Saturday, May 3, 2014

Merle's Door: Lessons From a Free-Thinking Dog, by Ted Kerasote (author), Patrick Lawlor (narrator)

Tantor Audio, June 2007

Ted Kerasote and his friends found a dog on a river boating trip, and Ted, who'd been looking for the right new dog for a while, fell in love.

Merle was perhaps ten months old, a Labrador mix, perhaps born on an Indian reservation. Shy of people at first, he grew to trust Ted in the course of the river trip. He was wary of sticks, and wouldn't fetch. When Ted brought him home to Wyoming, both their lives change.

This is both a fascinating and a frustrating book. Ted and Merle have a wonderful, rich relationship, and most of us with much-loved dogs feel pretty confident we can interpret our dogs' side of our interactions, just as Ted does. We've experienced the joy of getting to know a new dog in our lives, and growing into a relationship.

But Merle was half-wild and had been surviving on his own for a while when Ted found him. He's got both survival skills and a committed habit of roaming his territory that a pup raised in a family would be far less likely to have. Full grown, he's seventy pounds. And Ted brings him home to Kelly, Wyoming, a tiny village inside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, a village with little vehicular traffic and an established custom of free-roaming dogs.

Kerasote thinks that dogs who live inside full-time, walk on leashes, and are crate-trained only seem to be happy because they're suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. He goes on a long rant about how clicker training and positive reinforcement training reduce dogs to automata unable make their own decisions--and then, much later in the book, reveals that Karen Pryor, a major early proponent of clicker training, and a trainer of trainers in clicker training and positive reinforcement, is his favorite behaviorist.

He's got two examples from Merle's life that, in his mind, demonstrate the failure of positive reinforcement training and why punishment works better. One involves Merle chasing cattle, a behavior which he has to be cured of quickly, and Ted uses a choke collar and a long line to convince him it's a Really Bad Idea. (Why does Merle have to be cured of this quickly? Because he's a free-roaming dog, and ranchers and farmers shoot dogs who harass the livestock.)

The other instance is when Merle acquires the habit of making regular visits to a woman in the village who feeds him as much as he'll eat of extremely tasty foods, including meats prepared in extremely fatty ways. Attempts to talk to the woman about the harm to Merle's health that will result from the fact that the formerly lean and muscular dog is getting fat on this all-you-can-eat high-calorie diet are unproductive. So Ted finally resorts to using a shock collar to make visits to the woman's home seriously unpleasant.

What Ted misses in discussing both these incidents is that, far from showing that positive reinforcement doesn't work, these two problem behaviors were highly self-reinforcing. And while there are other things that could have been done about the woman feeding Merle excessively, the cattle-chasing had to end immediately, or Merle would have been killed.

Another amusing feature is that these appear to have been the only two occasions when he used anything that could be called punishment or correction on Merle, while he and Merle used positive reinforcement on each other for pretty much everything else. His admiration for Karen Pryor is more in accord with his real behavior than his contempt for all those other positive trainers.

That doesn't stop him from scolding about the misguided fools who look at misbehaving dogs and recommend exercise, mental stimulation, and crate training for them because they are bored and under-exercised. He says there's something perfectly natural going on; that dogs are supposed to roam freely, live like dogs, and make decisions!

He's right. There is something perfectly natural going on. And it's that dogs need exercise and mental stimulation, and if they don't get it, the excess energy and the mental boredom lead them to find something, anything, to do, and perfectly natural dog behavior, such as a love of chewing things, becomes destructive.

And we don't all have seventy-pound dogs with wilderness survival skills, and live in a tiny village in Yellowstone National Park. Putting in a dog door and letting them roam isn't a viable solution for everyone, or every dog.

But regular walks, visits to the dog park, involvement in dog activities, and provision of appropriate chew toys and food dispensing toys that let dogs use their brains to work out how to get their food provide the physical, mental, and social stimulation dogs need--the things Merle got by free roaming in a community where that was both safe and accepted. Correctly done, crate training makes the crate the dog's own space, a comfortable and secure space the dog can use when he needs a break from people and their antics. It also reduces a bit the inevitable stress when a dog has to be left at the vet's, if crating is already a known experience with some positive associations.

For all those criticisms, though, this is a fascinating and moving story of a man and a dog who were truly soul mates. It's a beautiful relationship and a wonderful story. You'll love Merle, and Ted's relationship with him. Interwoven with that story is the research on dogs that Ted read and absorbed, while working to deepen his understanding and appreciation of a remarkable dog.


Book trailer

I borrowed this book from the library.

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