Bark freedom

Merle’s Door is the story of award-winning nature writer Ted Kerasote’s 13-year relationship with a stray pup he picked up while rafting in Utah. It’s also the story of how human and animal cultures have grown together; it’s the story of how they clash. Because Merle’s Door is more than simply a dog book, reading it allows even non-dog owners to imagine the possibilities of life with Merle: the ultimate canine companion.

Not long after Kerasote returns from Utah to his cabin in Kelly, Wyo., he and his adopted Labrador mix set out together to explore their backyard, which offers views of Jackson Hole, the Teton Range, and Yellowstone National Park. This landscape becomes the backdrop for Ted and Merle’s adventures: backcountry skiing, elk hunting, swimming and tracking pronghorn antelope. Kerasote is in his element writing about the natural world, and it reads richly with a taste and a texture, a sound and a smell.

Tired of getting up in the middle of the night to let Merle go outside and recognizing the need for greater freedom in their relationship, Kerasote fits the cabin with a dog door so that Merle can come and go as he pleases. Its installation is the pivotal moment in their relationship, and it forms the basis for the book’s subtle argument that dogs and humans might better relate as partners than as master and pet.

The dog door gives Kerasote the first—and most important—lesson that this book has to offer, and many others follow. Kerasote says that Merle’s lessons “weren’t so much about giving dogs physical doors to the outside world … but about providing ones that open onto the mental and emotional terrain that will develop a dog’s potential.” Kerasote watches as Merle begins to mingle within a new social circle of Kelly dogs but continues to return home, an eager and committed friend.

Kerasote expertly weaves animal and human behavioral research into his narrative, and he explains things such as why we love dogs, how wolves may have been domesticated, and what dogs really want. Citing physiologists and psychologists such as Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, and B.F. Skinner, Kerasote draws upon a panel of experts to offer insight into one of the book’s most important questions: “Does controlling a dog’s life through micro-managing its behavior short-circuit its ability to think on its own?”

The more academic moments in Kerasote’s narrative are balanced by the humorous, thoughtful and tender moments also studded throughout this book. When Kerasote develops a bittersweet relationship with Allison, a neighbor and fellow dog owner, Merle shows him the nature of unconditional love. Ironically, when Allison euthanizes her ailing dog Brower, his death and her friendship help Kerasote prepare for Merle’s eventual decline.

Unlike many other dog books, Merle’s Door devotes substantial attention to a dog’s end of life issues. In the book’s final chapters, Kerasote unsparingly describes the agony that he feels over watching Merle grow old. In the process, he explores questions that humans must ask themselves of their dogs, such as when it is acceptable to euthanize a pet or let it die naturally. Kerasote grieves Merle’s dying in a way that is sincere and uncensored, opening the way for a discussion about the ways in which humans grieve the loss of animals they have grown to love.

In the beginning of Merle’s Door, Kerasote claims that what Merle teaches him about living with a dog can be applied anywhere, and in the end, it’s easy to see that Merle isn’t the only freethinker in this story.