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Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog    by Ted Kerasote order for
Merle's Door
by Ted Kerasote
Order:  USA  Can
Harcourt, 2007 (2007)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

There has been a run of books on the relationship between man and his best friend lately - from Cynthia Kadohata's Cracker! aimed at young adults, to several versions of John Grogan's heartwarming Marley & Me. What I especially liked about Merle's Door is that much of the time that Ted Kerasote and Merle spend together is in the mountains of northwestern Wyoming or other wilderness settings, so that the book reads as much like travel literature as a memoir. I also appreciated the author's applying his impressive research talents to the in depth exploration of canine behavior and the intertwining of the destinies of man and dog for millennia - and sharing the fascinating results with the reader.

After a Prologue that emphasizes 'the mental and emotional terrain that will develop a dog's potential', the book opens, 'He came suddenly out of the night ... a big, golden dog, panting, his front paws tapping the ground in an anxious little dance.' The author, who was about to embark on a Utah river trip with friends, was looking for a dog, and it was mutual love at first sniff. From the beginning, Ted Kerasote empathetically gives us the canine perspective - as well as his own human one - of their developing relationship. After the trip, Merle accompanied Kerasote back to his home in Kelly, Wyoming, 'a half-mile square of private land between the {Grand Teton National} park, the National Elk Refuge, and the Gros Ventre Wilderness.' All the dogs in this canine paradise lived an unleashed life.

The author shares with the reader how he and Merle settled down together, each maintaining a degree of independence - facilitated for Merle by a dog door - and yet particularly enjoying roaming the backcountry together (for a period of thirteen years). The author's comments on the feelings aroused by days in the wild - 'After a few days, time collapsed and my life started anew' - brought back my own memories of wilderness treks, and I agree wholeheartedly with his concern for the stress imposed on both animals and humans by our crowded lifestyles and lack of space. I also appreciate and support the perspective that we limit animals' development by over-protectiveness of our pets - natural though that may be in the urban surroundings in which most live.

Of Merle, we're told how 'day by day, trip by trip, season by season - he became his own dog', his daily activities 'unstructured and self-motivated' They involved a fair bit of socialization with his peers and tolerance of Gray Cat, who eventually moved in with the duo. It's a challenge to get to the end of this paean to a very special dog - and especially to read of his last years - without shedding tears (I failed utterly). Merle's Door is a story of great love and loss, the fact that it involves different species almost an irrelevance. Don't miss this one!

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