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Authors: Cat Warren

What the Dog Knows

BOOK: What the Dog Knows
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More advance praise for
What the Dog Knows

“[Warren's] painstaking research on the history and science of working dogs debunks myths and explains what is known—and how much remains unknown—about canine abilities and behavior. By combining this hard information with anecdotes about training Solo, accounts of searching the North Carolina woods for dead bodies, and stories of other trainers and their dogs, she has produced a book that is both informative and entertaining. Although her love for Solo is palpable, she remains analytical and clear-headed, never romanticizing what he or other working dogs do.”

—Bruce DeSilva, Edgar Award–winning author of the Mulligan crime novels

“In a series of accounts that sometimes read like detective stories, Cat Warren . . . takes us through the steps needed to create dogs that search for people—both living and dead—while describing her life and her special bond with a German shepherd named Solo.”

—Stanley Coren, author of
Born to Bark
Do Dogs Dream?

“What the Dog Knows
is first the story of the relationship between a hard-working cadaver dog and his human companion. But that deeply felt relationship opens the way to an exploration of the working-dog world and, in doing so, becomes something more—a realization of the intelligence, determination, and decency of these animals, a story both wonderful and wise.”

—Deborah Blum, author of
Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection

“The capabilities of these specially trained working dogs are remarkable. The author provides fascinating insider information about a meaningful partnership that has important legal and personal consequences.”

—Amy Hempel

“Cat Warren has captured both the magic and the best science behind the success of the modern working dog. This book masterfully shows how even the best technology cannot compete with our best friends. If you have ever wondered what dogs are truly capable of, this is the book for you.”

—Brian Hare, evolutionary anthropologist, director of Duke University's Canine Cognition Center, and co-author of
The Genius of Dogs

“It doesn't take a dog lover (such as myself) to appreciate Cat Warren's remarkable
What the Dog Knows.
Prepare to be enthralled and enlightened by this story of Solo and his mistress, whose clear, lively, personal, and intelligent writing will nail you from page one. It's a toss-up as to who is more fascinating—the dog people or the dogs themselves—in this wonderful and altogether unique book.”

—Lee Smith, author of
The Last Girls

“Working dogs, be they search-and-rescue, cadaver, or explosive detection specialists, are—like their human partners—a breed apart. They inhabit a world of complete commitment, utter dedication, and extraordinarily rigorous training.
What the Dog Knows
is greatly enriched by author Cat Warren's own love of digging. She and Solo take us on some fascinating detours through history and phony-baloney claims en route to the science, wonder, and awe that all rightly surround dogs' noses.”

—Sue Russell, author of
Lethal Intent
The Illustrated Courtroom

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1: The Little Prince of Darkness

2: Death and the Dog

3: Nose Knowledge

4: Birth of the Body Dog

5: The Shell Game

6: Distillations

7: A Spare Rib

8: Comfort Me with Bite Work

9: Into the Swamp

10: Cleverness and Credulity

11: All the World's a Scenario

12: The Grief of Others

13: All the Soldiers Gone

14: Running on Water

15: The Perfect Tool

16: Grave Work

17: A Second Wind

18: Wag


Photo Credits

About Cat Warren



To David, my one and only

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own

And a certain use in the world no doubt

Yet a hand's-breadth of it shines alone

'Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather

And there I put inside my breast

A moulted feather, an eagle-feather—

Well, I forget the rest.

—Robert Browning, “Memorabilia,” 1855


I've grown more comfortable working with the dead. With parts of them, really. A few teeth, a vertebra, a piece of carpet that lay underneath a body. One of my German shepherd's standard training materials is dirt harvested from sites where decomposing bodies rested. Crack open a Mason jar filled with that dirt, and all I smell is North Carolina woods—musky darkness with a hint of mildewed alder leaves. Solo smells the departed.

Solo is a cadaver dog. I occasionally get a call asking for our services when someone is missing and most likely dead. People have asked me if Solo gets depressed when he finds someone dead. No. Solo's work—and his fun—begins with someone's ending. Nothing makes him happier than a romp in a swamp looking for someone who has been missing for a while. For him, human death is a big game. To win, all he has to do is smell it, get as close as he can to it, tell me about it, and then get his reward: playing tug-of-war with a rope toy.

I never thought death could have an upside. I certainly never expected a dog to point that out to me. Since I started training and
working with Solo eight years ago, he's opened a new world to me. Sure, some of it is dark, but gradations of light filter through so much of it that I find it illuminates other spaces in my life.

Solo and I have different reasons for doing this work. What appears to motivate him is not just the tug-toy reward at the end (although that pleases him greatly) but also the work itself, as he sweeps a field like a hyperactive Zamboni on ice, tracking will o' the wisps of scent down to their source. What motivates me is watching Solo, a black-and-red shepherd with a big grin and a huge rudder of a tail. He captures the hidden world his nose knows and translates that arcane knowledge for us humans. As one of the K9 unit sergeants said, admiring Solo's clear body language, “You can read that dog like a book.” An easy book, happily, for a working-dog beginner like me. More Dr. Seuss's
One Fish Two Fish
than James Joyce's
Finnegans Wake.
It's a good thing that Solo's approach is Seuss-like, because the larger landscape of the missing and dead sometimes keeps me up at night pondering, poking at small details, trying to understand an unknowable plot. As one famous cadaver-dog trainer said, “Search is the classic mystery.”

My hobby can raise eyebrows. While close friends and a few of my university colleagues embraced the idea with delight, others cringed. With some colleagues, I knew better than to mention it. Mostly, they don't know, as there's no reason to. One administrator, surprised when I told him I had to miss an upcoming faculty meeting to take Solo on a last-minute homicide search, came back to me the next day. Perhaps, he suggested with laudable optimism, I could put cadaver-dog work on my curriculum vitae as extension and outreach? I am not sure this peculiar avocation burnishes my academic credentials. I appreciated his willingness to consider it, though. I know cadaver dogs are an esoteric branch off the working-dog tree, as well as an acquired taste. If someone turns up her nose, I change the subject to politics.

Academics, of course, don't have a monopoly on passing judgment. During a moment of calm at searches, sometimes a sheriff deputy or police officer will ask about what I do for a living. When I tell them
I teach at a university, some wince as well, eyeing me for signs of effeteness—and weakness. Then, temporarily at least, we forget about our differences and continue the search, where we are on common ground.

Solo has no idea that I have a split life, or that he's partly the cause of it. Why should he? He's a dog. He's unaware that human death and decay cause disgust or ambivalence. For him, death is a tug toy. For me, Solo is the ideal intermediary between me and death. When we search—but even when we train—he becomes the center of my universe, narrowing my scope to the area we're searching. My job is to guide him when needed but let him do his job independent of me, to make sure he has plenty of water and isn't too close to traffic or a backyard Rottweiler, and to watch him closely the entire time, as he tests the air currents and reacts to them.

Looking for a body is an idiosyncratic way of walking in the woods. If I come across a snapping turtle or see an indigo bunting flash in the trees, or if the winter woods open onto an abandoned tobacco barn surrounded with golden beech trees, the pleasure remains, though the reason for being there is a somber one. And it's not all beauty out there: The hidden barbed-wire fences, the catbrier and poison ivy, the deadfall, clear cuts, and garbage dumps that litter the woods all demand my attention, and they get it. Though Solo doesn't love pushing through briar, other than that, even in junkyards or abandoned homesteads, he enjoys sticking his nose into the dark hollows and spaces created by piles of rusted-out heaps and old foundations. I worry more about copperheads, jagged metal, and broken glass than I do about the dangers posed by people, even when a case involves homicide. I do know more about the drug trade in North Carolina than I did before, and I avoid certain truck stops along the I-40 corridor, even if the fuel gauge is near empty.

Overall, the world seems less frightening with a large dog at your side—and that is perhaps especially true when one faces death. For thousands of years, and in numerous religions, from Hinduism in
India to the Mayan religions in Mesoamerica, the dead have depended on the continued assistance of canines to help guide them wherever they are going. The Zoroastrians wanted a dog present at funerals, though not just any dog. Preferably a “four-eyed” dog, with a spot of darker fur above each eye. I imagine an ancient shepherd version of Solo doing a gleeful slalom through the mourners.

Tragedy, occasional incompetence, and inevitable cruelty are part of the work, a given. I don't forget those facets: They are relevant, but they don't shine, and not just because Solo is present. Savvy police and sheriff investigators, experienced search managers, locals who know every dirt road and creek in the county, and families and communities that care—because most do—end up occupying much of my selective memory space.

Working with this one ebullient German shepherd and his good nose was the beginning of an odyssey that has started to merge worlds I've loved separately for decades: nature, researching and writing about biology and applied science, and working and playing with animals—especially dogs. The dog's nose has led me to environmental biologists, forensic anthropologists, cognitive psychologists, medical examiners, and military researchers. I've been able to interview, meet, and apprentice with talented working-dog trainers and handlers—people I've ended up liking as much as I like dogs. I've trained alongside canine handlers and trainers who work with drug, bomb, and patrol dogs. In that world of law enforcement, dogs are not just good friends but irreplaceable extensions, lending noses and ears and sometimes bodies and teeth to their human partners, smelling and hearing things their human handlers cannot, going places most people are reluctant to go.

BOOK: What the Dog Knows
9.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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