Review: Pukka’s Promise

Pukka's Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs
Pukka’s Promise

I am surprised a book like this hasn’t been written yet. It’s about time we started talking about why our dogs are dying so young.

Ted Kerasote takes on that question in his newest book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs. Kerasote, heartbroken by the death of his beloved dog Merle, sets out on a quest to investigate canine longevity. In the process, he brings home an athletic labrador retriever, Pukka (pronounced: puck-uh), who inspires his journey into dog health, diet, genetics, and environment.

Kerasote is based in the wilderness of Wyoming, but his research takes him all over the country. He interviews dozens of veterinarians, breeders, shelter workers, and just general dog people about their perspectives on how we can extend the lives of our canine companions.

I particularly enjoyed his chapters on breeding and genetics. I’ve become increasingly dismayed at the purebred breeding practices in the United States, and Kerasote shares my concern. He examines the recorded longevity of many purebreds and notes that most breed organizations add a handful of years to the breed’s estimated longevity; in reality, most purebred dogs die many years earlier than they are “supposed to,” according to breed standards. He shares findings from studies and anecdotes from breeders intent on improving genetic health. I was especially fascinated in his discussion of the silken windhound, a breed invented by geneticist Francie Stull. By selecting dogs for health and longevity, many of Stull’s windhounds lived into their upper teens and several into their twenties, which is remarkable for a dog of any size or breed.

In choosing his new dog (Pukka), Kerasote decides to go with a breeder instead of a rescue, despite citing research that mixed breeds tend to live, on average, a year longer than purebreds of similar sizes. He makes the choice based on reliability of information: you have a better idea of what you’re getting from a breeder than from a pound puppy. However, I thought it was a bit contradictory that he railed against dog fanciers for valuing looks so highly, because he repeatedly turns down puppies because they didn’t look just like Merle, his previous dog; they had to have that “rangy look” and that “rufuous coat” or he wouldn’t accept them.

His discussion on diet and vaccinations I also found to be helpful. Particularly, his approach to vaccinations struck me as level-headed and reasonable, not swinging too much to either party line (vaccinate all the time vs. never vaccinate). Instead, he vaccinates the minimum recommendations from his vet and then uses titers thereafter.

(As a side note, I was delighted that he spent a whole chapter about his visit to the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA [CASPCA], which is our local SPCA and the SPCA that I volunteered at for a year while waiting for Pyrrha! He uses CASPCA as a shining example of a successful no-kill shelter and a pleasant place for homeless animals. I felt a lot of hometown pride.)

My only critique of the book is that I wish Kerasote’s recommendations were more broadly applicable to the average dog owner. He lives on a plot of vast acreage in Wyoming. He feeds Pukka raw, wild game that he kills himself. Pukka gets hours of free-roaming adventure and play every day. Pukka does not wear a leash, ever. Kerasote is a single, childless person who also has a stay-at-home job, so he gets to be with Pukka all day long. This sounds like paradise to every dog-loving person, but I don’t think many of us could follow all of his doggy lifestyle recommendations. Most of us have full-time jobs, human families, budget constraints, and live in suburban or urban areas in which it would be both unsafe and unwise to let our dogs roam, leash-less and intact. It would have been nice to have made some more applicable advice or shared modifications on how we can incorporate these healthy living principles into our dogs’ lives.

All in all, it’s a great book. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read general research on dog longevity and discover some broad principles to extend the life and well-being of one’s beloved canine.

Bonus: A video of Pukka by the author.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of this book, but all opinions expressed here are my own.

Pyrrha meets Roland

My friend Sarah called me on Monday night and said, “So… I just adopted a dog.” She was driving back from our local SPCA with this cute little dude in the back of her car:

Photo credit: Sarah Y.

Roland (or Victoire! She hasn’t fully decided on a name yet) is a 1-2 year-old spaniel/hound mix with the sweetest little disposition. He’s probably about 50 lbs. and had been dropped off by his former owner, who said she was sad to give him up but wouldn’t take him with her on her move. Sad for Roland, but happy for Sarah!

Last night, she brought Roland over to my house during small group, to meet friends and Pyrrha.

Their meeting went very well, I thought. Roland was a bit overwhelmed for the first few minutes, and Pyrrha was all up in his grill. It was strange to see her being the overly excited/gregarious one! But after some time, they acclimated to each other and tails started wagging and wrestling commenced.

Here are some terrible, fuzzy pictures of their encounter (dark in the house, plus I didn’t pull out my nicer camera):

Roland charms small group
Roland charming the ladies.
Fuzzy photo of Roland
Checking out the kitchen.
Pyrrha meets Roland
Girl, you are making me a little anxious here…

I was so impressed with how sweet and laid-back he was. There was a lot to take in–seven strange women in a room plus a pushy German shepherd–and he took it all in stride. He did pee on a rug, but you can’t blame him; dude’s only been out of the shelter for a day!

In short, it was a great introduction and I think Pyrrha has found herself a new playmate. I hope we’ll have Roland and Sarah over for a dog romp soon. I also think these two would be great hiking buddies. So, we’ll have to set that up in the future. Happy to welcome a new dog into the community, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Roland continues to grow and develop in Sarah’s care!

Breed biases: When people judge your dog

Click for source.

So, I don’t even have a dog yet, but I’ve already felt judgment from people about him or her. Crazy, right? When people ask what kind of dog I want, and when I answer that we’re planning on adopting a German shepherd, I always brace myself for this frequent reaction: “Ew, really? Why? They’re so MEAN!” It doesn’t happen every time, but it happens enough to be noticeable.

I also bridle when people express astonishment that I work with and deeply enjoy the company of pit bulls and pit mixes at the SPCA. “But they’re so vicious! I could never be around one of those.” This usually launches me into a 10-minute speech about how pits are unfairly judged and how they are some of the most cuddly, affectionate, and sweet dogs that I ever play with at the shelter.

I try not to get too riled up about it, because the fact is that people have breed biases. I have them, too (although not for the same reasons that people judge GSDs and pits; more in the, I could never live with one myself way). I also understand where some of these breed stereotypes originated. Both German shepherds and pit bulls have been misused by humans for terrible, terrible things in the past (see: Nazis in the Holocaust, Southern police forces during the Civil Rights Movement, dog baiting, and dog fighting, just to name a few). I understand where these negative reactions come from, but they are still dismaying.

It makes me want to try all the harder to raise an upstanding, well-trained, and gentle ambassador for a breed–for whatever breed we end up with. This is notably easier to do if you have a breed like a golden retriever, who are universally loved and lovable in return. But I think there really is something to be said for generous, sweet, and intelligently raised German shepherds, dobermans, rottweilers, pit bulls, chihuahuas, and terriers. They change people’s minds and break down their judgments faster than anything else.

Do you have a dog whose breed or breed mix is often unfairly judged? How do you handle it graciously?

Brisk winter day at the SPCA

After a regrettably long hiatus, I went back to the SPCA yesterday to spend my morning walking the dogs. Boy, were they ready to get outside!

Amigo.

I started my morning out with this bro, Amigo, who was easily twice as strong as I am. He was also terrible on the leash and aggressive toward every single dog we passed. He was exhausting. I found myself getting frustrated and even angry with him. I tried stopping to see if he’d respond on the leash; he just kept dragging me forward. It took all my strength to stop him–or prevent him from lunging and snarling at every other dog. He was a good reminder of the futility of frustration with a dog. My welling anger with him wasn’t helping the situation, and I’m sure it was only exacerbating it.

Finally, I just resolved to make it through the walk. I had a ton of others to attend to, and not much energy or ability to help him at that time. I wish I’d had more patience in the moment, but I confess that I was really ready to just get him back in that kennel and move on to someone else. I feel guilty admitting it, but that’s how I felt. Am I the only one who gets totally blinded by frustration by a stubborn and unresponsive dog? I hope not…

Blair.

But then I got to spend some time with Blair, who was a doll. Blair is a dude, actually, and he’s very strong himself–barrel-chested like a pit bull or boxer–but he walked politely (most of the time) on his leash. How pleasant it was to take a walk without being dragged everywhere, pulling out your shoulders in the process. Also unlike Amigo, Blair was very playful and probably dropped a play bow in front of every other dog we passed. He was dying to get some play time. After talking with a more experienced volunteer, we determined that he and a lab-mix puppy, Marsh, may make good playmates, so we were able to put them in a big run together and watch them romp their hearts out. That’s always one of my favorite things to witness.

I also spent a lot of time with another volunteer, wrangling the hounds. As I’ve mentioned before, our SPCA is overrun with hounds, because we apparently live in an area of irresponsible hunters. We always have dozens of scenthounds looking for adoption, but they often linger for a long time, because they’re 1) not especially attractive, 2) somewhat large in size, and 3) not very responsive to humans. But they do make great house pets, despite that; hounds just want to lounge around on your sofa.

Hounds are also extremely sociable with one another, which is something I was reminded of yesterday. They adore the company of other dogs, especially fellow scenthounds, and you can pretty much trust any of the hounds with any other dog (for the most part). In the huge fenced-in run, we usually have four or five scenthound friends in there together, romping around for an hour or so before we put them back in their kennels. They just love each others’ company. It’s always sweet to see.

Until one has loved an animal

An English lady and her borzoi. Click for source.

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

Anatole France

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Happy weekend, everyone! It’s going to be a dog-filled one for me: Running with Bo, volunteering at the SPCA, and then meeting Ozzie, a young GSD who belongs to our church secretary. Excited!

Dogs I could have adopted

I spent a lovely Sunday morning at the SPCA this past week. I began the day with a handful of dogs that I could have seen myself taking home. All of the dogs were very different from one another, but I found myself daydreaming what my life could be like if I had adopted them…

Estella.

You may recall Estella from an earlier post. I was surprised that this docile, polite lady was still at the shelter. The last time I saw her was nearly a month ago and I assumed that she, being a small but mostly purebred German shepherd, would have been adopted by now. I’m guessing that she’s still at the shelter because a.) she’s a bit old; I’d guess maybe six or seven, and b.) she’s not especially intimidating. Which is a good thing, in my opinion. She was the first dog I walked when I arrived and she was a wonderful and peaceful way to begin what turned out to be an otherwise stressful day at the SPCA.

If I had adopted Estella: I’d get her on a good diet (the SPCA feeds the dogs Science Diet, since it’s what they can afford, despite the fact that it is a low-quality kibble) to get her health and coat back into order. Her coat was very dry and flaky and did not appear very healthy. She loves to run and I’d love taking her on all the trails around here. She also seems very friendly toward and interested in other dogs. I’d also work with her on curing a few fears. She balked upon entering doorways she was unfamiliar with. Not sure what that stems from, but I imagine it’s something we’d have to work on. I also think I would have kept her name. Somehow, I think it fits her.

Lady.

Lady is built like a pro-wrestler. This big girl is a TANK and walks with swagger, but she’s really a cuddle bug. I have never really wanted a pit bull, but I have always enjoyed their company at the SPCA. We have a constant rotation of pits and pit mixes, like most shelters these days, and I find them to be extremely affectionate–if occasionally super high-energy–dogs. Lady and I romped around in one of the larger, enclosed play areas and she was so sweet and happy. (Although that growl she emitted when we played tug was a little scary… even though I knew it was just for the sake of fun!)

If I had adopted Lady: First thing, I would have trimmed her nails. This reminds me that I should have left a note for the staff that her nails were pretty overgrown. I imagine that they were making it somewhat difficult for her to walk (they were even longer than they appear in this photo). I would have given her a healthy, fresh diet. I would be happy and proud to have her at my side. She is a regal and admirable ambassador for her much-maligned breed.

Charlie.

Dear Charlie. Charlie (a lady dog) has been at the shelter since I started back in May. She was adopted a few months ago, and so you can imagine my dismay when I saw her at the SPCA again, back in her same kennel. I got the scoop from one of the other volunteers. Apparently, the staff determined that Charlie would be best in a family without kids, due to some of her excitability and food possessiveness. She’s also been known to have a few scuffles with other dogs. However, a family with young children decided they wanted Charlie and they ended up taking her home. I don’t know what happened, but clearly, the family was not equipped to care for Charlie in the way that she needed. I was dismayed that the SPCA let this family take Charlie, as it seemed evident from the outset that they could not provide her with a good environment for her temperament. While I was sad to see her back, I was happy to get to spend a little time with her. Like Phantom before her, Charlie has a frightening kennel manner. When you approach door, she lunges at it and barks loudly, all gleaming teeth and tongue. However, as soon as you open it to snap on her leash, she is as quiet and docile as can be. She walks very well and never pulls. She even seems to have adapted to the constant presence of other dogs and no longer wants to snap at them. While with her, I walked to my car to take off my sweatshirt. She seemed excited about this and as soon as I opened the car door, she jumped in, tail wagging, face full of eagerness. My heart was warmed. I wished I could have hopped in next to her and taken her home right then.

If I had adopted Charlie: First things first: I would have given her a better name. Brynn, Sloane, or Gemma? Some stout, continental name. I would have worked on her with her barking and her instinct to freak out whenever people passed. I would have begun to carefully and cautiously condition her with older, respectable children, until she learned that kids could be trusted. She would be a delight to have around the house. She seems to have a very happy heart. I hope someone will give her a good home soon.

Spunky.

Spunky is a little dreamboat. This handsome lad appears to be some kind of spaniel/setter mix and he is somewhat new to the shelter. Because of his good looks and his laidback temperament, I have a feeling he won’t be around for too much longer at the SPCA. He was a delightful walking companion. I was impressed by how quiet his movements were. You could barely hear him walk, even when we were trudging through piles of crunchy fallen leaves. He seems to glide over the ground. This is not a particularly great photo of him, but he is adorable in person. He has a long, glossy coat and a beautiful feathered white tail. His joie de vivre was all-encompassing and I would have taken him home in a heartbeat.

If I had adopted Spunky: Name change also necessary. He deserves something more dignified. I was thinking “Keeper,” in honor of Emily Bronte’s constant companion. I started thinking of this when I was walking him, and by the end of our time together, I was calling him Keeper. He is such a happy dog. He would make us laugh. I would take him everywhere with me, introduce him to everything. I need to stop meditating on his handsome face; I want to get in my car and go to the SPCA right now! Sigh. Six more months, six more months…

A story: Dogs as therapy

Brando indoors
Guion and Brando, our first foster.

A few months ago, I was walking with my husband on my way to a volunteering event with the SPCA. Local charities and non-profits were setting up booths around the pedestrian mall to promote causes and garner support. The SPCA had a few tables up, and some adoptable dogs, kittens, and even two adoptable rats. I volunteered to stand there and talk to people about the SPCA and walk some of the adoptable hounds around to greet people.

While we were walking over there, my husband told me that one of our mutual friends had told him that he thought it was silly that I volunteered my time at the SPCA. This person believed that pets were a waste of time and money and that I was similarly wasting my time by volunteering at the animal shelter. Shouldn’t I be doing something more important, like working at a soup kitchen or tutoring neglected kids how to read?

I began to feel guilty as I walked down there. Was it frivolous of me to care so much about animals? To spend weekends at the SPCA, walking dogs? Wouldn’t it be more valuable to my community if I spent my little free time caring for humans instead? These thoughts began to plague me throughout my afternoon on the mall. My pastor and his wife saw me down there, holding a kitten in my arms, with my SPCA volunteer shirt on. They came to talk to me and seemed delighted that I was an SPCA volunteer, but I felt almost embarrassed to be seen there. Are they judging me for not volunteering elsewhere? I thought. For not giving my time to the homeless ministry?

But these feelings of guilt began to dissipate as the afternoon wore on. The pedestrian mall is often filled with homeless people and others who are sick, disabled, and mentally ill, who beg on street corners and hold up cardboard signs. They are often ignored and everyone else does their best not to make eye contact with them. As I stood there at our booth, though, I began to notice an interesting phenomenon.

These homeless or mentally ill people would go from booth to booth, but the organizers behind the tables would never look at them or speak to them. It was evident that these people were in no state to contribute financially to these organizations; it was questionable if they could even carry on an intelligible conversation. They were plainly ignored. Volunteers looked straight through them, as if they weren’t even there.

I watched this happen again and again. But then I realized that all of the homeless and mentally ill were at our booth. Why? Because the dogs greeted them and kissed their hands like they were anybody else, like they were “normal.” The dogs didn’t discriminate against their housing status or their mental health. For once, they were shown mercy and acceptance. And it was coming from the dogs.

I particularly recall a mentally ill woman who stayed at our table for almost an hour. The dogs patiently submitted to her hugging their necks, to her persistent petting. I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying, but she had a huge grin on her face the entire time. She looked up at me and said, over and over, “See, he likes me. See, he likes me. See, he likes me.”

As I reflected on this day on my way home, I was nearly brought to tears. These animals did something for the most marginalized in society that no people could do for them. These homeless dogs were extending unconditional love to these homeless people. That is a gift well worth sharing, an extension of compassion that no human could faithfully replicate.

And that’s why I volunteer at the SPCA and why I don’t feel guilty about it anymore.