Who Decides What’s Fun?

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?

14 thoughts on “Who Decides What’s Fun?

  1. I agree; I’m not sure what to think of Kerasote myself. I read his most recent book about his dog Pukka, and while some of it was inspiring, it also tended toward that philosophy of “a trained/leashed/enclosed dog is a miserable dog,” predicated on his existence in the middle-of-nowhere Wyoming. My dog cannot run free in my town, where she would endanger herself and others. It’s a nice idea, but I kind of think Kerasote lives in an extremely unique place that does not lend itself to universal dog-rearing advice.

    That said, Pyrrha really loves her crate, which is something that many people see as a torture device for dogs. It’s her safe place, and she likes to go hang out in there of her own volition.

    It’s so cute that Silas loves heeling/training games. 🙂


    1. My mom lives in a rural neighborhood where all the dogs roam free. What it means is not freedom–it’s a viciously policed dog-hierarchy. My nephew’s daschund had to have extensive surgery after a dog fight, and the neighbor’s chihuahua was killed. The pit bull down the street routinely gets almost run over by cars.

      I think I would feel better about his writing if he would just acknowledge that not everybody lives in a place or a community where this is a good idea, instead of positing city dog owners as cruel overlords.


  2. I never finished that book…which I guess says a lot about my mixed feelings about the portion of it I did read.

    Blueberry is the opposite of Silas. She loathes heeling (which I only do in crowded situations) but she loves spinning around because she knows it means cookies. Silas is definitely one of a kind. 🙂


    1. It’s so funny what tricks one dog loves and hates. Silas has a serious mental block against learning anything “cute.” I can’t get him to spin or sit pretty or stand on his hind legs for the life of me. I can’t even get him to wave, even though he already knows high five. Heeling (when we’re indoors–outside is too much for him), holding a sit or down, and retrieving are his things.


  3. I enjoyed the book and the premise of letting our dogs live free. I’d love to be able to live in an environment that allowed that with a dog who could handle it. He has some extreme view and I choose to cherry pick the ideas I liked and ignore the others Same with his 2nd book, about Pukka.


    1. I definitely think that there are great reasons to give a dog *some* freedom. I grew up around free-ranging dogs, and I can’t say that they seem any happier than city dogs. Probably less, in fact.


  4. I was very glad I read Merle’s Door and Pukka’s Progress. It’s kept me thinking for years about issues of freedom and happiness.

    I agree with Kerasote that it’s good for dogs to have choices. But I see Silas choosing to see heeling as a fun game as the perfect example of that.

    We always need to see our dogs as they really are and not as anyone tells us they are.


    1. You nailed it–dogs can have choices within any context, even city dogs. Silas picks where he will sleep, when and what he will eat (alas), what toy we play with, what training he likes better, which park we go to and where we walk when we get there, when he goes outside, and who knows what else. It’s not as black and white as “leash is bad, run of Montana is good.”


  5. I think there are way too many factors to determine every dog needs freedom to be happy but there is something to be said for a happy medium in combining training and freedom. I lot of the things I’ve taught my dogs are essential(in my opinion) for them to enjoy off leash freedom but it doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy doing them. Likewise, I think it would be unfair to think a dog who is fearful, nervous, aggressive, lives in a busy city, runs off, etc. would benefit from the same freedoms that others do.


  6. My favorite part of Merle’s Door was Merle’s “dialogue.” My least favorite part was when Kerasote used a shock collar on him. I really appreciate your perspective on his theory.


    1. I hadn’t gotten to that when I wrote this post, but have since. Apparently *we’re* all evil overlords for using leashes, but choke and shock collars are good for the dog? Uh-huh.


  7. Interesting premise. I have not read the book, but am curious, why did he use the ecollar? I guess if he is talking about a dog making choices it could makes sense. That is the whole theory of using ecollar. Dogs knows the correct choice, but if it makes the wrong choice, a correction is applied. That is the way we use it for field training at least.


    1. That was the bad thing about the e-collar use in the book (and the choke chain as well.) If you use them as training tools, there are ways to do it and not do it. The way it was described in the book is quite arbitrary–the dog is going across town to a house where a lady is over feeding him, so the owner puts the e-collar on him and shocks him whenever he goes there. No prior training with the collar, no attempt to curtail the behavior with other means. That’s what bothered me so much–everything is endless freedom and sunshine until something goes wrong, then Kerasote immediately escalates to the maximum consequences.

      The choke chain is even worse–he has the dog on the choke chain and a long line, which is a recipe for absolute disaster. The speed a dog can generate on a long line could cause really severe damage, and (if you’ve ever used a long line you know) you don’t really have immediate control of the whole leash.


      1. Oh wow you are right. The absolute wrong way to use those tools. Ecollar should not be used that way, That is not what it is for. And choke chain. Again wrong. We use them to walk the dogs, but if you ever notice they are on flat collars when away from us, well and ecollar, (but ecollar would only be used to reinforce a recall when we are out walking). I hate when people use training tools incorrectly.


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