Dog days 

Ted Kerasote explores his love for a mutt

What’s a book lover to do with Merle’s Door by Ted Kerasote? It’s a love story about his dog, Merle, from adoption to death. It’s a tale of Merle’s habits and psychology, of his adventures with his peers and his owner, of health and love and freedom. “Watching Merle set off on his rounds that morning,” Kerasote writes, “a lifetime of sound if not extraordinary accomplishments behind him, I knew for certain that being accorded a biography isn’t dependent on one’s species or one’s fame.”

Sure, I’ve already sold dog lovers on the book, but what about the rest of us? After all, this is a book about a pet, and from Old Yeller to Lassie to The Call of the Wild, you could say the genre is already past the point of cliché.

Yet Kerasote pulls it off, because he’s aware of the dangers of sentiment and mush. Every time he anthropomorphizes or claims an emotion for Merle, he steps back and weaves science, psychology and history into the narrative to examine his deep-seated beliefs, contemplating whether dogs can think abstractly and possess individual will, or ruminating on what constitutes a healthy sex life for a pet. In this sense, Kerasote follows the best traditions of memoirists: using his own experience as a stepping-off point to wider, more universal meaning.

Merle, a large golden-colored dog of indeterminate breed, “chose” Kerasote at a campsite during a float trip in New Mexico. There was an instant attraction between the two, and Kerasote pushed the dog into his boat and set off down the river. Merle turned toward the author “with an expression I shall never forget. It mingled loss, fear of the unknown, and hope.” Merle was still half-wild, and when he spied cattle on the bank of the river, he leaped off the boat to isolate a calf from the herd. Poised for the kill, doubt struck him. “I could see that he was calculating two mutually exclusive outcomes: the juicy calf and the approaching cliffs where he’d corner it, or the fast-retreating boats and the family he had found.” Spurning the calf, Merle dashed back into the water to rejoin Kerasote. “He chose the future,” the author decides.

Awaiting Merle was Kelly, Wyo., a collection of houses wedged in among a National Park, wilderness area and a national refuge—a perfect place for a roaming dog lifted from the wild. As Merle and Kerasote settled down, Merle’s quirks and habits began to emerge. Merle was terrified of shotguns and hated bird hunting, but tolerated rifles and loved hunting elk. He enjoyed backcountry skiing (or at least running alongside) and chasing coyotes, but disdained deer and fetching sticks.

Kerasote’s Merle was clearly intelligent. It took no more than one encounter with a bison for the dog to give the beasts a wide (if incautious) berth. Merle could tell what kind of hunting Kerasote was planning based on which gun was packed into the car. Merle seemed to be able to anticipate the future, solve complex geographical problems, and communicate his emotions effectively to his owner.

Kerasote ascribes the source of this keen intelligence to one main factor: freedom. And the object that symbolized Merle’s freedom gave its name to the book: a dog door that allowed Merle to come and go as he pleased. According to Kerasote, this enabled Merle to be curious and opportunistic, and to stretch his mental faculties.

For instance, on a day hike with a friend whose highly trained bird dog was constantly thrashing the underbrush to flush grouse, Kerasote noted that Merle found a currant bush the birder overlooked. Having never seen currants, Merle sampled a berry and found it to his taste. He ended up enjoying a snack while the birder obliviously continued his task—needlessly, because it wasn’t a hunting trip. “He behaved just like a coyote would,” Kerasote wrote of Merle, “curious about the world, loathe to pass up anything edible.”

Within Kerasote’s claim that freedom breeds intelligence, there’s an unspoken corollary that our fences, yards and homes without dog doors are too small to accommodate our lives. But let’s face it: Kerasote’s life is a rural fantasy, far beyond our reach, even if that kind of lifestyle was what we wanted. There are millions of well-adjusted dogs and humans populating the suburbs, towns and cities around the world. So as a lesson on dog ownership, Merle’s Door doesn’t quite hold water.

But what does translate is Kerasote’s relationship with Merle—and much more so than his other human interactions. While he avoids over sentimentalizing his pet, the narrative of his own life is not so fortunate. In relating a failed relationship, he too often turns to concepts like destiny, or sweeps away months of painful emotion with an abstract brush off. Perhaps I’m reading too much into Kerasote’s human relations, which are obviously not the center of the book. But his connection to his dog was so real, and the love so palpable, that it seems nothing else could compare. And reading about how it developed, like any engaging love story, is a powerful experience.

Ted Kerasote reads from and signs copies of Merle’s Door at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, July 31, at 7 PM.
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