Today I have the honor of interviewing author Ted Kerasote. Many of you, like me, have read his bestselling books. There's Merle's Door, Return of the Wild, Heart of Home, Blood Ties, Out There, and most recently, Pukka: The Pup After Merle, which was released in 2010.
I'm really excited to have the pleasure of interviewing Ted not only about his past endeavors as an author and journalist, but also about new adventures he is having and new information he's collecting for future books.
How Ted Met Merle
I asked Ted to talk about how Merle came into his life, because it's such a beautiful story. It was a serendipitous meeting.
Ted agrees it was serendipitous. It was April 21, 1991, and Ted and some friends had driven 11 hours from Jackson Hole, WY down to the San Juan River in southern Utah. They were pulling into their camping spot at about 11:30 p.m. It was dark, of course, and the San Juan River was in the background, along with big cottonwood trees.
All of a sudden, out of the darkness, out of the river, came a big, golden dog. He was very puppy-like. When the group opened their car doors, the dog came right over to Ted. He was wearing shorts, and the dog sniffed his bare thigh, then looked up into his eyes as if to say, 'You need a dog, and I'm it.'
I then asked Ted if he felt the connection with Merle immediately.
Ted said he'd indeed been looking for a dog. He had been looking at litters of Samoyeds and litters of Labradors for probably 15 months, and no pup he saw gave him that special heart tug. And then there was Merle.
So the campers laid out their sleeping bags on the sand beneath the cottonwood trees. Merle came right to Ted's side, dug a little nest in the sand, turned around, laid down, and looked right in his eyes. Ted said, 'Night, good dog.'
As soon as Ted opened his eyes in the morning, there was Merle, looking right into them again. The dog just seemed to have a collected air about him – and a sense of knowing how to survive out there in the wild.
As far as Ted could figure out, Merle was a stray, half-wild, Navajo reservation dog. He'd been shot, which is something Ted didn't discover at the time, but a full eight years later on an x-ray. The dog was carrying a bullet in his right shoulder blade.
Merle had probably been chasing sheep and cattle, as a lot of reservation dogs do, and decided, 'Well, it's time to find greener pastures.' So he was out wandering around. He was about 55 pounds, really ribby and skinny, but beautiful. He had some lab in him, a little bit of hound, and some golden retriever.
Ted and his group took Merle down on the river. He swam between their kayaks and he sang in the canyons. He knew about rattlesnakes and coyotes. At the end his five day trip, Ted said 'Do you want to go back to Wyoming and become a Wyoming dog?' And Merle said 'You bet!'
The dog jumped in Ted's truck for the drive back to Wyoming, and they spent a little over 13 years together.
A Special Bond
It's easy to understand the intensity of the bond Ted had with Merle. To me, it's one of those things that would be a special gift if it happened twice in a lifetime. It was so magnificent and special that you feel blessed to have it just once.
I asked Ted if he grew up with pets, and whether he felt the relationship that developed with Merle was different from his bond with other animals in his life.
Ted responds that he had a dog named Jingles when he was four. Jingles was part collie, part husky and part who-knows-what. When he was a teen there was Tippy, a beagle terrier mix. His family got her as a puppy and had her through his high school years. When he went off to college and was teaching Outward Bound courses in Colorado, Tippy passed away.
Ted also had dogs through his girlfriends – those were border terriers and golden retrievers.
And then there was Merle, and yes, he was different and special. All the other dogs in Ted's life had been sheltered, with comfortable lives. They were born with silver dog bowls to eat from, so to speak. Merle, on the other hand, had had a hardscrabble life when Ted met him.
He had to make his own way. He had to learn how to hunt ground squirrels. He had to learn how to avoid getting shot or run over on the highway. So Merle seemed to Ted to be not a 'street smart' dog, but a nature smart dog. His special gift was noticed by everyone who came around him. Merle had a very collected old soul and a wise air about him.
The Plight of City Dogs
The last time Ted and I talked, he was visiting me at my practice. I explained to him that in Chicago there are lots of dogs, but they have to be kept leashed, and some are even double-collared.
Part of the reason for that is if a dog slips the leash, he's gone. He becomes like a wild dog – doesn't even know his own name. He bolts, sometimes never to be seen again by his owner.
Ted was kind of amazed to hear this. He was fascinated to hear that in Chicago, many people have to literally tether themselves to their dogs when they leave home or they may never see them again.
Dogs have different relationships with different people. As well, dogs' ability to explore the environment shapes who they are as dogs.
Merle was a product not just of his own individual personality, but also the life experiences he had before he met Ted. He was quite an evolved dog, nature smart as Ted pointed out. And during their years together, Merle really did a good job showing Ted all he had learned before they met.
Ted didn't have the pleasure of raising Merle from puppyhood as he's been able to do with his current dog, Pukka (who we'll discuss shortly). In meeting him as an adult dog, Ted sort of had to fall in step with Merle – walk alongside him and observe how he existed in his environment. And Ted did a really great job putting into words Merle's ability to navigate the terrain, make good decisions and wise choices. He knew how to make decisions to protect himself and his health.
By partnering with Merle, Ted developed a kind of co-creative relationship with him. If you're lucky to have a relationship like that with a dog, it's magnificent. When I see a pet owner that doesn't have that same kind of relationship, I find myself wishing they could experience their dog in the same way Ted is able to experience his.
I asked Ted to expound on his research into having a partnership with a dog versus taking a dominant role with your dog.
The Significance of Merle's Door
Ted first explains he feels blessed to live where he lives in Kelly, Wyoming. It's a little village with about 125 people and 35 dogs. The village sits on the edge of Grand Teton National Park, between the Gros Ventre wilderness and the National Elk Refuge.
In the words of Ted, it's 'dog heaven.' The area is surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness. There's very little vehicular traffic. So when he brought Merle back with him from the Utah desert, Ted gave him his own dog door. Merle's Door.
Merle's door is the physical dog door he used to come and go and continue the life he loved to live in the outdoors. But it was also the door Merle gave Ted into understanding dogs, and the door he opened into Ted's heart.
Ted explains that without giving dogs the kind of freedom Merle had, it's very difficult to know how they act when they're on their own. So all the folks who live in cities and suburbs are starting out handicapped, in a way, when it comes to understanding the canine personality.
A Dog's Genetic Drive to be Active
Dogs are genetically wolves – 99.9 percent of the DNA is wolf DNA. Wolves love to roam. It's who they are. And young teenage wolves especially love to roam. Their parents give them freedom to go off, explore, and learn how to hunt on their own.
And so we take our 'wolf' pet dogs and tell them, 'Well, you know, we're going to walk you in the morning and in the midday and in the evening. And then the rest of the time, you have to occupy yourself with chew toys.' Our dogs give a big sigh. They don't know intellectually they were once wolves, but on a biologic and genetic level, they are programmed for activity just like their wolf ancestors.
One of the great things Ted says he learned through his experience with Merle and now through Pukka, is just how much exercise dogs need. It's a staggering amount, especially for breeds we now refer to as working, sporting and herding dogs.
These breeds in particular can go eight, nine or 10 hours a day. Ted mentions that the previous night, he and Pukka took a two-hour, hard, several thousand feet vertical mountain bike ride. When they got back to the car and were cooling down, Pukka ran right off and found a stick. He brought it to Ted as if to say, 'Are you going to throw this for me now?' After a strenuous two-hour workout, Pukka was still up for a game of fetch!
Not Enough Physical Movement = Stressed Out Dogs
Ted believes, based on his research, that many behavioral problems in dogs as well as chronic immune system dysfunction are a result of the stress they feel from the lives we give them.
Part of the research Ted has done for his new book involves the stress that is fostered by inequality. He explains there are many dog training programs available, but one of the most popular emphasizes being an 'alpha' to your dog.
This is not, however, how young wolves are raised. Yes, they obey their parents and learn from them, but both male and female wolf parents share leadership in the pack. Both parents share hunting and pack moving chores. And eventually they hand off leadership to their maturing teenage wolves.
In the 1995 Yellowstone Research Project in which they introduced wolves into Yellowstone, it was discovered that it is actually the one through four year-old wolves that do most of the hunting for the pack. They're the most physically fit of the group. The parents sit on the sidelines as if to say, 'You guys go chase those bison. When you kill one, we'll come over and have dinner with you.'
Those young wolves are handed a great deal of responsibility. They also do long, exploratory forays at from one to three years old. Sort of a 'See you later guys! I'm going on a walkabout for three weeks so I can see the world.'
And off they go alone, finding new valleys, seeing new animals, and hunting prey on their own. And then they return to the pack and say, 'You know what I saw on my travels?' And you can actually see the pack gather together, all noses and tails, to hear about the young one's adventures.
Now think of our own dogs, who long to do that same kind of exploring and adventuring. But because of where most of us live, we can't give them that sort of freedom.
What kinds of problems does that create? There's a lot of research showing the more inequality you have in your life – whether you're a baboon, or a chimpanzee, or a human doing rote work, or a wolf stuck in a zoo with other dominant wolves in charge – the more glucocorticoids are circulating in your bloodstream, and the more stress you have.
There's even research that shows our telomeres (the caps at the end of chromosomes) start to shorten, which is a marker for chronic disease and a shortened life span.
Stay tuned next week for part 2 of my 4-part interview with best selling author Ted Kerasote. We'll talk about the overwhelming loss of Merle, and later, finding the pup after Merle, Pukka.