Frequently Asked Questions


When did you and Merle meet?
April 21, 1991

When did Merle die?
June 10, 2004

Do you still live in the same house that you describe in Merle's Door?

Are Merle's pawprints still on the balcony above the great room?

How did you get over Merle's death?
I wrote his biography. In this way he was with me every day for three years and then for another year while I was on his book tour. Even today, Merle is still with me, and I see him often.


What does Pukka mean?
It's an old Hindi word for "first class" or "genuine" and is pronounced like hockey puck.

What kind of dog is Pukka?
A yellow Labrador Retriever.

Is Pukka like Merle?
Yes, in some respects. He likes to ski and hunt and swim. But he doesn't sing. So far, he doesn't roam as much as Merle did. He comes and goes through his own dog door and stays much closer to the house. Unlike Merle, Pukka barks, which he learned to do from a new generation of dogs in Kelly, who unlike the dogs of Merle's time, have decided to be barking dogs. Also unlike Merle, Pukka loves to bird hunt and keeps his eyes on the sky, watching jets and the moon in addition to ravens and pheasants. Merle loved big mammals and watched the ground ahead.

How can I let my dog be a dog in the city or suburbs?
Despite the challenges of living in cities and suburbs with a dog, many people give their dogs rewarding lives. Foremost is making sure that your dog has off-leash time in a safe, green space. Virtually all cities and suburbs have such parks. Allowing your dog to play at dog speed with other dogs in these places will do wonders for your friend's physical and mental health. Remember, jogging or running with your dog isn't a substitute for allowing your dog time to follow its nose, to explore paths that aren't on your route, and to stop and converse with other dogs.

In addition, taking your dog along on weekend excursions to the woods, the beach, or the mountains, where it can really explore a big area, will help it to stay fit and happy. I also take my dog on most of my errands. Wherever a store is dog friendly, I bring my dog in with me, on-leash of course: the bank, the post office, the various sporting goods stores, the book stores, the dog-friendly cafes. If I don't know if a store is dog-friendly, I assume it is until told otherwise. Nine times out of ten, people welcome dogs.

Incorporating a dog into one's life in this way makes a dog feel like it's a team member instead of a second-class citizen who's always left at home. Even when I go to the movies, I take my dog, letting him sleep on his bed in the car.

There's also a way to give a fenced dog more freedom. This suggestion came from a reader in Philadelphia: He and five other neighbors live on a busy street. After fencing in their yards to contain their dogs, they put dog doors in the intervening fences as well as in each of their homes. Their six dogs now go back and forth among the yards and houses while their people are at work. This is a very creative solution to the problem of fenced dogs becoming bored.

My dog is small and I'm afraid to let it play with bigger dogs. How can I help it become socialized?
It's important not to be overly protective of small dogs, especially when they're young. They need to romp and play with other puppies and build confidence while learning bite inhibition — in other words, if I bite too hard no one will play with me. Scooping up a puppy the instant it cries out, or hovering over it and not letting it engage other dogs, or keeping it on a leash, are sure ways to create a maladjusted dog. Of course, I wouldn't I let my small dog, even one with a lot of confidence, play with dogs who were sixty pounds larger than it until I had watched these dogs over a period of days and could trust their manners and gentleness.

I'm afraid to let my dog off its leash even in a safe location that has no cars. It may never come back. What should I do?
First off, consider that you give your dog love and food, and it knows this. It's unlikely that your dog will willingly abandon you. It could, however, get distracted by other dogs, interesting smells, or wildlife. Therefore, it's important to teach your dog a strong recall. Practice in the house by teaching your dog to come at the word "come," then rewarding it with a treat it likes. Increase the distance until the dog is coming from anywhere in the house. Once "come" is learned, teach the dog to come at two blasts of a silent whistle. This sort of whistle carries for great distances and is a far better way to recall your dog than shouting at it ( Once a whistle recall is learned, practice outside at increasingly greater distances and with increasing amounts of distractions, rewarding your dog when it returns, until it has a reliable recall.

Why two blasts on the whistle instead of one?
Because you'll want to teach your dog to sit and wait on one blast of the whistle. Case in point: Your dog runs across a road. Cars are coming. You do not want your dog to come; you want it to stay put. You blow the whistle once: your dog sits. The cars go by. You blow the whistle twice and your dog comes.

Is having two dogs a good idea if one has to spend long periods of the day away from them?
Yes, if the dogs like each other. If I had one dog and I was thinking of getting another to keep it company, I would let the first dog choose its companion. Dogs, like people, have their preferences, and if you want a happy household, it pays for the dog and the human to choose the new four-legged member together.