Long Lived and Well Loved Dogs – Reviewing Pukka’s Promise

Honey the Golden Retriever rolls in the snow at Ithaca falls.

Rolling in the snow will make me live a long time. Don’t you know cold is a preservative?

I didn’t take notes.

I forgot to email the publisher for photos to use.

In other words, I enjoyed Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs so much that I just wanted to read it. I forgot all about being a good reviewer.

What made a book about dog health so interesting?

Longer-Lived Dogs

Ted Kerasote wrote Pukka’s Promise to answer the question every dog lover asks: why don’t our friends live longer?

His research was thorough and long-ranging. Suggested reasons for dog’s short lives include

  • inbreeding
  • over vaccination
  • poor nutrition
  • environmental pollution
  • and the loss of a dog’s sex hormones through spaying and neutering.

It’s the last one that is probably most shocking for people in the rescue community. After all, the spay and neuter campaigns over the past few decades have been the greatest reason for reducing shelter deaths by 90% in my lifetime.

But although dogs could be sterilized without the removal of their sex hormones (hysterectomy or tubal ligation in females; vasectomy in males), the common practice is to spay and neuter. And, according to some veterinary researchers, the common practice is making our animals sicker and causing them to die early.

Is Spay and Neuter Always Good?

Peta - fix your dog sign.

Click the image to learn more about the photographer.

How and when to sterilize our dogs is one question I’ve only recently considered.

Honey’s breeder was a nurse. She loves Golden Retrievers. And her science background along with her love causes her to pore through research to learn more to keep her dogs healthy.

When Honey was a puppy, our breeder read a study that showed Golden Retrievers spayed after their first heat had reduced rates of some cancers. The breeder asked each of us to wait to spay our dogs.

To lessen the inconvenience, the breeder offered each of us panties for our pups to wear when they went into heat and promised she’d bathe and groom them for us after the heat ended.

Unfortunately, Honey needed emergency surgery to remove a squeaky she had swallowed and we decided to have her spayed during the surgery to spare her a later operation. But if I had known then what I know now, I would have asked the doctor to perform a hysterectomy and leave Honey’s ovaries intact.

Choosing for our dogs is an ongoing and awesome responsibility. And it’s the story of the choices Kerasote made in raising Pukka that turned the book into an interesting exploration of dog health into a book I didn’t want to put down.

A Dog Making Choices

Mountains in Wyoming Pukka sees.

A view near Pukka’s home in Wyoming. Click image to learn more about the photographer.

Kerasote had a dog before Pukka. He found Merle on the side of a river bank when he was around 10 months old and brought him home.

The book Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog described the life of an independent and thoughtful dog who explored his home in Wyoming with the help of a dog door that gave him tremendous freedom.

Pukka’s Promise begins with Kerasote’s preparing to let a new dog into his heart after writing Merle’s biography. And we get to follow Pukka’s young life as he learns about wild animals, other dogs, and life in the mountains.

Just like I did while reading Merle’s Door, I found myself talking back to Kerasote. And wondering if Honey would thrive if given the same freedom as Pukka and Merle.

Although he doesn’t devote the same level of research to the issue, Kerasote believes that dogs need to solve problems and be independent to live the best life. It contributes to their health and longevity.

I can only imagine how worried I’d be that Honey would be killed by an elk or caught in a trap if I let her roam in the countryside where Kerasote lives.

And yet he’s not cavalier about his dog’s safety. He taught Pukka to respect the dangers around him. And while riding in the car, Pukka was always harnessed in.

I can only assume he understands the true risks more than this city girl does.

Thinking About Your Dog

Kerasote makes me think.

Yes, his research into dog longevity was interesting. But little in it was new to me.

Instead, my thoughts are about balancing our dog’s safety with their freedom.

I don’t live in the wilds of Wyoming. But how can I allow Honey to make choices that will reward her curiosity and build her confidence? And perhaps even lengthen her life?

What choices have you made to give your dog her longest and healthiest life? And where does your dog’s freedom to choose for herself come into it?


Update: You can see pictures of Pukka on the author’s website.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher. All opinions are my own. To make sure I don’t accept a review copy just because I want the book, I give review copies away. I’ll be giving this copy away in the Rafflecopter below. All links are through Amazon. If you buy a book through a link I’ll make a few cents to support the costs of Something Wagging This Way Comes. Thanks so much.

photo credit: Condom by dctim1 and Mountains by JC Essentials 😉 via photopin cc
a Rafflecopter giveaway

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  1. Wonderful review! I don’t think the author or publisher will mind one bit that you didn’t ask for permission……they want exposure and you helped them accomplish that…in a fine way!
    Making regular vet “wellness” visits are part of our routine to help Dakota have a long and healthy life.

    • Yes, for wellness visits! Plus it’s a great way to make sure your vet is well acquainted with your animals long before an emergency pops up.

      And the pix are from Flickr. I guess I didn’t express myself well. I usually ask the publisher for photos of the author or dog involved and I didn’t this time. So, alas, no pictures of Mr. Kerasote or Pukka.

  2. Steph B. says:

    This is a great review – I’ve been meaning to read both “Merle’s Door” and “Pukka’s Promise.” Giving dogs some autonomy and choice is great for them – but I agree, the safety of the dog must also play a role. I’ve relied on nosework to give my dog many opportunities each week to work independently, with success, doing something he enjoys. I try not to dictate to him constantly (get on the bed, go up the stairs, etc.) which can be hard to do as a dog trainer! Letting him choose when to go out, what to play with, and where to sleep give him some autonomy, but I am always looking for safe ways to allow him some extra freedom.

    • I’m also a big fan of nosework. It’s great to give a dog the chance to use one of her greatest skills.

      Great suggestions about giving freedom around the house.

      Good luck in the contest. I’m sure you’d enjoy this book.

    • I just read your comment and saw that you are a dog trainer….I’m going to be taking my final exam for the Animal Behavior College’s Dog Obedience Training Instructor course next month. Do you have a blog that I could check out?

  3. Great review and I’m sure the author won’t mind the use of such a gorgeous photo.

    • I realized I was unclear in my writing. The mountains are a creative commons picture from Flickr because I forget to ask the publisher to send me pictures of Pukka and the author in advance.

      But, if you’re interested, visit Ted Kerasote’s website for his wonderful pictures of Pukka: http://www.kerasote.com/.

  4. I have to get a copy of this book! Like you, if I’d known 8+ years ago what I know now, I’d have had the vet do just the hysterectomy on both Callie & Shadow. I didn’t even know about Ducky until after she had already been spayed. But to keep them healthy I feed them grain-free food (Wellness Core kibble and the canned “stews” that Well Pet makes) as well as treats made in the USA with as few “un-natural” ingredients as possible. I check the labels diligently any time I buy a new treat. I really wonder sometimes how safe the fruits & veggies in the grocery store are! Not that processed food is any safer, but at least WellPet has always been responsive to my questions and concerns…and they issue voluntary food recalls when there is even the slightest doubt as to its safety.

  5. Carmen H. says:

    I take my dog on daily 2-3 mile walks. Several times a month we go hiking for 3-4 hours at a time.

  6. There will be no roaming for me in the mean streets of London I am afraid and certainly not in the in any wilderness where I can get myself in trouble. We get plenty of hunting done each day in the park so I am happy. Have a terrific Thursday.
    Best wishes Molly

  7. Pamela, thanks for reviewing this book – I am actually reading it right now -about 1/3 in and love it. I was a big fan of Merle’s Door so I was anxious to read about Pukka. Like you, I wonder about giving our dogs the freedom to make decisions and choices and wish I could give more. We do have a dog door so they can come and go as they please and we have a fenced acre lot, so they have at least a little room to roam. I wish I felt comfortable letting them have a little more freedom, we live in a somewhat rural area and they could roam more, but I worry about traffic obviously, but also coyotes and snakes and even horses – those corrals may keep the horse in, but certainly not the dogs out. All of Kerasote’s research on extending the longevity was really interesting and certainly gives us pause to rethink things when we get our pet.

  8. We’ve got our dogs on raw food to help them lose weight (which it has) and I minimize my vaccinations and make sure they get daily exercise. I also try (whenever possible) to use natural products for flea and tick prevention (no frontline on MY dog) as well as shampoos. I will always discuss a product with my vet if I’m unsure of the side effects.

    Had I known about the spaying/neutering at the time I too would have made a different choice.

    it sounds like my kind of book. :-)

  9. The thing about the spay/neuter is that if you get a dog from a rescue, it’s already been done. You don’t have any choice to either wait or get a hysterectomy instead. (At least in CA – or do all states have laws against adopting out intact dogs?)
    Having had every dog in our family die of cancer (whether old or young) I try to be extra careful about what our pups eat and about having any chemicals in the house/yard. Of course, with our last pup, she got bone cancer at 15 mo. Oncologist said it was nothing environmental, but a genetic anomaly. Not much you can do in that case…
    As for letting the dog have “freedom”, that’s a toughie when you live in The Big City. But we do go to a huge off-leash park/bay 3 or 4 times a week, and she runs pretty far from me sometimes, so hopefully that’s enough of a dose of freedom!

  10. I am a little surprised at the facts here like “loss of a dog’s sex hormones through spaying and neutering” although when you think about it does make sense!

  11. How have your veterinarians responded to modified spay/neuter? Mine were not enthusiastic. Most of my dogs are in rescue which deems they be spayed/neutered at an earlier age than I now (after much reading over the last few months including this post) would now do; any I adopt (hoping someday for a Bloodhound) will come from rescue, too.

    What I am doing is modifying vaccinations for my personal dogs. The rescue dogs need to be done according to our rescue, though I hold the line at yearly rabies; only every 3 years even for the rescue dogs. Vets are not buying this new protocol but I am. Here is an excellent link to give us all a year by year plan: Over Vacc?

    Have not read Pukka’s Promise; LOVED Merle’s Door while chafing at the increased restraints I need to put on my not in WY dogs. And yet, my jumpers and climber (Keen is now RIP, I fear; not back for a week and we have coyotes), as well as those who respect the fence and porch, have a lot of room in which to roam. What really impressed me about Ted is how he trained not only Merle, but the town as well (no more table scraps at one point).

    Thanks for a great post!

  12. Rhonda Pollard says:

    5 years ago, I drove alone to San Francisco from San Diego and listened to “Merle’s Door” on CD…laughed, cried, and howled the whole journey. The experiences resonate through me now that I have my own two dogs…Kimo and Pepper…Labs who I take on long off-leash hikes every day after work along the scent-filled forest trails and beaches here in Hawaii. I make their food for them with all locally grown ingredients…Big Island grassfed beef and liver, kale, purple sweet potatoes, and zucchini, topped with a sardine, as prescribed by their holistic vet. Also, per our vet, my purebred Lab is not and will not be neutered, so that he can live a long, healthy life. My rescue Lab, Pepper, was neutered at the shelter, but hopefully with the good food and daily romps and lots of love he is given, he’ll live a long, happy, healthy life. I did not know that Merle’s author wrote another book! So, I am so excited to read this one whether or not I win! Thank you for your book review…I can’t wait to read Pukka’s Promise!

  13. I am actually in the middle of reading this very book right now. There is so much to absorb and it’s not at all merely a book about canine health. I am a bit intimidated when I think about writing a review, though, especially as you’ve done such a terrific job. It’s such a large piece of work and I don’t know if I can do it justice.

    When it comes to longevity I really don’t know if we have as much control as we’d like. Some things are predetermined by genetics and no matter what we do, our dogs will only be with us a short time. I do think stress is a large factor in all animal health. Perhaps the largest. If I can keep my dog’s life as free from negative stress as possible, I think that’s really all I can do.

    That being said, my childhood dog lived to 17 years of age, quite uncommon for a Siberian husky. Her life was not exactly the ideal life of a dog and yet aside from losing her hearing during her last few years, she remained incredibly healthy her whole life. It’s so hard to say.

  14. They did a Vizsla health study a few years ago ( http://0087bce.netsolhost.com/vcli/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Vizsla_Health.pdf ) and it was surprising to see that various types of cancer all increased when the dogs were spayed and/or neutered. More so with females and spaying though, and it seemed to be linked with Mast Cell tumors in the breed (which my spayed female V has suffered from).

    But of course, over population is one of the biggest killers of dogs, so it is a really hard call. It’s easy to say you will be responsible if you keep your pet intact, until a dog all hiked up on hormones slips out the front door.

    P.S. Thanks for having a giveaway.!

    • I just went to enter the contest and realized my comment doesn’t qualify. :-)
      One of the things I do (which is actually mentioned in this review) to make sure my dogs live long healthy lives is to do vaccine titers instead of getting vaccines for distemper and parvo. So far only Toby came back low, once, for parvo, and had to be re-vaccinated. The girls however have had consistently high levels of resistance.

  15. I recently finished Merle’s Door and was left with a strong desire to move to Kelly so Gizmo would have to chance to become an independent thinker…With his personality he would thrive in that environment

    I’m now about half way through Pukka’s Promise and find myself liking it less than Merle’s Door…Even given Ted’s understandable need for an extended mourning period, the 5 years that elapsed before he finally selected Pukka seemed excessive and the way he conducted his search gave me the impression that he’s somewhat of a fussbudget…I was a little disappointed in him for refusing to consider a rescue, given the way he acquired his heart dog Merle.

    I do love the way he teaches Pukka the names of everything they encounter…In fact I’ve started doing that with Gizmo…

    I was already quite familiar with the work of Drs. Jean Dodds and Ronald Schultz. This was something I’d investigated when my heart dog Murphy was diagnosed with cancer of the snout (like Brower in Merle’s Door) After doing the research I gave up annual vaccinations back in the late 1990’s

    Ted is, above all, a thorough researcher and while I may not always agree with his conclusions I do respect the way he presents his ideas…he certainly provides much food for thought and further discussion

  16. This is one of the reasons we’re waiting for Kuster to be neutered. He’s not going to be left to his own devices where getting another dog pregnant is going to happen. We don’t even leave him alone in the yard. But more studies are showing that dogs have better health when they are spayed and neutered after they mature. There’s a very interesting study that was just done by the Penn Vet Working Dog Study that followed a group of Golden Retrievers and tracked their health based on early spay/neuter, after a year spay/neuter and never spayed or neutered. My husband and I were just talking about it last night. It’s interesting to note that in Europe they don’t have a lot of spaying and neutering and have a lot less health problems. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t spay and neuter, but that they should do it at the right time and that we need to teach people about responsible pet ownership overall. If people were being responsible, there wouldn’t be so many unwanted puppies and kittens anyway.

  17. Ah yes, if only humans were more responsible, we wouldn’t be forced to spay and neuter our animals at such young ages. It broke my heart to spay and neuter 2 1/2 pound kittens – but I had to be certain that they would not contribute to an already enormous problem.

    We have done blood titers for Cali for several years and we had a bad experience when she was spayed. She is our first dog and when we went to pick her up (after doing everything that we read we were supposed to do) they told us that she wasn’t responding well and would need to spend the night. We were devastated! My hubby’s dad lost a dog after a spay and now will not spay another dog. It’s tough to know what exactly is the right thing to do. I think we all just do the best we can. I read Merles Door and really enjoyed it . . .might have to check this one out too!!

  18. Once he got over his puppy chewing phase, our cock-a-poo rescue was given free rein in the house. His problem is that he will eat just about anything. He is extremely good natured at home and on walks (with people and dogs we meet), but if he grabs hold of something he thinks is worth eating, there is absolutely no way to remove it from his mouth without getting bitten. He ended up in a vet hospital for three days for a “dietary indiscretion”. We don’t even know what he ate that time. He will be 8 on March 10th. He was neutered by the SPCA before we adopted him, but so far, he has been in good health. Outside, we keep him on a leash at all times unless we’re at a dog park. He seems to have absolutely no fear or understanding of traffic. I’m afraid that he’s not the smartest dog in the world. He seems not to have achieved the concept of object permanence. Although he loves to go through uncovered trash, he can watch me put a steak into our covered kitchen trash can and he will make no attempt to get into the trash. He must be able to smell it! When he was a puppy and young dog, we realized that we could confine him to a room by simply leaning a gate up against the door opening. Any visiting dogs would knock down the gate within seconds. His vets have always given him the 3 year rabies vaccine. Do you think dogs need yearly bordatella vaccines if they will not be in a kennel with other dogs, but will encounter other dogs in the park? Do you use heartwarm prophylaxis?

  19. Sounds like a great book. Lots of things to think about!

  20. Trish B. says:

    I feed my nine rescued dogs and one foster dog grain free food, give them supplements and give them carrots and other veggies and fruits as treats. I love my babies and want them to live as long as possible! Thank you!

  21. What a really great review! This book is on my “to read” list and I can’t wait to get to it. Whole Dog Journal had an article in their Feb issue that talked about early spaying and neutering. I found it really interesting to read. It makes sense to wait but I think different situations will demand different approaches.