By Dr. Becker
Today I have a very special interview guest. He’s Ted Kerasote, the bestselling author of a wonderful book I know many of you have read or heard about called Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog.
In addition to Merle’s Door, Ted has written several other books including Bloodties, Heart of Home, Out There, and Pukka: The Pup After Merle.
Ted’s latest book, which went on sale yesterday and is sure to be another bestseller, is called Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs.
I was able to get an early copy of Pukka’s Promise, and this is a really fascinating book. I encourage all of you who are watching, listening or reading here today to pick up a copy.
The origin of Pukka’s Promise.
I was aware of Ted’s latest book endeavor because we spoke about it during our discussion last year.
I asked Ted to talk about how he came to the decision to write Pukka’s Promise. He explained he was on a book tour for Merle’s Door, sitting in his hotel room in Monroe, Louisiana on a rainy afternoon. As he read through emails from readers, he realized he was receiving hundreds of notes from people asking questions about why their dogs died so young. “Why did my dog die of cancer at three … four …. five years of age?” “Why did four out of my five Golden Retrievers die of cancer?”
And Ted began to wonder, “Well, why DO dogs die so young? Why did Merle die of cancer? And Brower? And Pearly?” (These were some of Merle’s old friends.) So he started doing some of his first research for the book sitting in that hotel room. Pretty soon, it became clear to him there are really just a handful of reasons – seven, to be exact – to explain why dogs die young.
One reason is they’re related to wolves, and wolves are a short-lived species of animal. He explains this in more detail in his new book.
Another reason is we breed dogs not for longevity, but for how they look. In addition, many dogs are inbred, which increases the incidence of genetically transmitted diseases.
And then there’s nutrition, which I talk about extensively here at Mercola Healthy Pets.
Environmental pollution is another factor that negatively affects dogs even more than people, because dogs have smaller bodies.
Vaccinations are another influence. Dogs get many, many more vaccinations than humans do.
As he compiled the list in his head, Ted realized, “Gosh, I think there’s a book here.” He began to jot down some notes, and suddenly experienced a sort of flash that Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov talked about – an author sees the entirety of his book in a nanosecond, in a supernova flash of inspiration.
Ted realized it was time to get another dog, and the new dog would be a central character in the new book. And he would need to raise this new dog according to the healthier principles he was learning through his research.
Five years later, he finished the book we’re talking about today, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs.
The writing of Pukka’s Promise takes Ted all over the world.
Next I asked Ted to talk about the incredible amount of information gathering he did for the book. He flew around the world meeting and talking with a very diverse group of fascinating people.
Ted responded that one of the key people he met was Dr. Bruce Fogle, a veterinarian in London who is also the author of many books on dogs. Fogle graciously introduced Ted to others in the dog world, including veterinarian Dr. Åke Hedhammar of the Swedish University at Uppsala. Åke works with the Swedish Kennel Club and has been instrumental in helping them put more rigorous certifications in place in that country.
Åke Hedhammar’s work led Ted to Wayne Cavanaugh, the head of the United Kennel Club in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Cavanaugh is in the process of revising breed standards to place more emphasis on the health of dogs.
Ted also mentioned Dr. Greg Ogilvie of Carlsbad, California, a canine oncologist who has some very interesting ideas about nutrition and cancer prevention. And he was also kind enough to say that I, too, have been instrumental in helping his research for the book. Over the years, Ted and I have discussed a wide range of topics about canine health, including the implications of spaying and neutering, diet and nutrition, and natural ways to raise our dogs.
I also introduced Ted to Dr. Jack Oliver at the University of Tennessee, who sadly passed away in 2011. Dr. Oliver was one of my mentors, and instrumental in connecting the dots between spaying/neutering and its effect on the endocrine system.
Chapter 19 of Pukka’s Promise: “Shelters to Sanctuaries”
One of my favorite chapters in Pukka’s Promise is titled “Shelters to Sanctuaries.” I asked Ted why he decided to include the subject of shelters in his book.
He explained that a couple years into writing the book, it occurred to him that in order to fully discuss why dogs die young in the U.S., he needed to address a key factor – killing healthy dogs in animal shelters. We kill 1.5 million dogs in this country every year. As Ted puts it, “If you’re a dog and you end up in the shelter system, your chances of dying young are high.” So he knew he couldn’t write a book about canine mortality without including the shameful number of healthy animals killed in shelters every day in this country.
In fact, according to Ted this was one of the reasons the book was not released in October 2010, as originally scheduled. He needed extra time to research the shelter chapters, which took him not only across the U.S., but also to Europe, Russia and India to see how other cultures deal with homeless dogs – or how they resolved the problem, as countries in Europe have.
Ted made some really interesting discoveries through his shelter research. I have a background in the traditional shelter system, and many people – including veterinarians – don’t realize we could turn the horrific situation in this country around like other countries have. But it takes insight, planning, and forethought of the kind Ted discusses in Pukka’s Promise. So I’m very excited about that particular chapter in his book.
Ted explained that the hardest chapter to write – and the hardest day he spent during the writing of the book – was the day he spent at a shelter in Los Angeles. He watched so many dogs being killed and could do nothing about it. He did bring one dog out of the shelter, Chance.
Many people who work in shelters face the same thing every day, and our hearts go out to them. Ted expressed that he could never do that job. I explained that I actually did that job. I became a certified euthanasia technician at the age of 17. Ultimately I had to give it up, because in order to be involved in animal welfare the rest of my life, which was my plan, I had to get out of that role while I still had some emotional energy – before I completely burned out. It’s an overwhelmingly difficult job to do.
The hardest chapters to write? The ones on canine nutrition …
Ted explained the hardest chapter to write by far was the chapter on nutrition. In fact, it is now four chapters!
There were many challenges Ted faced as he talked with well-meaning people on all sides of the pet diet debate. There were those who said, “This is what you have to believe. Dogs can eat kibble. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
And then there were people like me saying, “That’s nonsense. Dogs were not designed to eat corn. They need raw food and vegetables.”
Ted was faced with trying to sort all that out without a single scientific study having ever been done comparing genetically similar dogs, one on a grain-free diet and one on a kibble diet.
There are no studies to turn to and say, “Ah, this question has been answered!” So he had to look at lots of peripheral evidence to reach his own conclusions about the best way to feed dogs. He visited food renderers and dog food manufacturing facilities; he talked to people like me and people in the pet food industry. Ted believes he came to an eventual conclusion that will help people make better decisions about how they can feed their dogs.
Unfortunately, one of the great difficulties is that many people would love to feed their dogs better food, but they simply can’t afford to and there’s no way around that. If you want to feed your dog – especially a large dog – frozen raw food that’s organic and from free-range animals, it’s hugely expensive.
Ted says that through his vast research on the subject, he has found kibbles that are convenient, made without grain or preservatives that cost about $500 a year to feed a 70-pound dog. He says that’s not too bad – only a little over twice the amount most U.S. households spend to feed their dogs.
Creating a diet for Pukka.
Next I asked Ted to talk about how he fed Merle vs. how he feeds Pukka. He explained that through his research, he learned he would need to feed his new dog differently. He was not happy with how he’d fed Merle, and he goes into detail in the book.
When he brought Merle home from Utah, he fed him a corn-based kibble. And Merle started itching. He experimented with changing his diet, and the itching finally disappeared when he transitioned Merle to a primarily meat-based diet.
Throughout Merle’s life, Ted supplemented his regular diet with elk, antelope, duck, salmon and grouse. As he points out, Merle was too big to be fed an exclusive diet of wild game – hunters can’t legally kill that much meat. As he discusses in the new book, it would take nine elk to feed Pukka for a year, since he eats about 1,300 pounds of meat and bones in a 12-month period.
So Ted had to come up with a different plan. He went to a frozen raw diet containing mostly organic ingredients, free-range livestock, organ meats and veggies. That’s Pukka’s main source of nutrition, along with dried elk chips (a commercial brand) and a high quality commercial kibble that contains whole meats and no grains. He doesn’t eat that very often – just as needed -- like when Ted takes Pukka backpacking. Pukka carries his own food, and when they are days into a backpacking trip, it’s nice to have dried elk chips and some kibble. That way, Pukka can carry enough food to feed himself on the trip.
Ted also supplements Pukka’s diet with elk, bison, antelope and fresh vegetables. In fact, one of Pukka’s favorite meals is ground elk, including the heart, liver and lungs, cauliflower, broccoli and kale (all finely chopped), a raw egg, and an elk rib laid on top!
Does that not sound like most dogs’ perfect fantasy meal right there?
Backtracking a bit … how Ted moved on after Merle’s death to find Pukka.
Deciding the right time to get another pet after one has passed is an intensely personal decision. In my case, I waited almost a year and a half, even though I’m sure it seemed odd to many of my veterinary clients that I didn’t have a dog during that period. I was moving through my own mourning process. My dog had been so incredibly special to me that I couldn’t imagine ever loving another dog so much.
In Ted’s case, five years passed between Merle’s death and Pukka’s arrival in his life. As he explains it, after Merle died, Ted felt he still had a dog for years – it was Merle in spirit form. He could still see Merle sitting beside him as he wrote … still see him with that look on his face that said, “Hey, isn’t it time to go for a ski?” … he could still see Merle’s head right next to his own while driving his car.
(I actually think Ted has another book about Merle in him – one that tells the story of his enduring spirit.)
Ted says many of his friends asked him why he wasn’t getting a new dog. They told him he’d be over his mourning if he got a new dog. And he answered them with, “I don’t want to be over my mourning.”
Ted was writing Merle’s biography and wanted him here so he could “render him in every loving detail.” Since his goal was to write Merle’s memoir, he didn’t want another dog diluting his memories of Merle. “I wanted to mourn and grieve him appropriately for being, at that point, the great love in my life – the great canine love,” Ted said.
When he was at last ready to begin looking for a new dog, many people said, “Oh, just go down to the shelter and get a dog.” But to Ted, 10 or 15 years seemed like a long time to spend with a companion you’re not really passionate about. He said he finds it fascinating that for many people, almost any dog will do.
And God bless them! I think that’s awesome!
Ted agreed, but at the same time, he gets many letters from people who don’t put much thought into a companion animal and then wind up disappointed. And to those people he’d like to say, “Well, maybe you should have spent a little more time looking.” And he didn’t want to find himself in that situation.
Ted’s search for Pukka.
Ted checked literally dozens of shelters for his new dog. Finally he conceded that he wasn’t going to find a dog at a shelter that met his needs, which were quite specific. He wanted a dog who could do the things Merle had done with him. He didn’t want a dog he had to leave home. Ted spends a lot of time outdoors and he wanted a dog who could ski, swim rivers and was comfortable in rugged terrain.
He also wanted a dog who could hunt with him. Ted explained that hunting is a way for him to get some of his food from the land on which he lives – for him, it’s a spiritual connection to the land. And he wanted a dog who could happily participate in those adventures. So there were size constraints. One can’t take a very small dog into snow that’s four feet deep, for example.
So eventually, Ted wound up with breeders. And by that time, he knew he also wanted an intact dog. That was another reason a shelter dog wouldn’t work – in most cases, and for very good reason, those dogs must be sterilized before they go home with their new families. Ted wanted to be able to describe in his new book, and perhaps subsequent books, the experience of life with an intact male dog – especially since very few people have the opportunity to live with an intact dog anymore.
This makes sense for Ted and his dog, but of course, not for everyone. Since Ted is documenting his life with Pukka and wants to give him a lifestyle conducive to longevity, leaving the dog intact reduces the health risks linked to neutering. (There are no intact female dogs in the tiny community where Ted lives, so Pukka has no opportunity to mate and reproduce.)
In Pukka’s Promise, Ted discusses in detail his journey to find the right breeder.
How Pukka is different from Merle.
I asked Ted what differences he has noticed between Merle and Pukka. He responded that the big difference is Pukka is growing up with a “silver bowl” in front of him -- he has the best of everything.
Merle, on the other hand, had a hardscrabble life before he found Ted. And these two very different lifestyles created two different personalities. As Ted explained, Merle was the ultimate survivor dog, but he was always somewhat wary.
Pukka, who is growing up with lots of care and love, didn’t experience the same school of hard knocks Merle survived.
Pukka doesn’t like to roam as much as Merle did, even though he has the same access to a dog door. He’s very happy to stay home and wait till Ted invites him to go do something.
Ted also says Merle sang, and he thinks it’s because the dog grew up with coyotes. Pukka very rarely howls or sings.
Pukka is far more affectionate and cuddly than Merle was. Merle seemed to be saying, “Hey, man, I don’t have time for this!” He liked hanging out with Ted, but not ON Ted, whereas Pukka wants to sleep in Ted’s bed, preferably in his arms!
Pukka likes the warmth and comfort of home when it’s 20 degrees outside, but Merle would be out there anyway, exploring.
Pukka has no fear of guns. Merle didn’t like them; he had been shot in his life before Ted. Pukka loves hunting birds. Merle only liked hunting elk.
And Merle was neutered; Pukka is not. In Pukka’s Promise, Ted discusses some of the normal behaviors of an intact dog that most of us are not accustomed to seeing or dealing with.
Raising a freethinking self-actualized dog.
I asked Ted if he thinks he’s accomplished his goal of creating a freethinking self-actualized dog in Pukka. Ted thinks he has, as much as possible without subjecting Pukka to the things Merle endured before he came to live with Ted. He says Pukka makes a lot of his own decisions and is able to entertain himself extremely well. If Ted doesn’t have time to play with him, Pukka will find a ball and throw it against the wall, or find a stick and throw it up in the air. Ted helped Pukka learn how to amuse himself when he was a puppy.
Ted worked with Pukka a lot as a puppy to help him grow into a balanced, stable, confident dog. He spent a lot of time very intentionally creating the fabulous dog Pukka is today.
Ted noted that one of the things that really struck him about both Merle and Pukka is how long it takes dogs to learn certain things. He believes dog owners who haven’t spent that time and energy don’t realize what it takes. He thinks we tend to expect miracles from our dogs, when it actually often takes countless repetitions to get a dog to the point of understanding what you want from him. We are, after all, speaking two different languages, both verbally and conceptually.
In addition, a human’s view of the world is very different from a dog’s. Just helping a dog understand the words we use takes time – lots of time – on a daily basis. And, of course, they forget, so you get up the next day and do it all over again until eventually, much or most of it “sticks.”
Ted says if he could give one piece of advice to dog owners, it would be to exercise more patience with their pets. Cut your dog more slack. He’s desperately trying to please you – he just doesn’t always understand exactly what you want from him. And as Ted points out, timing is crucial. We often unintentionally give our dogs a cue we didn’t mean to send.
That’s why Ted believes in clicker training. He uses a clicker with Pukka, because it gives the dog the cue at the precise instant and dramatically reduces opportunities for miscommunication between man and dog. Ted gives kudos to Karen Pryor and her clicker training.
Stay tuned next week for part 2 of my 3-part interview with Ted Kerasote, when we’ll talk more about his new book, Pukka’s Promise. During our discussion, Ted will reveal the seven major factors that determine the longevity of our precious canine companions.