April 05, 2010

A Dog Memoir Worth Reading

Normally I do not read dog books—memoirs, that is. I do read dog-training books.

When I was a boy, I read one of Ernest Thompson Seton's  books of animal stories—I don't remember which—in which one or more dogs came to bad ends.

Talk about aversive conditioning! It was like setting the shock collar on "10." I was shy of dog stories ever after.

Forty-plus years later and  I still look at my collie-mix dog, Shelby, and think of the dog in the story (another collie?) sleeping sweetly on the hearth of home (if I remember right), while its owner, realizing from its bloody muzzle that it is the sheep-killer that has been plaguing the area, prepares to shoot it on the spot.

Then somewhere I learned a phrase that ran more or less like this: "All dog stories are sad because dogs do not live as long as we do."

I seem to recollect it being attributed to Judge John Voelker (a/k/a Robert Traver.)

Thus prepared, when M. brought home Ted Kerasote's 2007 dog memoir, Merle's Door, from the library, I decided to read it too.

It has provoked a lot of discussion across the dinner table. Merle's life was not unlike Shelby's when she was younger—she spent a lot of time out roaming on her own and socializing with other dogs as well.

Like Kerasote, we had to deal with a neighbor who wanted to overfeed her, and unlike him, we spent a lot of time looking for her. (It did not help that she was—I am sure—kidnapped for two months.)

Kerasote's laissez-faire attitude about letting his dog develop his native intelligence must be provoking comments elsewhere too, because he wades right into the nature-versus-nature debate as applied to dogs.

And dog-training, I have learned, is a minefield. For example:

  • Cesar Milan: genius or charlatan?
  • Clicker training: good idea or reliance on a stupid gadget?
  • Shock collars: Useful at times or vicious torture?

And so on. Come down on the "wrong" side of those debates, and there will be somebody flinging feces in your direction. (Speaking of which, now that the snow is melting, the dog run desperately needs the big shovel.)

Kerasote, meanwhile, always a hard-working nature/outdoor writer, has now smelled the kibble and morphed into a dog writer, with two new dog books forthcoming.

As for Merle's Door, it's a good read but you have to expect the inevitable ending.


mdmnm said...

There was a discussion of "Merle's Door" on Querencia a while back.


It's certainly is a book to provoke discussion.
I think it should come with a warning label that the last couple of chapters are terribly sad.

Chas S. Clifton said...

True about the last chapters, but now I have the good judge's wisdom in mind when I start on page 1.

mdmnm said...


You gave a warning, too, so that's fine. Even with that great quote in mind, the end is tough. Not that I'd want to keep anyone from reading the very interesting book.