Posts Tagged ‘Ted Kerasote’


Ted Kerasote’s website has been updated. Well, I got the e-mail a while ago, but I’m only now getting around to tell you about it.

He has a new book out about his new Labrador named Pukka.


The narrative is told from Pukka’s perspective, and the photos are stunning!


I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention again that Merle’s Door is my favorite dog book. Not only do I love the story about a wild retriever living in the Wyoming wilderness, but I often reference the science in the book whenever I am looking into such diverse topics as dog domestication and dominance theory.

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This is my favorite dog book.

It is probably the most important dog book to come out since Lorenz’s (very flawed) Man Meets Dog.

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As I’ve said before, this is my favorite dog book.

It’s a wonderful mix of science and narrative.

And Merle is a retriever, an animal whose essence I’ve experienced through three separate individuals. Many of Merle’s characteristics I have seen in the dogs I have lived with. He is very friendly, but he’s also very smart and imitative. He is allowed free range over a small rural community in Wyoming, and it is through his freedom that Merle develops a lot of his social graces and intellect.

It is a pretty good book. I don’t know if many dogs in this country could experience the freedom that made Merle’s life so interesting. Most dogs live in the suburbs and in urban areas. Freedom is where the dog parks are.

Dogs have been living as Merle did for thousands of years. It has only been in relatively recent centuries that they have been forced to spend most of their lives locked in houses and fenced yards. It is not that we should let our dogs roam in all areas. It is that we have forgotten that dogs need off-leash time. They need time to be dogs.

Because that’s what they are.

No matter how much we train and selectively breed them, they will still have parts of their natures that we can’t control and that maybe we shouldn’t control.

For those of us who really love dogs, it is this part of their characters that makes them so interesting.

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As I have mentioned on Retrieverman, I absolutely love this book. It is the best book I’ve ever read on dogs, and I also love it that the main dog subjects in the book are breeds with which I have some familiarity– Labs, goldens, and border collies. The author’s dog is a stray retriever of one of the following permuations: Lab/golden cross, Lab/redbone hound cross, or golden/redbone hound cross (which is what I think he was).

“Merle” was discovered on the San Juan River in Utah. He was a feral dog that lived on  the game he killed and what food he could cajole out of tourists. When he discovers the author’s rafting party, he decides that he wants to stay with the author. He almost says to the author “You need a dog, and I’m it.”

The dog is taken to the author’s residence in the wilds of Wyoming. The small of Kelly allows the dogs to roam off-leash, provided they learn to leave livestock alone.

Because of this freedom, the dogs are given a lot of opportunities to socialize with each other and with people. Further, the dogs develop an understanding of the natural world around them, which is very useful for a nature writer.

The author is brought to many interesting insights because of Merle. He notices that Merle tends to sniff the front tracks of the pronghorn more intensely than the hind tracks. When the author shoots a pronghorn, he sniffs the front hooves and back hooves to see if he can discern a difference in their odors. He discovers that the front hooves smell more strongly of sage than the back ones.

Later, while on a long hike in the mountains, Merle stops and looks into a stand of pines. When the author stops and does looks in the same direction that Merle does, he sees a grizzly bear lumbering out of the trees.

Because Merle grew up in such a rich environment and then was allowed to use his intelligence and instincts as a “free-thinking dog,” that Merle develops very good manners with people. His innate people reading skills, which all dogs possess, have been heightened because of his freedom.

Merle’s intelligence begins to reach another level, though, and this finding is one of the most controversial in the book. Merle is taken to the chiropracter regularly. The chiropracter has a full-length mirror that covers an entire wall. One day, the author sees Merle look at the mirror and then look back at him. Then the dog drops to the floor and begins doing behaviors that look like he can tell that the mirror is his reflection, wriggling his paws from side to side and rolling over. He does this with his eyes focused on the mirror. Now, dogs have never officially passed the mirror test for self awareness, but if this finding were true, then we can say that dogs are self-aware.

Today we think dogs ought to be under our control all the time. They must obey us at all times, or they will become “dominant.” Either that, or we believe that they are stupid animals that are controlled entirely by conditioned responses. Thus, we keep them under our controll all the time in order to better control their environments. Both of these theories are depriving dogs of their innate natures, which partially that of the wolf and partially that of a very strongly humanized animal.

I wish we all could live in places where we could give our dogs some modicum of freedom and allow them to interact with their own kind and us in more natural ways. But lacking such liberal dog laws in most areas, we need to ensure that off-leash areas still exist. Because of all the animals we live with, the dog is one of the most complex.  New research is showing how much domestication has turned the dog’s mind into something more like  of people. They have evolved advanced cognitive abilities that we have not seen any other non-human species, including the great apes. It is only now that we have really started to appreciate how amazingly intelligent dogs are. It is time that we kept them with a deep appreciation for this intelligence.

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This one:

It is isn’t just a story about a dog. It is more like an intellectual and emotional exploration of all things canine.

 Ted Kerasote is quite an author. There are very few authors who can weave engaging narrative with analysis of complex scientific studies. He is a master.

And although you can find things to quibble about in this book, it is a very good piece of science and nature writing.

And if you’re a retriever person, he so aptly describes the mannerisms of our dogs that you know this man has experienced retrieverdom in all its glory.

The main theme of this book is that we should sometimes let our dogs be dogs. It’s quite a novel concept in this age where the trend is to have dogs as regimented as soldiers.

Of course, we’d all like to live in a little isolated hamlet, where the author raised Merle.  In the wilds of Wyoming, the dogs got to experience nature, people, and other dogs as they have for thousands of years. Today, giving a dog that sort of freedom is something not advised or even legal.

But I really liked the book. I wish we could all give our dogs the life that Merle had, but I know that’s not realistic.

The author’s website can be found here.

I think Merle was a golden retriever/Redbone cross, although the author thinks he was  either Lab/Golden cross or a Lab/Redbone cross. He had no retrieving instinct (as we know it), but he could be coaxed into retrieving at one point in the book. He also bays like a hound, which makes us understand that he does have hound in him. However, he looks almost exactly like my first golden retriever, except she had the golden retriever coat, a very strong retrieving instinct, and a sharp retriever bark. I would have expected Merle to have a very short coat if he were Lab/Rebone, but his coat is about as long as we see in most Labradors. I think you are more likely to see that in a golden/hound cross than a Lab/hound cross.

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This is one of the best books I’ve ever read about dogs. It’s both a heart-warming story about a Lab-Redbone hound cross and wonderful piece of science and nature writing about dogs and their behavior.

Here’s the youtube interview with the author:

The website for the book can be found here, and you can link up to Merle’s photo album here.

Merle is given freedom to socialize with other dogs and experience nature, and he develops into an intelligent, but free-thinking dog. It’s a really itneresting idea that dogs should be given some freedom to make choices in their lives.  Last weekend, The National Geographic Channel carried a program about the San Franscico zoo tiger that attacked last the visitors on Christmas Day last year. The program talked a lot about new findings about carnivore husbandry.  Using mink as a study species, researchers found that if mink were allowed to make choices about their environment and given mental and physical stimulation, they were healthier than those who lived in confined cages with little choices or stimulation. Studies on mink and ferrets suggest that they are more intelligent than cats and more on par with dogs and primates in intelligence. These findings are certainly applicable to other species of carnivore, especially the social ones, such as dogs. Today, most dogs live in confined spaces for days and days on end. We can only imagine how much this is hurting their mental and physical health. Perhaps we ought to ban keeping dogs (especially large dogs) in cities and suburbs, unless they are given off leash excercise several times a week.  I know this is controversial, and it flies in the face of the current trend in dog ownership.

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