Review: Ted Kerasote’s new dog book

Pukka’s Promise charms & irks this reviewer, a lover of canines.

I got Pukka’s Promise at a wonderful independent bookstore, Explore Booksellers, Aspen, Colorado.

I got Pukka’s Promise at a wonderful independent bookstore, Explore Booksellers, Aspen, Colorado.

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs by Ted Kerasote.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 388 pp.

Pukka in action.

Pukka in action.

Once when I was farming, I visited another shepherd and was stunned by the tameness of his sheep. Dave was a retired librarian, tall and energetic and assertive, and passionately in love with his little farm and his flock. Now sheep are timid creatures and know we’re predators—with our staring, front-placed eyes, dominating movements, most of us reeking of meat—but Dave’s let us amble right up. They greeted us with trusting eyes. I saw why: he spoke constantly to them, calling each ewe by name, commenting on her pretty lambs, and inquiring how she was doing. No predator does that. I realized that I didn’t use my own voice enough, but also felt I wasn’t as fine a shepherd as I’d supposed. Busy and all business, I took good care of my hoofed wards but seldom communed with them.

Ted Kerasote’s Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs had a similar effect. I adore dogs and have tried to be a good master to mine, but Kerasote is in a different league—it’s one lucky dog, with one glaring exception, who has him as his master. He hikes and hunts and plays with his pal, talks to him constantly, teaches him many words, and selects the best diet, playthings, and beds. Kerasote’s new book tells how when his beloved Labrador cross Merle died at age thirteen, he set out to replace him with a dog that might live much longer. This means one free of genetic defects and given the best home and veterinary care. Pukka comes from a Minnesota kennel that specializes in genetically screened field-type Labradors.

Canine age-extension is the book’s marketing peg and also a theme that unifies its meld of memoir—his first two years with Pukka—and how-to advice. There are extensive researched sections on diet, breeding, and vet care.

Kerasote’s advice and practices may seem nutty to your average dog owner. For instance, he scorns what he views as unnecessary scheduled vaccinations and also opposes neutering, making the case that both practices shorten dogs’ lives. The first issue I agree with, having grown to resent the way many vets now push products and procedures, though it’s been easier to go along to get along with my vet. The second, while perhaps true, is problematic for typical owners. As would be Pukka’s favorite breakfast: ground elk meat, chunks of elk heart and liver, chopped spinach, kale, chard, broccoli, and cauliflower, mixed with a raw egg and fish oil, and topped with an elk rib.

Given his dog’s diet, Kerasote is surprisingly moderate about kibble—if its maker abjures grain. But when I looked up one of his recommended elite brands I found that it just underwent a massive safety recall. Fact is, legions of dogs have lived to ripe-old ages eating mainstream and boring and grain-extended—and usually fresh and monitored—brands like Purina and Old Roy. Of course Kerasote doesn’t accept that thirteen or fourteen is sufficient. And he’s got a great emotional point, one that might be addressed by the intelligent selective breeding and conscientious care he advocates. Wouldn’t it be wonderful indeed if our dogs lived to at least twenty-five?

Kerasote lets his dog out

I was charmed by Kerasote’s warm-and-fuzzy persona, and admired his bravery in revealing it, while doubting I’d go half as far.

The deal-breaker for me was when he let Pukka roam his Wyoming village with other dogs. To Kerasote, this teaches a dog independence and helps it become an individual and attain the je-ne-sais-quoi Merle possessed after living in the wild before Kerasote found him. But even if Kerasote’s burgh is as dog-friendly as he says, he’s expecting everyone to love dogs, which they don’t. And roaming dogs get into garbage, harass other dogs, kill chickens. As a farmer, I saw the horrors to farm animals that loose dogs inflict. The late lamented Merle carried a bullet, and Kerasote admits this probably was from the gun of someone whose livestock Merle was chasing. He says he teaches Pukka to leave domestic ruminants alone, and depicts use of a shock collar to break a deer-chasing habit, but neither lesson’s foolproof when dogs are untended and in packs. It’s weird to learn that Kerasote is exposing Pukka to the risks of roaming even as he frets over the composition of Pukka’s toys and the effects of herbicide residues in his environment. I sense that Kerasote’s expressed antipathy to industrial agribusiness is larger, the blind spot of a hunter-gatherer toward all agriculture. I imagine he’d have a hard time grasping a husbandman’s distress over maimed ewes or massacred hens: You’re just going to kill them anyway, right?

I gathered from Amazon.com reviews that some readers devoured the book’s memoiristic passages while skimming, as I sometimes did, its swaths of technical information. Kerasote’s melding of the two aspects was impressive, though, and the information is there when and if you need it.

And, again, what a loving buddy he makes. When Pukka rides in Ted’s car, he has his own seatbelt, naturally. When Kerasote backpacks, Pukka also totes—panniers containing a supply of his own dehydrated elk meat—and, needless to say, Kerasote’s first-aid kit includes dog-specific products.

Memoir aspect reveals a poignant choice

You gather as you read that Kerasote is alone in life as in the wilderness, other than Pukka. He’s aware of your awareness and curiosity, and late in the book sets a revealing and poignant scene. As he spends a freezing night in his tent, cuddling Pukka for warmth, he recalls his recent break-up with a woman he still loves. She, president of her own company on the East Coast, can’t relocate to his remote western valley; he won’t abandon his location and lifestyle—both choices inseparable from his career as a top outdoor writer and photographer.

A snippet:

I unzipped the bag and put it over both of us, spooning him against me, my sweet young pup, his head under my chin, his back against my chest. I held him and thought, “How curiously things have turned out.” Here I was—more than halfway through my allotted run—still without a human partner, but with this very fine dog, with whom I was spectacularly in love: alone on the great divide, but not.

Perhaps Pukka felt my restlessness. Rubbing his face against my jaw, he gave me a lick on the cheek. I pulled him closer and felt his heart beating against mine. Then he relaxed completely and let out a sigh: “Ah, that’s better—touch, together, as we should be.”

How curious it would be—in truth, ironic and sad—if Kerasote’s sentimental view of dogs one day costs Pukka his life. Then again, I’ve never sustained his constant connection to a canine, and I admire it.

Which brings me to a real dilemma in rating Pukka’s Promise. Do I give this five-star book four stars because I disagree with and lament one immature notion? No matter what he says, I’m not going to let my dog roam; I presume his other readers won’t either; and surely 99.9 percent of the owners of roving dogs don’t buy 400-page books like this or expect affirmation for their rudeness and neglect. So maybe this extremist, with his surprising and stimulating contrary vision, is simply challenging the moderate middle to become a little better with our dogs, more worthy of their love.

Reluctantly, and in truth guiltily, I do dock Kerasote’s fine book for my one major disagreement, finding his practice odious. I sense it’s the dark side of his rare virtues as a master, a writer, and an outdoorsman.

Explore Books Photo

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14 Comments

Filed under REVIEW, sentimentality

14 responses to “Review: Ted Kerasote’s new dog book

  1. This sounds like a curious book. From what you describe, I also cannot see myself implementing some of the practices he suggests. I’ve had my share of trouble with “roaming” dogs and there’s nothing quite as annoying or rude.

    I was lucky enough to have my Kahlil for 14 years–he ate packaged dog food and went to the vet regularly. We also gave him a ton of TLC, which I think was the major contributor to his long life.

    Though we may think we want to have our dogs to live longer, our dog’s breeder sent this to us when we let her know that Kahlil had died. It’s attributed to Sir Walter Scott. I thought it was entirely appropriate:

    “I have sometimes thought of the final cause of dogs having such short lives and I am quite satisfied it is in compassion to the human race; for if we suffer so much in losing a dog after an acquaintance of ten or twelve years, what would it be if they were to live double that time?”

  2. What a great quote! I agree, Rachael. It would only get harder. Kerasote has an interesting section on animal lifespans—apparently some whales can live over 200 years—and why dogs might have evolved to live shorter lives than some other species, including fellow predators, as I recall.

  3. Richard, I thoroughly agree with you on the issue of roaming dogs. Aside from all the havoc that a roaming dog can do to others, the practice is often hazardous to the dog itself, which should be one of Kerasote’s main talking points, given the rest of his argument. My brother had a dog whom he rescued, and she was a roaming dog before he adopted her, and he is convinced that she lost some valuable years off her life even after he was able to give her top-notch care because of things that had happened to her when she was roaming. Besides, our world is no longer as big as it once was, it’s now more of the “it takes a village to civilize a dog and owner” sort of situation, to paraphrase Hilary Clinton’s famous quote about children, and we need to be aware of our neighbors’ needs more than ever. But thanks for pointing out the book; your review made very interesting and pertinent reading.

    • I appreciate that, Victoria. Kerasote is putting his dog at terrible risk, to be stolen, poisoned, shot, lost, injured. One of the astounding things he did was to force his village to modify itself: speed bumps and speed limit signs! I can’t help but wonder if a few of his neighbors hate him.

  4. As always, I enjoy your reviews, Richard. I’ve discovered many fine reads thanks to them. This book, however, isn’t for my still-bruised heart. Our Maggie’s been gone since November of 2011, and we still can barely speak of her. Now, though, we’re in a bit of a spot. We would consider another Lab, or even a pair, (because frankly, it’s hard living without a dog in the house when we’ve always had one with us), but at nearly 76, Buck frets more about his own longevity than that of a prospective new canine buddy. I have a vote, too, of course, and so we’ve begun a period of discernment on the subject. But allowing your dog to roam the village? No way.

    • I feel your pain, Beth. It was a full two years before I replaced our beloved terrier Jack with Belle. Be sure to watch for my upcoming review of Janice Gary’s dogwalking memoir, Short Leash.

    • Beth, I’m sorry to hear about your Maggie. We just lost our beloved whippet last month. The emptiness is larger than I could have ever imagined.

      I just read this story this morning. You might like it. It’s about a 71-year-old who didn’t know if he should get another hunting companion. At 71, he may not have a lot of hunting years left and he was worried about having a dog in its prime who no longer could be taken on hunts. He explains his ultimate decision: http://www.startribune.com/sports/outdoors/180704011.html

      • Thank you, Rachel, and I am sorry to hear of your loss, too. I have a friend with two whippets. What gentle, incredibly speedy, creatures. Bill Klein’s personal account is compelling. Very kind of you to bring it to my attention.

        More than ten years ago, when we began a project to regenerate a hundred acres of Longleaf pine forest near Pensacola, Florida, my husband mentioned his age, (then a youthful 65), noted the old saying that it takes an optimist to plant a tree, and that he hoped to live long enough to see the young trees mature. Today, we live in a beautiful forest of willowy trees, wild turkeys, deer, woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, and many other creatures.

        Martin Luther said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Maybe it’s time for a new pup.

  5. It’s incredible the companionship of beloved pets … I’m reminded of Eckhart Tolle’s new book, Guardians of Being (he points out that our pets keep us sane; and yes, he could be right) … so thanks, Richard, for highlighting an intriguing book. I agree, no “roaming” for Orion and Noah. I am obliged to protect them; just like they feel obliged to protect me. Have a wonderful 4th.

  6. I loved Kerasote’s first book, Merle’s Door, but also was troubled about the roaming aspect. My wolf-husky, Sundance, simply could not be contained until he was neutered at age 10 (like Kerasote, I had problems with robbing Sunny of his dog/”manhood”). But once I did, he stopped climbing fences and running off for days at a time.Lesson learned. There is also the concern for people who are afraid of dogs and the fact that some dogs, like my Barney, are dog-aggressive. Living among the wild beauty of Wyoming, Kerasote’s dogs are lucky indeed. Hard to balance the nature- loving nature of our canine friends with the realities of urban/suburban living.

    • Thanks for confirming, Jan. His neutering policy did seem awfully simplified to me, too, but I’ve always neutered and didn’t know. But at the least it would seem to complicate his policy of letting Pukka roam.

  7. paulettealden

    Thanks for another engaging review, Richard. I wonder if you’ve ever read My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerly? It’s been many years since I read it, but I loved it when I did — not for everyone, but dog lovers will get it. He didn’t believe in spaying, as I recall — Also, his memoir My Father and Myself is masterful.

    Right now, my mutt Murphy is asleep under my desk — he doesn’t want to be more than three feet from wherever I am (and I feel the same). What will I do when he’s gone . . .

    • Thank you, Paulette. I have read part of Ackerly’s book—it’s been in my TBR pile forever—and found it engaging and strange. Literature, in other words!