I’m reading Merle’s Door right now. I have many, many conflicting thoughts about this book, more of which I’ll share here when I finally finish reading it. But, reading along today I stopped in my tracks.
The whole point of Merle’s Door is that Merle’s dog door gives him freedom to interact with the world as he chooses. Kerasote positions this freedom as the only thing that dogs really need or, indeed, want. He argues that freedom teaches dogs to think, so that they don’t even need training. Indeed he mocks most dog training, even going so far as to argue that clicker training “short-circuit[s]” the dog’s “ability to think on its own.” Dog trainers are Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 (his metaphor, not mine.) Aside from being a real, and I think deliberate, misunderstanding of what good clicker training is about, this is where we hit hard against the fact that this book is the story of one dog. A memoir, trying to pass itself off as the TRUTH ABOUT DOGS.
Let’s grant Kerasote his premise (and I’m not sure we unilaterally should) and say that we have some kind of obligation to help our dogs do what they love. Here’s the thing: some dogs love to work and for some dogs that work looks a lot like conventional dog training.
It’s an idea that I resisted myself, even. I thought of the more formal obedience-style training as a kind of grim reality of living with a dog–learn sit and down and walk on a leash so that we can get them over with and do other things that are actually fun. It’s a pretty common way of thinking right now, which is why competitive obedience numbers are plummeting as a percentage of dog sports enrollment.
Imagine my surprise when Silas thought that heeling, which I started teaching as a kind of grim obligation, was the best game ever. At this point, Silas will stay right with me even if I throw cookies across the room as we walk. I do make training pretty fun, and we have a long history that will support “training=happy times.” Silas is not the kind of dog, though, who is just looking for a way to make me happy. (See my utter failure at teaching him to turn around in a circle, AKA the easiest dog trick of all time.) Something about heeling just makes him really happy.
In other words, my dog is autonomously choosing to do the least autonomous dog-task of all time. And that’s okay. You have to look past what “ideal dog in the abstract” wants and see what your dog wants. Then you can evaluate whether it’s a good idea or not (a point where I think Kerasote is often a little too lax). Who gets to decide what your dog thinks is fun? Unlike what Merle’s Door posits in ways both direct and indirect, that isn’t always the most wolf-like thing.
How about you? Does your dog like to do things that aren’t “supposed” to be fun?