Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ted Kerasote

Ted Kerasote's writing has appeared in dozens of periodicals and anthologies, including Audubon, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Salon, and the New York Times. He is also the author and editor of six books, one of which, Out There: In the Wild in a Wired Age, won the National Outdoor Book Award.

From a Q & A about his latest book, Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog:

Q: Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack of dog memoirs by offering readers fascinating facts about canine genealogy and the evolution of human-dog interaction. How long did it take you to research the book?

A: One of my aims in writing Merle’s Door was not only to tell the story of a remarkable dog who was one of my best friends, but also to give readers accurate information about the origins of dogs, the dog-human partnership, and how dogs think. My hope is that readers can then apply this information to their relationships with their own dogs. For this information to be both accurate and current, I went to the latest primary sources. Reading scientific papers, interviewing some of the scientists who wrote them, and reading widely in the dog literature took me two years.

Q: Most people subscribe to the commonly held belief that they should dominate their dogs. You suggest a different approach — essentially one that lets dogs be dogs. Why do you think that many owners have a hard time accepting this theory? Do you think they would change the way they treat their dogs if they were aware of this model and the potential it has to improve their relationship with their four-legged friends?

A: This is a complex issue — and one of the major themes of Merle’s Door — so please forgive me if my answer is a bit long. I think that a lot of dog owners have a hard time letting their dogs be dogs — in other words, diminishing their authority over them—because, frankly, authority is addictive. In our western democratic society, dogs offer us one of the very few relationships in which we can exert unlimited authority and even physical punishment with almost no legal or moral constraints. In return, we’re obeyed—not merely obeyed, but also loved, or at least fawned upon. This one-sided relationship is psychologically soothing; it transports us back to our infancy when we can demand anything of our parents, and usually get it. Not many of us—unless we’re CEOs or the rulers of countries—can get away with this sort of behavior as adults except in our relationships with dogs. Sit, stay, lie down, be quiet, see you in eight hours when I come home from work—this kind of authority is heady and hard to relinquish.

Such power is also hard to relinquish because dog trainers constantly advise us to be strong alphas to our dogs. After all, that’s how alpha wolves treat their subordinates—they keep the pack in order and everything running smoothly, right? The problem with this reasoning is that it’s been derived from observing captive wolf packs, and they’re dysfunctional. As eminent wolf biologist David Mech has pointed out, “Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps.”

It wasn’t until researchers began watching wild, unmolested wolf packs at the end of the twentieth century that they discovered that wolf society is a lot more egalitarian than anyone had imagined. The so-called alpha wolves, the breeding adults, actually share leadership with their maturing pups, letting them decide whom to hunt, when to hunt, and where to move the pack. The parent wolves don’t always have to be obeyed by their teenage wolves—meaning there’s free will in wolf society. Yet parent wolves are frequently listened to because, just as in human society, it’s the elders who have wisdom to impart.

Since dogs are wolves — genetically and psychologically — they, too, want some say in conducting their lives as they grow up. They want some authentic freedoms while also listening to those who are their elders, their human partners. Keeping one’s dog a perpetual child and quashing this natural maturation process by not giving the dog some leeway in conducting its own affairs — especially providing it off-leash time in which to socialize with other dogs — often leads to what this heavy-handed approach does in child rearing: the dog acts out or becomes a yes-dog, obeying mindlessly and not realizing its full mental capabilities.

Merle sidestepped many of these pitfalls through some bad fortune. He began life on his own — abused, shot at, and having to catch his own food to survive. But there was a silver lining to these hardships; they made him resourceful, self-reliant, and self-actualized. When we found each other and I gave him his own dog door so he could come and go as he wished, I simply fostered his innate curiosity and ability to solve problems on his own. The result was a dog who was my peer in many ways — who taught me rather than the other way around. I’ve hoped that in writing his biography I might convey the value of loosening the leash, in all aspects of our dogs’ lives, and by so doing mentoring them to become freer thinkers and equal partners.

Read the entire Q & A.

Read an excerpt from Merle's Door, and learn more about the book at Ted Kerasote's website.

The Page 69 Test: Merle's Door.

--Marshal Zeringue