Pukka’s Promise: Book Review

One of the best things about being an author is being sent pre-publication copies of books. It’s great fun to see what’s going to be out on the bookshelves and eReaders in a couple of months. (Of course, one of the worst things about being an author is being sent pre-pub copies of books. They pile up. They sit on your desk looking at you, begging in some passive, rectangular way for endorsements.)

Most of the books are somewhat interesting, a few of them are downright, uh, horrible.  And every once in a while a truly great one comes along, that sucks you in and causes you to change your schedule and read, read, read until the last page is turned and the book closes and you are mad at yourself for staying up so damn late.

That describes Ted Kerasote’s new book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Long-Lived Dogs. I fell in love with his writing in Merle’s Door, and Pukka’s Promise contains the same clear and luminous stories, but this time about his new pup, Pukka. But it is much more than a book about a dog. He begins by telling us about Merle’s last days, and describes greeting a couple’s new chocolate Lab pup: “His breath smelled like milk and vanilla and young teeth. I made a smooching noise with my lips; he squirmed in delight. ‘Oh, you are a beauty,’ I told him, kissing his head . . .  and as I watched them [the pup and the couple] go I thought ‘In fourteen years, perhaps sooner, certainly not much longer, he’ll break your heart. Your entire life from now until then will be colored by him: his woofs, his wags, his smells, how he swam, his yips while he dreamed, how he rode your first child on his back, and how he began to slow down just as you were hitting your stride.’ I looked back at Merle, grinning at me from the truck. Like everyone’s dog, he had been all that and more, and I thought: ‘Why do they have to die so young?”

That’s why Ted wrote this book, and that’s what this book is about: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs. It is a book whose topic is long overdue. I met Ted when he came to Madison on book tour for Merle’s door, and over coffee he asked if I thought it was a reasonable topic for a book, having been struck so often when talking about Merle how short our dog’s lives are, and how painful their deaths. “Oh yes yes yes” I said, as I’m sure did many others. How often have we said “If only they lived longer….”?

I’ll talk later about some of the details in the book because they deserve their own posts: Does spaying and neutering help or hinder a dog’s longevity–what does the research say? Are dogs more susceptible to cancers than adult humans, and if so, why, and what to do about it? What really goes on inside a dog food production facility? Kerasote spent a good five years tracking down the answers to questions about diet, environmental health, genetics and medicine with a relentless obsessiveness that would put a Border Collie to shame. This is a guy with some serious stamina: wait until you read what he goes through to find his next dog.

As in Merle’s Door, Ted writes, without apology, as if he always aware of the inner most thoughts of his dogs. I have some problems with that, but not enough to keep me from loving the book. Ted makes some training choices that some won’t agree with, but his honesty is refreshing, and makes the book even stronger. A warning: Most of us will never be able to do all the things that Ted is doing to keep Pukka healthy (there are no elk in my backyard, and I wouldn’t know how to kill one for Willie if our lives depended on it). But there is a much here for all dog lovers. Maybe, just maybe, each of our dogs can live a little bit longer because of what we are learning about canine longevity. I liked the book so much you can order it off of our website. I can’t wait to hear what you think.

[Spoiler alert: I spent most of the weekend holed up with a bad cold and another pre-pub book, Susannah Charleson’s The Possibility Dogs. (She wrote Scent of the Missing.) The new book is coming out in June, and even though I’ve already read it I can barely wait. Here’s part of the blurb I wrote: “Simply BRILLIANT!”]

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Well it was ten below zero this morning (that’s Farenheit, or  -23 Celsius). Thank heavens we got a fat layer of snow that plopped down on Wednesday and is insulating the soil, plants and small mammals underneath it. But it’s nippy, very nippy for us around here. It’s all relative, isn’t it? This is average weather for the interior of Alaska and for some readers in colder climes, but chilly for us here in Wisconsin and ridiculously cold for someone in Florida or Columbia.

Tootsie makes it out to pee and poop and then lifts one cold paw and looks at me pathetically. (It’s such an irony that extreme cold feels like a burn on your hands and fingers, isn’t it? The first time I experienced snow I was shocked that it made my hands feel like they were on fire.) Willie is not picking up his paws and seems oblivious (“Let’s play, let’s play some more!!!”), and I get cold long before he seems to, so I don’t know where his limit is.  The kitties seem just fine, they cuddle together in their cozy kitty igloo in the garage and the sheep.. well, that’s what wool is for, right?

The wild birds will be fine IF they have enough food, and we are working hard to keep the feeders full. I’d say we are going through about 4-5 pounds of sunflower seed a day, not to mention a pound or two of suet. Here’s a photo I took the morning after the storm of 2 Chickadees preparing to launch onto the feeders. It’s not an especially good photo of the birds themselves, but I include it here because I love the light in it along with the deep blue sky that often follows our storms . . .



And here is Mr. Willie loving winter play–he gets to do some fetching in winter if the snow is deep because it helps to soften the impact when he chases. (He still loves the old, beat up disc best!)



  1. Gordon Edwards says

    I don’t have anything witty, charming, brilliant, clever or thought provoking to say. But I did want to say just how much I enjoy reading what goes on at The Other End of the Leash. Especially as I sit here gazing out at my own -10F Wisconsin morning (up from -16 the last time I looked).

    Thank you so much for everything!!!

  2. Trisha Shirey says

    I loved Merle’s Door and Scent of the Missing. I look forward to reading both author’s latest books. We are in the 70s here in Austin – think I’ll just stay right here!

  3. Kat says

    Happy Dance two more great books to look forward to! I can hardly wait. I’ve just started reading Fired Up, Frantic and Freaked Out: Training Crazy Dogs from Over-the-top to Under Control by Laura VanArendonk Baugh in my never ending quest to improve my understanding and increase my skill set to help my very own Fired up, freaked out, frantic Finna. I’m only into the second chapter but I’m loving the breezy style and the sensible explanations. So far it looks like a keeper that I’ll be happy to recommend. Meanwhile Finna is asleep at my feet after successfully managing to find enough brain power to come away from the utility worker walking down the driveway next door, the driveway runs along our fence. She managed this feat on her own. I called and squeaked her ball which after 14 long long long months was enough to remind her this morning that there was another choice she could make, one that would make her feel more confident and less fearful. Hooray for small victories.

    I love the picture of Willy. Ranger, my other dog, also loves the snow and cold. His rough double coat provides him plenty of insulation. Take him for a walk when it’s snowing and my tri-color comes back a white dog because he’s not losing enough heat to melt the snow as it lands on him.

  4. Marjorie says

    I recently read Merle’s Door and really enjoyed it, so I’m looking forward to his new book. Poor Tootsie! Those freezing temps and salt are hard on the toes. One of my Cavaliers was born in the winter and she is for sure a winter dog and the other one was born in the summer and can’t stand the cold. I call them my summer and winter dogs. I wonder if the season a litter is born really does affect their temp preferences???

  5. ABandMM says

    So Trisha, how many boxes of kleenex will we need for Pukka’s Promise? I remember tearing up a lot at the end of Merle’s Door. I just finished “Inside of a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz, which made me feel a bit guilty because I can’t let my girl off leash to follow her umwelt and her nose.

    The timing of finishing up “Inside of a Dog” worked well in that last night I went to a lecture (general audience) by Temple Grandin about different kinds of minds and thought processing pathways. Most of the crowd was from the autism community; only one question asked about her work with animals/livestock. She is a very inspiring (and very frank) speaker.

  6. says

    Oh heck yeah, a new Susannah Charleson book! I loved Scent of the Missing so very much!

    On the topic of dog longevity…well, it’s certainly enough of a problem with Dobermans that if/when a dog reaches 10, he or she may be awarded a longevity certificate through the Doberman Pinscher Club of America.

    On the topic of Merle’s Door….I liked some of it, and there were other parts of it that bothered me profoundly. I did, however, enjoy his writing.

  7. LisaH says

    Both Merle’s Door and Scent of the Missing were amazing, so interesting and well written. I look forward to their authors’ new works. A book I just finished minutes ago is hands down one of the best non-dog book I have read in years – Quiet: The Power of Inteoverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I wonder how many animal lovers share the trait of introversion?

  8. KateH says

    It would be wonderful to have dogs live longer (as I look at the photo on the desk of 3 of my besties, taken when they were young, who are all now gone), but the one saving grace I find in their shorter lives is that means I can have a new friend come after. Each dog is so special, and if I could only have them live for 25 years, healthy and happy, the end is still going to suck. I’ve been sort of fortunate in that my most recent loss was after 14 1/2 years with a princess among greyhounds, who I was lucky enough to adopt when she was only 8 months old, so the time was the longest I’ve ever had. But I wouldn’t have missed the 13 months I had with my first grey, who died from a mis-managed hyperthermia event, because he was an amazing dog who helped me become more social and active while I had him, so that I could go out with my next greyhound and do more to help with adoptions.

    My heart dog developed GSD spinal myelopathy at age 11, and a bladder tumor at 12 that took him from me far too soon (although other shepherd owners would love to have had that much time. But he was very jealous of my time and personal space and I couldn’t adopt two other dogs I truly wanted to give homes to because he would have made their lives hell or worse. His death allowed another dog to stay out of a kill pound and to become a best friend and walking companion (I can walk her with most of my pet sitting client’s dogs, which I could never have done before), so I can share the good home and love that I can offer.

    Luckily, having multiples is possible for me, so I can share more, but whenever one dog dies, I am heart-broken, but when the next dog comes along, it’s a joy to start the process all over again.

  9. says

    thanks for letting us know about good books! My list is piling up- just started Science of Consequences, and also added Epigenetics, How Environment Shapes Our Genes, though I’m not sure I’ll get through that one or not. I read Merle’s Door when it first came out, enjoyed it very much, though like many there were choices made that I had difficulty with.

    Looking forward to reading about longevity- having read about higher COIs leading to decreased lifespans in poodles (and other species) I recently bred my first litter (they are now 3 weeks old and FUN) of Border Collies and had testing done on the sire as well as my bitch to make sure they would have good heterozygosity, at least at the MHC, for the best possibility of good health and long life. And of course, other efforts, such as keeping momma dog calm and unstressed through pregnancy and making sure she had a good diet. Will be interesting to see what he’s found out!

    Susan Mann, Brodie and Arie (+5)

  10. Beth with the Corgis says

    Longevity is an important topic, especially in some purebred dogs where we seem to have selected towards shorter lifespans. It would be interesting to know what genetic old age is in a dog. Based on dogs we have, I would think that dogs as a rule have a genetically determined life span of about 13 to 14 years and everything above that is “old”.

    When you look at people, you can go back in history and find that in historical times, there have always been people who lived to 85 or 90 but that with improved diet, antibiotics, and health care in general what happens is that MORE people successfully reach that genetically predetermined age. We would need some huge breakthrough in our understanding of natural aging to get many people living beyond that.

    Similarly, when I’ve had dogs live to be 15 or 16, they seemed ancient (physically) and started seeming old several years before that; gray muzzles, slowing down, losing senses, etc. So just like people live to different ages but almost universally someone above 80 is starting to show many signs of aging, it seems that dogs hit old age around 12 or 13 and anything beyond that is a bonus.

    Sadly, we have some purebred dogs whose average lifespan is only 8 or 9, which would be like a family tree where no one makes it past 55.

  11. says

    I also read the book and loved it! I thought Merle’s Door was wonderful, and Pukka is written with the same beautiful prose. The new book does raise some difficult questions, such as the spaying and neutering debate, but I think the discussions that come from the book will be very important. I highly recommend the book as well. I am curious to see how readers respond to it.

  12. says

    While reading Merle’s Door I looked at the Googled Map satelite view of Kelly, Wyoming. That explained a lot. You can even see the yurts. Tricia, Kerasote’s reading/signing in Milwaukee on the twelfth, I believe.

  13. says

    Non-post comments first: YESH, at least I am a animal (horse, dog, cat) loving person who is an introvert and who LOVED “Quiet” by Susan Cain; catch her TED talk.
    Typos leap onto the page in the nanosecond between review of a comment/post and hitting “submit/publish.” I’m convinced this is an Internet unpublished “natural” law.

    Thank you for this review – Pukka has been on my list for some time; I thoroughly enjoyed Merle’s Door while recognizing many of the choices Ted was able to make with Merle are not suitable in a more urban environment. His writing and compassion are splendid. Great! – now I look forward to The Possibility Dogs (could they be rescue dogs??). Plan to order from your site, Trish, ASAP.

    Because I’m a champion of senior dogs (just took in an alleged 14 y/o Spaniel type; my vet says she’s not your usual – meaning a hound – to which I replied no rescue, not even the senior ones in St. Louis could/would take her – she is splendid BTW simply very anxious in AC and more 11 y/o than 14), it bugs me when people don’t want to adopt/train an older dog since we won’t have as much time with it/or they can’t learn anymore. Time is never guaranteed. I’ve lost young and old dogs to injury and illness; I know a woman whose incredible 3 y/o Pembroke Corgi died of spinal cancer. I teach my old dogs new tricks all the time; for me as a home based rescue where the dogs are inside with access to a huge yard, it is giving them time to adjust, to be dogs first in a new situation and when they have their “sea legs” back, so to speak, they are more than ready to learn right along with my two year olds.

    Beware – there may be typos :). HA.

  14. Kerry M. says

    Just pre-ordered a hardcover of Susannah Charleson’s new book. I pre order at most a half dozen physical books a year so that’s a big deal for me. It’s not that I don’t read. I read too much and hate giving away books so I usually only buy a book the 2nd time I read it. Every book that comes in means a book has to go out. I have the same rule for shoes. Keeps my buying in check.

    I’ve read the sample beginning of Merle’s Door and I just felt there was a smugness there that might annoy me. I keep meaning to go back because it is so highly recommended, but I don’t know. Did anyone else get that sense in the first chapters? Does it get better or worse?

  15. Lisa W says

    @ Kerry M,
    It’s been several years since I read Merle’s Door, but what I do remember thinking throughout the book was this is one person’s account of his life with his dog to help me from being too critical or annoyed with his “voice.” It felt a little evangelistic at times. I also remember noting some contradictions in his open door dog policy and a few of his methods. I enjoyed the book but it wouldn’t be one I’d have to keep in my book stacks.

    I loved Scent of the Missing, and if I had to choose, I buy Susannah’s next book before Pukka’s Promise. IMHO

  16. Kerry M. says

    Thanks, Lisa. I loved Scent of the Missing. I think I forgot to mention that. Because I loved it, that’s why I didn’t hesitate to auto-buy her next book. Which I mentioned is rare for me – especially for a book that my library will likely get.

    Given the love here, I’ll definitely check Merle’s Door out from my library. I am pretty sure that my own feelings that I’d like to have (but can’t currently have) an off-leash dog is probably making me over-sensitive to tone on this topic.

  17. says

    At Kerry M and Lisa W,
    I loved
    sent Of The Missing and I can’t wait to buy her next book. Murl’s door was, Meh, for me. I liked it, but there were some things he did, like others, that I didn’t like. I’d be willing to give his newest book though.

  18. Kristin T says


    Loved Merle’s Door and can’t wait to read Pukka’s Promise. Thanks for providing the review.

    Off topic, I seem to remember you mentioning you trained Trixie to stay quiet in her cage until you were ready to let her out in the morning. Can you possibly give a brief explanation of how you did that? Our 11 month old pup is still waking the household up a 5:30 am. I would greatly appreciate it.

    Thank you!

  19. Nic1 says

    Thanks for providing the review Patricia. This book is on my wish list.

    There are many, many factors at play which keep a dog healthy – both genetic and environmental. It’s good to see that this book is interested in looking at what science tells us about all these factors.

    Genetic variation provides the raw material for evolutionary success. I spent ten years working in the pathology field (human beings not canine!) in a couple of countries in the middle east. I saw first hand how the culture influenced reproductive success. One family had generations of people marrying their first cousins which resulted in some rather interesting physical and mental abnormalities, some of which we had absolutely no idea what inborn errors of metabolism were actually occurring.

    Out-crossing and not in-breeding is where we should be progressing when it comes to our dogs. It’s how nature works best. The health and temperament of our dogs is the most important issue. Not what they look like. There are some breeds who are dropping to bits because they are reaching the end of their line. They are then subjected to a life of misery, vet visits, lack of enrichment because they are too physically fragile to live a full life (thinking of the brachycephalic syndrome dogs here) just because some people happen to think they look cute.

    Mark Evans, who was the chief Vet at the RSPCA likened Crufts to a ‘freak show for mutants’ in 2008. He resigned his post after that statement as I think it upset a lot of people! There are plenty of people dedicated to breeding healthy dogs of course! However, a really good documentary by Jemima Harrison, ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ on the subject of the health of our dogs is worth checking out…

  20. Lumi says

    Merle’s door was interesting, but one third of it made me cry uncontrollably. Since the book is pretty thick, that meant hours and hours of tears. I’m not sure if I could go through that again with Pukka.

  21. Nancy says

    Anecdotal evidence: one of our pit bulls is now 17 years old, and she’s still going strong (considering). My first rescue dog (a lab cross) lived to 14, which I thought was amazing. My next rescue (a husky cross) lived to 15, which I thought even more amazing. And now Tiva, our 3rd rescue, is chugging along at 17. Our vet says she’s seeing lots of dogs in her practice now who make it to 18 or 19, and not just tiny dogs. She thinks better food and better vet care are both probably playing important roles.

  22. Pike says

    Great and important read!

    Well researched (and referenced) treasure trove of health information combined with a refreshing dose of unconventional approaches to about every aspect of dog care.

    I especially like that he acknowledges the deep need of some dogs to be as free spirited as safely possible.

    And I love his vision of a gated dog lover community! Sorry, you will have to read the book to understand :)

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