Review of Pukka's Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs by Ted Kerasote

After the death of his beloved dog Merle, Ted Kerasote was bereft. He wrote the beautiful book Merle's Door and soon Merle was celebrated by countless dog lovers around the world who took to heart the story of the young stray dog who found his soul mate, and the life they lived together. Pukka's Promise picks up Ted's story as he searches for his next canine companion.
 
After five years of grieving for his friend, Ted was ready to bring another dog into his life, but he wanted to avoid the heartache of losing a dog for as long as possible by investigating how he could ensure his next dog would live as long as possible. However, this proves no easy task, and Ted wrestles with many issues and explores vast swathes of research on his personal quest for a long-lived dog. If everyone put as much thought into getting and raising their dog as Ted Kerasote does, the world would be a much happier place; for both humans and dogs.
 
Never one to shy away from controversy, Ted decides not to adopt a rescue dog, as all rescue dogs will be neutered, and the research he is encountering indicates that entire dogs face less health problems. This flies in the face of current accepted wisdom in the dog world, and may well stir up a storm. To further complicate the issue, it seems that the benefits and disadvantages of neutering or not vary from breed to breed, but the fact seems to be that removing our dogs' reproductive organs may put them at risk of a variety of serious diseases, including cancer.
 
On the subject of controversy, just as with Merle, Ted uses a shock collar on Pukka. I cannot and do not defend the use of shock collars; Ted explains why he makes that decision in the book. It is strange that otherwise Pukka is trained with positive methods (clicking and treating) and is given much more freedom of choice than most dogs, but particularly for British readers the use of a shock collar will be just that - shocking.
 
Ted turns to breeders and discovers that not all breeders are equal. He highlights how some breeds - notably GErman Shepherds, Pekinese and Pugs - have been changed almost beyond recognition in the last hundred years, and sadly not for the better. Yet as far back as 1903 the British Kennel Club was warning against breeding for "extreme anatomical features" - so what's gone wrong? It turns out that in breeding selectively we have bred in some unexpected traits along the way. Ted's solution is to arm himself with as much health information as possible, and to quiz potential breeders not only about the parents of a litter, but the uncles, aunts, grandparents, great-grandparents and to build up an accurate idea of the health of the dogs who have all contributed their genes to the pups.
 
We may not have helped our dogs to live long lives by the way we've bred them, but Ted explains how wolves evolved into fast maturing short-lived animals, and explores the factors that affect an animals' lifespan. There is a lot of science in the book but Ted makes it very accessible, laying it out step by step, and of course in his trademark style, interweaving it with his and Pukka's story.
 
Following on from Merle, Pukka had some huge paws to fill, but he sounds charming, inventive and courageous. Pukka learns to play fetch with gravity, figures out how to drag Ted's gun case through the dog door, and encounters a rich array of local wildlife. As Merle did, Pukka has the freedom to come and go as he sees fit, and Ted uses a GPS collar at one point to track his dog's adventures. Of course, not all dogs can enjoy such freedom, but Ted believes such a lifestyle contributes to his dogs' physical and mental well-being, and advocates as much freedom as possible for all dogs.
 
Pukka finds his place in the extended pack of local dogs, and the character of each dog is brought out and "translated" by the words Ted attributes to them. Special mention must go to Buck, who becomes Pukka's mentor - sometimes leading his protege astray - and close friend. Just as Merle's Door made many of us re-examine our attitudes towards our dogs, Pukka's Promise emphasises that if given the chance, dogs have opinions and preferences about how they live, and appreciate the opportunity to exercise some control and choice.
 
Although the research contained in the book is vital reading, it's not always reassuring reading. Ted takes us through a typical day for a dog, listing the pollutants he may come into contact with, and the effects this can have on him. He interviews experts who opine that we over-vaccinate our dogs to an alarming degree, again causing health problems. Diet proves a tricky area with some experts insisting that grain is a no-no for a dog, while others recommend it. The balance seems to come down against grain in dog food, and raw feeding is recommended if possible, but the examination of the complex evidence about diet is compelling reading.
 
Humour is used to great effect in the book, and one of the most charming aspects of Ted Kerasote is the way he willingly and without embarrassment enters into a dog's world - crawling through dog doors, giving play bows, adopting body language and a growl to discipline his dog, and even sniffing scat that Pukka points out to him. Another endearing factor is that Ted wants to be part of a team with his dog, and teaches Pukka the English words for not only commands, but animals, birds and plants; and who else would even contemplate trying to give his dog a concept of the moon?
 
I thoroughly enjoyed Pukka's Promise, and just like Merle's Door, it made me smile, it made me cry and it certainly made me think. Poignantly, as winter looms after their first summer together, Ted says that Pukka has illuminated his life, "For five years my life had been dogless, and now doglight was back in it, no matter how short the days.” I am delighted that Ted is part of a happy partnership again - and I sincerely hope that Pukka's light shines for as long as possible.

Review by Julie Hill