dogs in my life and Merle's Door - best dog book so far

Submitted by Susan Miller on Sun, 01/18/2009 - 08:56.

Dogs have always been in my life. As a child, my first dog was one who had been slipped under the fence by our Japanese neighbors on the base where my family lived in Nagoya, Japan. Dozo came back to the states with us on the big ship and was my best buddy, standing between me and the street in our neighborhoods and following me everywhere. He died when I was in first grade (my father always had a way of keeping these details from me so I don't know exactly how he died).

 Susan and Dozo with geranium Tallahassee, Florida 1959

My sister thought I needed a dog, so one night while my parents were out, she and her boyfriend drove me and my overnight guest to the neighboring town to pick out a puppy. We came home with a dog whom I named Prince Von Reign. The guy who sold him to my sister ($12, I think) said he was a Belgian Shepherd. When my parents came into the house, my mother was holding a small stuffed elephant - a gift to try to help me with my visible grief over the loss of Dozo. As they entered the kitchen, they saw the newspapers and knew immediately that there was a puppy in the house. The puppy was already snuggled between me and my overnight guest. I later learned how much of a "talking to" my sister received for secretly taking us to the neighboring town - I think she was "on restriction" for some time after that incident. But Prince Von Reign was worth it. All through elementary and jr. high school he walked me to the bus stop and was there when I returned at school day's end. Because we lived in a rural-becoming-suburban area he was never leashed. Then as my older sister was on the verge of college graduation, a boyfriend tried to cement their fading relationship by giving her a puppy. It didn't work. My sister got a job in a city and the puppy came to live with us. The puppy was a purebred German Shepherd and grew to about 100lbs. He was not quite as well mannered having been raised in my sister's college apartment, but we welcomed him into the household. However, our paper deliverer didn't like him and would throw the newspaper at him each morning. After being hit with the paper a few times, the dog, Chelsea, began to chase the paper deliverer as he rode by on his motor cycle. Then the paper deliverer began to kick at Chelsea and ultimately Chelsea bit him. One day after the paper landed on the yard we heard a shot and a yelp. The paper deliverer had but a bb into our dog's leg. Von had felt a bit put out by Chelsea's introduction into the household and had taken to spending lots of time elsewhere in the neighborhood (we learned that someone was feeding him and trying to adopt him). The county dogcatcher sent a letter - both dogs would have to be leashed and tethered when outside. That was too much for the dogs, my parents and me, so after numerous interviews, I watched tearfully as both dogs were helped into the truck of a recently discharged officer who would take them to live with him on a ranch in the upper midwest. I was 15.

For years I did not have a dog. In my first few years of college, I was close with my brother's amazing shepherd, Gandalf - or "the big G" as we affectionately called him.

 My brother's dog, Gandalf - "the big G" 1972

In my senior year of college I met a dog who would live with me through the transition to adulthood - Katie or K.T. I was a dance student and needed as all college students need n the final throes of school to meet with my adviser and be sure I was ready to graduate on time. My adviser had kept putting off our meeting and one day, in exasperation I said today HAS to be the day. She explained that she and her husband had seen this little dog hit by a UPS truck while they were driving toward town and had brought her home. Visiting professors at the school, they already had a dog and knew that they could not have two in their small flat in Manhattan; she needed the time to take the dog to the student center  to find an adoptive home for the dog. I said, bring the dog to the meeting. It was love at first sight. K.T. came to live with me from that moment and was my best friend until her death at age 16.

Katie, "the bouffer dog" photographer Herb Acherman 1981

Some old Coventry folk would remember her. She was never leashed (except when the dogcatcher pulled us over and insisted) and was a fixture on Coventry. Her longtime beau was Daniel Thompson's dog, Truffaut. Together they oversaw the activities on Coventry. They went in and out of most of the stores and waited patiently outside the places where they could not go inside. K.T. had everyone fooled outside the old Arabica on Euclid Heights. People didn't know me, but they knew her. I have no idea how many muffins, croissants and cookies she consumed as she made her rounds of the folks at the sidewalk tables. When I lived in an apartment on Overlook and Hampshire, she was a regular visitor to Turtle Park. Together we taught numerous children how to approach dogs - or how to allow dogs to approach you. In her later years, she would exercise other's dogs in the big green space between our apartment building and Musician's Towers - standing in the middle of the field and barking, she had them running in circles til they tired. She loved to ride in the car and I often took her to the Chagrin River where she would swim and sniff and romp in secluded places we found. She had respect for horses we passed on the bridal trails as we made our way to the favorite river spots, always stepping aside and giving them a respectful nod as they passed - never barking or chasing. She did like to chase squirrels and one day as I was driving, she jumped across my arms and out the window to chase a squirrel. I stopped, my heart racing and found her jumping at the tree after the squirrel. Car windows were at half open after that event.

K.T. went to her end in my arms. The decision to euthanize her was the most difficult decision of my life. She had become blind and deaf and was incontinent. I carried her up and down the stairs she could no longer navigate for a year before making the decision to let go. I was inconsolable for months.

Maxie as a pup 1995

On a trip to the Severance Mall so our son, Mickey, could have his ear pierced, we met our next dog - Max. He was a red shepherd mix with white markings and was there in a crate along with his siblings. The APL was looking for adoptive homes for the litter.  Once Max was in my arms, I knew that he would come home with us. Max was my son's first dog and they were inseparable. He was a nervous dog and hated being in the car. He did like swimming though and would ride calmly on the way home if he did drive us crazy with barking on the way to the river. He was a regal dog and I can't recall how many people stopped to ask "what kind of dog is that?"

Phoebe watching a squirrel

When our next door neighbor's dog had a litter of pups, our son volunteered to care for them - Max helped out. Each day, Mickey would return from school and after dropping his book bag in the kitchen would head straight to the pups (there were 8). He fed them and cleaned up their papers and the floor underneath and brought them out onto the lawn to play. Max patrolled the sidewalk making sure no pups ventured near the street. As they grew and we found homes for them one at a time, one remained and she won our hearts and Max's. Max and Phoebe were best pals until Max died quietly in front of the fireplace in our living room as the solstice dawned two years ago.

Phoebe lives with me now. I couldn't ask for a better friend. Last night around 10pm we went for a snowy walk along the half deserted streets. Off leash, she would charge ahead stopping to look back at me, waiting at street corners to see which way we might head next or if we would round the corner or cross the street, burying her nose in drifts and frisking along in the sidewalk snow tunnels. Back at home she curled up next to me in front of the fireplace as I finished a great read - Merle's Door by Ted Kerasote

I have read a lot of dog books. Years ago I heard an NPR story about The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. The book became a birthday gift and I opened it and began reading immediately. That night we had to drive out to Painesville and I took a flashlight and read aloud to my husband and son all the way there and all the way back.

I have read Marshall Thomas's follow-up book, The Social Life of Dogs and Willie Morris's My Dog Skip and Jon Katz's A Dog Year and the follow-up Running to the Mountain. Each book helps me to better understand my relationship with dogs. Maybe I feel this way each time I read one, but I think Kerasote's book is the best by far. If you read this book, Merle's Door, you're sure to fall in love with Merle, too; it can't be helped. But in the process, you'll also get an education about dogs and why they are our best friends. PS There's a cat in the story, too.

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My life in dog years

  Tell me you have read My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen!  I am also partial to the work of Farley Mowat, who followed wolves rather than dogs, but his writing style is similar to Gary Paulson.  Dean Koontz served as the ghost writer for his dog Trixie in the delightful Bliss to You.  And, I am happy to see a new generation appreciates the quiet humor of James Herriot

Animals are the best friends we will ever know in life.  Thank you for reminding us to appreciate them.  I hope other animal lovers will post their reading suggestions here at RealNEO.

BTW--the photo of Katie by Herb Ascherman is brilliant.

Great remembrance

  This post is a great remembrance Susan--I am glad to see that folks are revisiting it in light of Tricia's tragedy.

Merhle's Door - Opposed thumb was how I empathized

 When I discussed Ms. Miller's report on Merle's Door with a friend, (I haven't read the book) my friend explained that the story is about an animal who can't open the human's house door to get outside when the animal desires to go out.  

It struck me that the "door" that Merle was using was much like the door that Tucker scratched - image below.

Funny, I wrote a similar story to Merle's Door too!

Animals must have their civil rights too.    Seriously, we need a Global constitution for animal rights.