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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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Filed under REVIEW, sentimentality