Too Soon Over
When Merle the dog of my heart was dying, he rallied one morning, going outside on his own to take a pee. The sun had just risen; robins sang; geese called from the river. The snowy Tetons stood pink in the clear May sky.
Merle squatted and relieved himself. Then, walking to the spruce trees on the edge of our land, he had a bowel movement, holding himself in a perfect crouch. Just as had been the case when I tended my dying father, and any small sign of renewed vigor in him had given me hope of a recovery, these indications of normalcy in Merle buoyed my spirits. As the rising sun gilded his fur, I could for a moment deny the inevitable: that he would soon pass from this life and our remarkable partnership would end. His dying simply wasn’t possible. After all, only thirteen years had gone by since we had met on the San Juan River, I a forty-one-year-old writer looking for an adventurous whitewater run, Merle a ten-month-old, half-wild pup living a very real adventure on his own in the Utah desert.
Golden in color, shading to fox red, Merle was of indeterminate ancestry and had strong Lab features — the tall rangy Lab, the field Lab — with perhaps a bit of hound and Golden Retriever thrown in. I liked his looks, and I very much liked his manners: no frenzied barking, whining, or licking. I gathered that he liked me as well, especially how I smelled, for he’d stick his nose against my skin, breathe in deeply, and sigh.
We went down the river together, and at the end of the trip he leapt into the truck and came home with me to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Over the next thirteen years, we hiked, horsepacked, and camped throughout the Rockies, running rivers in the spring, hunting elk in the fall, and skiing the Tetons from October until June. We were partners in the outdoors as well as in our small village of Kelly, where Merle had his own dog door so he could come and go as he wished. Each day, as I went to my home office to write, he, too, would set off to work, visiting his friends in the village, both canine and human, exploring the surrounding countryside, and making sure that everyone and everything in his domain was in order. He was called “the Mayor” and was as collected, calm, and independent a soul as one could wish for, yet he always came home, bonded to me, as I was to him.
Now, almost fourteen years old, Merle finished relieving himself and trotted across the grass, his tail swishing happily. Jumping onto the deck with a surprising bound despite his arthritis, he gave a joyful pant: “Ha-ha-ha!”
I couldn’t mistake his meaning: “Can you believe it, Ted? I’m feeling really good this morning!”
“You do look good, Sir!” I replied. “Like your old self. What do you say? Do you want to come with me and do the recycling?”
“Hah!” he exclaimed. “You bet!”
As we drove south along the Gros Ventre River in our big blue truck, he sat erect on the front seat, puffed up as he always was when he wore his dog seat belt. He looked out the window at the snowcapped Tetons with a grin of idiotic pleasure.
“They sure are pretty, aren’t they?” I said.
He panted twice, deeply — “HAH! HAH!” — which I translated as: “Yes! Yes! It is so good to be alive and looking at them!”
“Yes, it is good to be alive!” I replied, putting my hand on his ruff and thinking, “Here we are, still together.”
I was so grateful, for only two weeks before, most of our friends and all of Merle’s vets except one had suggested putting him down after twenty-four hours of seizures. The one exception had been a canine neurologist who had counseled patience and prescribed two medications that had ended the seizures and allowed Merle to begin his recovery.
The neurologist had given us a stay, and we were making the most of it, unwrapping each day as if it were a gift. We dumped the trash bags at the landfill; we sorted the bottles and papers at the recycling center; and on our way back through Jackson I stopped at Valley Feed and Pet, which was having its annual spring sale, rows of booths set up under a pavilion-like tent that had been erected in the parking lot. I could see friends milling about and eating barbecue as their dogs sat alertly at their feet, noses pointed upward, their eyes saying, “Excuse me, I could use a bite of that.”
“You want to meet and greet,” I asked Merle as I parked the truck, “or stay and have a nap?”
He lay down on the seat and gave a soft pant: “I think I’ll stay right here.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be back in a few.”
I closed the door, gave him another pat through the open window, and walked toward the booths. Just then, a young, athletic-looking couple came out of their car and intersected my path. They were in their midtwenties, both of them dressed in baggy chinos, running shoes, and fleece jackets. The man held a small puppy, a chocolate Lab, with a broad, wrinkled face and bright yellow eyes that looked keenly at everything going on around him.
“Seven weeks old?” I asked as I stopped before the couple and reached out to pet the puppy.
“A little bit more,” said the woman. “We just got him.”
I leaned close to the puppy so I could touch noses with him. His breath smelled like milk and vanilla and young teeth. I made a smooching noise with my lips; he squirmed in delight. The man put him in my arms, and the puppy wriggled against my chest and licked my neck madly.
“Oh, you are a beauty,” I told him, kissing his head. He squirmed again in happiness.
I had the sudden feeling of being watched and turned toward the truck. Merle was sitting up, looking out the window at me, his deep red fur not nearly as red as when we had met, his face as white as snow.
“Hah!” he panted. “I see you petting that puppy! Just remember who the main dog is.”
I blew a loud kiss to Merle and held the puppy for one more moment — young and warm and delicious in my arms — before handing him back to the man, who snuggled him against his chest.
The couple walked toward the booths, and as I watched them 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 to Merle, grinning at me from the truck. Like everyone’s dog, he had been all that and more, and I thought: “Why do they die so young?”
I’m not alone in asking this question. In the months following the publication of a book I wrote describing Merle’s life and what he had taught me about living with dogs, I received hundreds of e-mails from readers who had lost beloved dogs and closed their letters with a variation on this theme: “Why must our dogs die so young?”
Naturally, when most of us say this, we’re not expecting an answer. We’re expressing a rhetorical complaint: why do our best friends in the animal kingdom live so much shorter lives than we do, only about an eighth of our life span?
However, I also received more specific questions from many readers, many of them heartrending: “Why is my dog going blind from progressive retinal atrophy?” “Why has my dog come down with Cushing’s disease?” “Why wasn’t I told that my dog might become arthritic after being vaccinated?” “Why did my dog have to die of cancer at three, at four, at six years old?” “Why,” as one person wrote, “have four of my five Golden Retrievers died of cancer?”
Some of these questions hit very close to home. Merle’s best friend Brower, a Golden Retriever, was diagnosed with a malignant cancer of the snout when he was six. Another of Merle’s good friends, a black Lab named Pearly, died at seven of a neurofibrosarcoma that began in a nerve root at the base of her neck. Merle himself, though no young dog at fourteen, finally succumbed to his brain tumor.
As more of these letters came in, I couldn’t ignore them. I did a bibliographic search and discovered that no extensive and rigorous exploration of these questions could be found in any one place. Thinking that these questions deserved a book-length treatment, I began to investigate, and not merely because I’m perpetually curious about our closest animal friends. I knew that at some point my heart would heal and I would long for another dog with whom to share my life. I wanted to make sure that the care I would give my new dog helped him to live a long and healthy life, longer than Merle’s, if possible.
It was with these two goals in mind — learning about the healthiest ways to raise our dogs and finding my own new dog — that I set out on a quest, combing the veterinary literature and interviewing veterinarians, dog breeders, and shelter workers about the factors that affect dog health and longevity. Six factors were on almost everyone’s list: inbreeding, nutrition, environmental pollutants, vaccination, spaying and neutering, and the shelter system in which too many dogs end their days. One factor that wasn’t frequently mentioned, but which I believe is also important, is the amount of freedom dogs enjoy.
This book is based on that peer-reviewed veterinary literature (referenced in the notes), as well as on the work of progressive thinkers in the worlds of veterinary medicine, dog breeding, and animal welfare, whose advances and reforms may not have appeared in your local veterinarian’s office, kennel club, or shelter. It was with the help of these out-of-the-box thinkers that I began to question many of the outdated notions that surround our living with dogs, everything from yearly vaccinations to the idea that dogs need consistency in their diet. Indeed, since Merle and I met on the banks of the San Juan River in the spring of 1991, the way our culture raises dogs has changed considerably, as has mine. This book is about that evolution.
One thing hasn’t changed in my thinking. I still believe that dogs are individuals as well as members of a class. Even though we can make generalizations about their nurture and training, we can’t ever forget that each dog is unique, both physiologically and psychologically, and capable of making its own choices in complex and personalized ways, if only given the chance.
Merle, of course, led me on this journey of understanding from the start, helping me to see the richness of a dog’s mind, a mentoring that Pukka has taken over, adding an insight that Merle was unable to provide. Pukka, being a very young puppy, helped to reopen my eyes to the ever-present newness of the world.
Sitting on my lap a few days after I brought him home, he watched a training video with me, paying close attention to the demonstrator dog’s every move and pricking his ears when the dog barked. Then, when the video was over, he climbed onto my desk, and, quite sensibly for someone who had never seen a computer monitor before, peered behind the darkened screen to find where the barking dog was hiding. Glancing over his shoulder, he gave me a startled look: “That dog’s not there.”
Many people soon learned that I had a new puppy and sent Pukka gifts, a menagerie of stuffed animals that we stored in a wicker basket beneath the large windows overlooking the Tetons: a quacking duck, a howling wolf, a growling bear, a neighing horse, a barking dog, a laughing monkey, a wailing yak, a bellowing moose, and a squeaking hedgehog, as well as an assortment of rubber rings, stuffed cloth bones, knotted ropes, Frisbees, and balls.
Pukka would take them out one by one during the day, and I would put them away at night, and he would remove them again in the morning after breakfast, starting always with his favorite, the quacking duck, trotting across the room, and presenting it to me.
“We’re going to town,” I reminded him on this particular morning.
“Oh, please,” his black button eyes implored, “toss it just once.”
I launched the duck across the room, and he bounded after it, returning it to me smartly. Ten weeks old and he was already quite the retriever.
“Let’s go,” I said, “or we’ll be late.”
He looked at me coyly, furrowing his golden brows: “Just one more time.”
There is a good evolutionary reason for puppies being cute. Few can resist their demands.
“Okay,” I said, giving in. “One more time.” I tossed; he fetched.
“That’s it.” I took the duck from him and walked it to the wicker basket, where I placed it on top of the other animals. “Let’s go.”
The instant I turned my back and took a step toward the door, he grabbed the duck and squeezed it — quack! — and dropped it at my feet.
“Pukka,” I chided him gently, “we need to go.” I put the duck in the basket. He plunged his snout in after it, snatched up the bear, and gave it a shake. Grrr, the bear growled.
I took it from him and placed it in the basket as he snagged the neighing horse, biting it and making it whinny.
“Enough, Pukka,” I said, trying to sound firm. But he could see me smiling.
He dropped the horse and lunged for the yak. It wailed.
“Pukka, enough, let’s go!” Dropping the yak, he snatched up the barking dog — rau-rau-rau! — and immediately tossed it aside for the squealing bone. Twice he bit it — squeal! squeal! — then flung it at me, only to grab the squeaking hedgehog. He was now laughing a big puppy grin as I put each stuffed animal into the basket, and said, “Everyone back in place. Neat and tidy. There we go.”
“Hah!” he panted, dropping the hedgehog and grabbing the wolf, who howled. Flipping it aside, he picked up the laughing monkey, the Frisbee, the chirping ball, the bellowing moose, tossing out every single toy in the basket and running from one to the other, biting them, so as to keep his wildlife chorus going. Quacks, howls, barks, neighs, and squeals pealed around us. I fell to my hands and knees, laughing.
Pukka’s eyes lit with joy: I really did want to play! He began to dash in mad circles around me, scooping up his toys and flinging them at me, his tail helicoptering.
Sitting upright, I held my belly, and he skidded to a stop before me. Placing his paws upon my shoulders, he looked me in the eyes. “See,” he grinned, “there really was enough time to play.” Then he licked me on the mouth, just once, sealing our deal.
Laughing, I shook my head in wonder. How many other animals will so consistently play with a member of another species? And then I shook my head wistfully, despite Pukka’s young age. Why should these humorous, tender, and congenial spirits be granted such short lives when the standoffish grizzly bear lives into its twenties and many a cranky parrot into its seventies? Why has nature decreed that our friendly dogs are already ancient in their teens while giving the unhuggable tortoise more than a century of life and some whales two hundred years to swim through the polar seas?