables, he rejoined me, sitting patiently a few feet away while displaying the best of manners as he watched the elk sausage go from my hands to the frying pan. He gave not a single whine, though a tiny tremor went through his body.

  When the slices were done, I said, "Would you like some?"

  A shiver ran through him once again. His eyes shone; but he didn't move. I broke off a piece and offered it to him. His nose wriggled in delight; he took it delicately from my fingertips and swallowed. His tail broomed the sand, back and forth in appreciation.

  "That dog," said the Bureau of Land Management ranger who had come up to us and was checking our river permit as we ate, "has been hanging around here for a couple of days. I think he's abandoned, which is strange because he's beautiful and really friendly."

  We all agreed he was.

  "Where did he come from?" I asked her.

  "He just appeared," she replied.

  The dog watched this conversation carefully, looking from the ranger's face to mine.

  I picked up a stick, wanting to see how well he could retrieve. The instant I drew back my arm, he cringed pathetically, retreated a few paces, and eyed me warily.

  "He can be skittish," the ranger said. "I think someone's beat him."

  I flung the stick away from him, toward the moving river. He gave it a cool appraisal, then looked at me, just as cool. "I don't fetch," the look said. "That's for dogs."

  "He doesn't fetch," the ranger said.

  "So I notice."

  She checked our fire pan and our portable toilet—both r
equired by the BLM for boaters floating the San Juan River—while the dog hung around nearby, hopeful but trying to look unobtrusive.

  "I'd take that dog if I could," the ranger said, noting my eyes lingering on him. "But we're not allowed to have dogs."

  "Maybe we should take him down the river," I heard myself say.

  "I would," she said.

  When I discussed it with the others, they agreed that we could use a mascot, a river dog, for our trip. Taking a dog on a wilderness excursion is hardly a new idea. In fact, it's a North American tradition. Alexander Mackenzie had a pickup mutt who accompanied him on his landmark first journey across the continent to the Pacific in 1793, via southern Canada. The dog was unnamed in Mackenzie's diary but often mentioned for surviving swims in rapids and killing bison calves. Meriwether Lewis also had a dog on his and William Clark's journey up the Missouri and down the Columbia from 1803 to 1806. The acclaimed Newfoundland Seaman protected camp from grizzlies and caught countless squirrels for the pot, as well as pulling down deer, pronghorn antelope, and geese. Although the expedition ate dozens of other dogs when game became scarce (they were bought from Indians), there was never a question of grilling Seaman. An honored member of the expedition to the end, he may have kept the depression-prone Lewis sane on the arduous journey. Three years after returning to civilization, unable to reintegrate into society, and with no mention of what happened to his dog, Lewis committed suicide. John James Audubon had a Newfie as well, a tireless hiker named Plato, who accompanied him across the countryside and retrieved many of the birds the artist shot for his paintings. Audubon called him "a well-trained and most sagacious animal."

  With such august precedents, it would have seemed a shame not to take this handsome, well-behaved dog with us. What harm could come of it? No one raised the issue of what we'd do with him when we pulled out at Clay Hills above Lake Powell in six days. We'd cross that bridge when we came to it. In the meantime, this wasn't the nineteenth century. There'd be no living off the land; we needed to get him some dog food. Benj and I drove into the nearby town of Bluff, Utah, returning with a bag of Purina Dog Chow and a box of Milk Bones.

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