The Future of Dogs

Q&A with Ted Kerasote, author of Merle’s Door
By Rebecca Wallick, January 2013

In 1991, while rafting Utah’s San Juan River, award-winning writer Ted Kerasote came upon the dog he would later immortalize in Merle’s Door. According to Kerasote, Merle, an adolescent stray who had been surviving on his own in the high desert, told him, You need a dog, and I’m it. It didn’t take Kerasote long to agree with him. Heartbroken after Merle died in 2004, Kerasote vowed to do all he could to ensure that his next dog— Pukka—would enjoy a long and healthy life from the very beginning. His quest began before Pukka was born— researching genetics and how to choose healthy parents, finding a breeder willing to rethink standard early vaccinations—and continued after Pukka came home, delving into quality-of-life concerns for all dogs, such as food, birth control and routine health care. Pukka’s Promise is the culmination of Kerasote’s extensive research. Bark contributing editor Rebecca Wallick recently spoke with Kerasote about some of his experiences and observations.

Bark: On your quest for longer-lived dogs, what were some of the more encouraging things you learned?
Ted Kerasote: In the United States, Wayne Cavanaugh at the United Kennel Club is making an effort to change breed standards, encouraging breeders to select for function. He has taken to heart the efforts of the Swedish and Finnish Kennel Clubs —hip and genetic testing, and standards that highlight function over form—and has begun to apply them in the U.S. Next, the American Veterinary Medical Association has started recommending triennial vaccinations. That’s still too often, but a move in the right direction. I also hope the Rabies Challenge Fund is successful; its researchers are working to prove that duration of immunity for the rabies vaccine is at least five and possibly seven years. Finally, pet food manufacturers are starting to offer grain-free dog food in response to consumer demand.

B: What did you find that disturbed you?
TK: One, breeders continue to breed for looks, despite a great deal of evidence that many of their dogs are unhealthy. Two, many breeders do not use genetic tests—for example, in Labrador Retrievers, they do not test parent dogs for PRA (progressive retinal atrophy), centronuclear myopathy (a muscle-wasting disease) and exercise-induced collapse. Three, some vets, when confronted with a lump on a dog, still say, “Let’s just watch this,” instead of doing a low-cost aspiration or biopsy, or at least recommending one and letting the client decide. Four, no one has yet conducted long-term tests on genetically similar dogs to assess the health benefits of grain-based kibble versus raw food. Such a study would show us which group of dogs has more chronic diseases, and the time of their onset. It would also tell us which group lives longer. Without such a study, there’s no way to say, definitively, whether grain-based kibble or raw food is better for our dogs. It’s not a difficult test to create, which should tell us that the pet food industry probably doesn’t want to know the answer.
But the most disturbing thing I saw was dogs being killed in a Los Angeles shelter. It was particularly hard because I could have saved any one of those dogs. But which one to save? It was my own “Sophie’s choice.” I did get one dog out—Chance—but I still think of the ones I didn’t choose. That was the hardest single day of the five years I spent researching the book, and my saddest memory.

B: If someone wants a dog of a particular breed, what should they think about?
TK: If looking for a puppy from a breeder, don’t buy one whose parents have not been genetically tested, or one who’s been bred with little thought to function. For example, many breeders of short-muzzled dogs are creating dysfunctional dogs who cannot breathe. I wouldn’t say don’t buy such a dog, but instead, look for those who retain their historical appearance; at the end of the 19th century, many of these dogs actually had snouts.

B: Of all aspects of canine care and companionship, are there things you feel are happening too slowly?
TK: What I wish would change faster is the amount of freedom dogs enjoy. In most places in the U.S., dogs can no longer roam because of leash laws or traffic or both. Off-leash dog parks are nice, but most are too small. We accept them in lieu of giving dogs true freedom. In many European countries, on the other hand, dogs can go into restaurants, they can ride on buses and subways, and they have more freedom in big urban parks.

B: You spent a lot of time at shelters, investigating what makes some successful in becoming no-kill, while others can’t seem to reach that goal. What do you think makes the difference?
TK: A proactive, compassionate director who can change how a shelter operates. There are roughly 3,500 shelters in the U.S.; approximately 200 are no-kill and quite a few more have not yet reached the goal of having 90 percent of the dogs going back out into the community, but are close. A good fostering system connected with the shelter helps, as does outreach to the community—taking dogs off-site to be adopted. A really simple thing that can be done is to keep the shelter open at night and at least one day on the weekend so working people can get to the shelter and adopt a dog.

B: In Pukka’s Promise, you take on some big players in the dog world—breeders, veterinarians, dog-food and toy manufacturers. Are you concerned about their reactions?
TK: I tried very hard to not trounce people, but to gently point out how we can improve the health of dogs. Those I took to task most are breeders who continue to breed for extreme form even though we all know this leads to unhealthy dogs. I also described pet-food manufacturers who wouldn’t have an honest conversation with me. I hope the weight of the evidence helps people make healthier choices.

B: What is the big take-away you want readers to get from Pukka’s Promise?
TK: Pay more attention to your dog. Get on the ground with your dog, see what it’s doing and what it’s telling you with its body language, its eyes and its facial expressions. I’m often disturbed by how unobservant many people are when it comes to their dogs. Their dogs are asking them a question, but they’re talking on their cell phones. More and more people also treat their dogs like children, giving them a gazillion toys instead of exercise, which is far more important than a bunch of rubber bones and stuffed animals. Dogs need to run, they need to smell, they need to meet other dogs. And it’s important that they get to do that almost every day. For a dog, toys can’t replace running, or reading the world through its nose or having canine company.

For the full interview, see The Bark, Issue 73, Feb–Apr 2013.

Rebecca Wallick, a long-time Bark contributing editor, resides with her two dogs in the mountains of central Idaho.