Ted Kerasote begins his book about his dog Merle by describing what Merle must have sensed when the dog approached Ted’s river-running group. A canine reads olfactory signatures, in this case, the odors of sweat, pizza, wild game, and the outdoor life these people led. Merle must have liked the way Ted smelled, because he stuck with him through the river trip, and afterward, for a 14 year life together.
Throughout the book, Ted interprets Merle’s thoughts and feelings in a way that is totally believable. He intersperses his description of events in Merle’s life with research on dogs, wolves, and other wild creatures, offering an explanation for Merle's behaviors.
Merle’s life offers an experiment in dog freedom and equality, rather than a canine functioning in a typical human-as-alpha/dog-as-beta environment. Because of his lifestyle in a unique fenceless, leashless Wyoming community, Merle developed his senses and independence as few domesticated animals are able to do, and became an outdoorsman’s ideal companion. Although the book’s title actually refers to a doggie door Ted installed to give Merle more freedom, it also serves as a metaphor for the door Ted opens into Merle’s – and all dogs’ - psyche.