Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog

Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog

by Ted Kerasote

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While on a camping trip, Ted Kerasote met a dog—a Labrador mix—who was living on his own in the wild. They became attached to each other, and Kerasote decided to name the dog Merle and bring him home. There, he realized that Merle’s native intelligence would be diminished by living exclusively in the human world. He put a dog door in his house so Merle could live both outside and in.

A deeply touching portrait of a remarkable dog and his relationship with the author, Merle’s Door explores the issues that all animals and their human companions face as their lives intertwine, bringing to bear the latest research into animal consciousness and behavior as well as insights into the origins and evolution of the human-dog partnership. Merle showed Kerasote how dogs might live if they were allowed to make more of their own decisions, and Kerasote suggests how these lessons can be applied universally.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156034500
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/21/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 52,961
Product dimensions: 7.96(w) x 5.34(h) x 1.12(d)

About the Author

TED KERASOTE is the author of several books, including the national bestseller Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog and Out There, which won the National Outdoor Book Award. His essays and photographs have appeared in Audubon, Geo, Outside, Science, the New York Times, and more than sixty other periodicals. He lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Read an Excerpt

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, Buddha-bellied, 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 in 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 tuxedo-like 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.

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.

Table of Contents

prologue xiii
chapter 1: From the Wild 1
chapter 2: The First Dog 26
chapter 3: The Synaptic Kiss 49
chapter 4: In the Genes 67
chapter 5: Building the Door 97
chapter 6: Growing Into Himself 113
chapter 7: Top Dog 145
chapter 8: The Gray Cat 169
chapter 9: Estrogen Clouds 181
chapter 10: At Home in the Arms of the Country 194
chapter 11: The Problem of Me 210
chapter 12: The Mayor of Kelly 234
chapter 13: The Alpha Pair 249
chapter 14: White Muzzle 270
chapter 15: What Do Dogs Want? 284
chapter 16: A Looser Leash 304
chapter 17: t-family: 'Times New Roman'" The First Passing 313
chapter 18: Through the Door 327
with many thanks 363
notes 365
index 381

What People are Saying About This

Stanley Coren

"Reading Merle's Door involves more than just sailing through an engaging biography of a man sharing his life with a rare and free-spirited dog since it contains islands of useful and scientifically sound information about dog behavior as well. To be entertained and educated at the same time time is rare in dog books, which makes this one definitely worth reading."--(Stanley Coren, author of How Dogs Think)

From the Publisher

"Lawlor's breezy, energetic reading fits perfectly with this account of the author's relationship with his pet." —-Booklist

Temple Grandin

"Merle’s Door is a window into the mind of a dog.  You will experience his loyalty, fears, and joys and his true inner self. Everybody who loves dogs must read this book."--(Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation)

Customer Reviews

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Merle's Door 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 281 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I knew when I picked up this book that I was in for a cry, because I always cry when I read dog books. After all, you know the dog is going to die in the end--they always do! It's not fair, but that's the way it is--most people live several dog lifetimes. It seems as if we're always having to say goodbye. But of course I did pick it up, I did read it, and I did cry. I finished it last night. It took me over an hour, it seemed, to get through the last chapter. I would be sobbing so hard, I'd have to stop, blow my nose, run to the bathroom to splash cold water over my face, and clean my glasses. This book was seriously hard to finish. I loved that dog so much. It was extremely well-written, informative, and thought-provoking. The author may have gotten a little carried away with the anthropomorphisms. I mean, I doubted some of the thoughts that were attributed to Merle, but who am I to judge? Ted knew the dog a lot better than I did, and who's to say he didn't know what Merle was thinking? And what a life that dog had! Obviously, we can't all provide our dogs with mountains, but maybe we can at least learn to treat them as fellow travelers and give them the respect they deserve. I highly recommend this book!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a fantastic read. As a biologist and zookeeper my ideas on the relationship between man and animal were pretty well established. . . this book blew them all out of the water. It has made me rethink my relationship with the animals at work as well as my own animals at home. I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves animals.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is absolutely one of the best, if not the best book ever written about the bond between humans and their dogs. Not only was it educational in a variety of ways but truely a touching love story. Once I started reading it, I couldn't put it down. You will feel like you are a part of Ted and Merle's great adventure. What a dog and author!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the most insteresting reads I've had in a while! If you love animals, this will warm your heart and soul. Wish all our animals could be this free and happy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The chance meeting on a camping trip in Utah of Ted Kerasote and an abandoned dog, who eventually was named Merle, was the beginning of the most remarkable relationship between human and dog that I have ever read. And I have read many wonderful dog stories, fiction and non fiction, and this book is probably my favorite. No other writer has captured how closely dogs and humans are so much like each other, emotionally and intellectually. There are plenty of adventures over their thirteeen years together that Mr. Kerasote chronicles in his beautiful prose, as he is a fine writer, with not a maudlin false step. He captures the essence of how dogs make us more human by what they teach us. What a gift. This book is not to be missed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book changed forever how I see dogs. The mark of a truly good book is it's ability to help you see the world differently This book does that and my dog has a better, more rewarding life as a result. Great book.
Sharon Carmichael More than 1 year ago
If you love your dog AND want understand them this is a must read. There's a touching story but also facts to facilitate canine understanding. Concise, and helpful for dog lovers!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was a great story of the relationship between a man and his dog. I learned so much and makes me appreciate dogs even more. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who has a dog.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We are an extended family of dog people. My mother-in-law very enthusiastically recommended this book to anyone we met who was walking their dog, saying "if you love dogs then I must recommend a book". I thought it might be sappy, but sent it to a dog-loving friend for Christmas. And still did not read it until I received a copy from my enthusiastic, and very much correct, mother-in-law as a gift. It is not sentimental, but truly wrenches one's heart. It is informative, it is thought-provoking and most telling, anyone who reads this book buys it for someone else as gift! I highly recommend but be prepared for some tears at the end.
ceira More than 1 year ago
Great story about a man and his dog. However, I am only 16 so the research and background information was a little boring. I think however that is I was to read it again in a couple of years I would like it even better and understand why the researh was so important.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mr. Kerasote has captured the unique and sublime relationship dog owners can have with their animals. Not only has he brought Merle to life on the pages of this book he has included research to explain the behavior of canines which adds understanding to the whys of ways.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We all believe in different ways to raise your dogs. This man did not believe in quality of life. It bought me back to when I put my animals to sleep , it was rough and this book in my eyes was horrific. He did love his dog but there is a saying " L will love you all my life, but when l am in pain and hurting, PLEASE put me out of misery. I felt terrible for this dog.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I have ever read. I cried, I laughed then I cried again. Ted shows us how to treat a dog respectfully through life and eventually death. This book is a must read for any animal lover. My dogs benefited from me having read this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not a big reader, but after this book i want to find books that are this good. Love it, MUST read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you have a dog, if you've ever had a dog, if you like dogs, or if you love the outdoors, you need to read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A must read for dog lovers
Ines De Pablo More than 1 year ago
Amazing! Funny. Witty. Profound. Intelligent. Well researched. Exquisite presentation. Beautiful story of mutual respect, love, dedication and understanding between a man and his best four legged companion. Human and animal psychology, in sync. A must read for all those that have a heart, love to learn and want to better themselves in this lifetime.
RitaBook More than 1 year ago
Not only a great story, but a great source of dog info.
ShadowTear25 More than 1 year ago
As a total dog lover and veterinary enthusiast this book was amazing! It was referred to me by a professor at school and throughout the book it gave great knowledge and documentary about behaviors of dogs as well as mental states. I learned a lot from this book, and look at my dog differently. By the end of this book I had bawled about 3 times. Extremelly good read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a great gift for anyone who has a special connection with animals. I just stumbled upon this wonderful book and I am so glad I did! I listen to audio books during my commute and this book makes the time fly by. There are even some days where I actually sit in my car after I have arrived at work just to finish the section I'm listening to. The author vividly describes an amazing world of rugged wilderness that he shares with an remarkable dog. If only all dogs could have the freedom afforded to Merle then perhaps they would teach us all their lessons.
WawaLW More than 1 year ago
Kerasote has the luxury of living in small-town Wyoming where he can let his intelligent dog avoid a leash. A lot of this book is Kerasote's extensive research into the evolution, biology, and psychology of dogs, so it is in places a textbook instead of leisure reading. The dog, Merle, is highly intelligent and is allowed to develop his skills and live with his fears. Kerasote's somewhat unusual life and unusual value system permeate the book, and a reader has to accept Kerasote in order to read this.
Honu More than 1 year ago
If you are an animal person this book will resonate with you! Really makes you think about our relationship with the canine world and how we want to live our lives.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Kerasote writes with passion. It's as though Kerasote and Merle had a closeness that is almost unheard of between human and dog. He got into Merle's mind, viewing the world from the point of view of this marvelous dog. He captured, beautifully, Merle's wonderful individual personality, bringing him to life for the reader. I felt I was there with Merle hunting elk, running after bison, skiing down mountain slopes together and taking the daily trips with Merle as he made his rounds of the town, visiting his neighbors and friends, spreading his wisdom, presence, aliveness and glorious laughter with others. Yes, he laughed! I truly savored this book, hating for it to end. I really do cherish knowing Merle through this great book and I am sure I will read it many times.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is very well written it shows the true relastionship between man and dog. I would reccomend this book to anyone who loves dogs or animals. The book will have you laughing and crying and laughing again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Merle's Door was a wonderful outline of how dogs operate and why they react when their lives are either open or caged. I loved the facts and origins of dogs, and reccomendations on how to think like a dog.