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Authors: Cat Warren

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Although they have been cherished for their good qualities—hunter, guard, herder, friend, worker—the inverse dog is the spoiler of human graves and eater of corpses, the keeper of hell's gates. . . .

—Paul Shepard,
The Others: How Animals Made Us Human
, 1997

Two months after Solo's arrival, I found myself in Nancy Hook's backyard in Zebulon, perched on the edge of an aluminum folding chair. Nancy slumped back in her sturdy canvas chair, her hand wrapped around a foam beer insulator wrapped around a Gatorade. She was mellow except for the warning she occasionally gave the dogs quarreling in the kennels next to the yard: “Don't make me come over there.” They stopped. It was mid-July and too hot to fight, in any case.
Japanese beetles clattered past. Tent caterpillars had wrapped up and skeletonized half the leaves of the huge pecan tree we sat under.

I knew Nancy from when I'd taken Zev to her parking-lot obedience class some years before. She had been welcoming and kind to both of us, though not particularly interested in Zev. He had been so mild-mannered that he tended to disappear in a dog crowd.

I hadn't seen Nancy much since, but I started to remember as I pulled into the drive and read the black bumper sticker on her pickup: “Gut Deer?” modeled after the “Got Milk?” campaign. Her hair was still copper, her dark chestnut eyes still surrounded by smile wrinkles. She wore camouflage pants.

I had e-mailed Nancy in desperation, remembering her sense of humor and practicality. I needed both. Sure, she said, come on out to Camp Hook. Bring the dog. She was competent and relaxed; I was edgy and talkative. Solo, more obnoxious than any four-month-old German shepherd should be, was hackled and humpbacked, wild-eyed and ungainly. From time to time, he surged toward the kennels, a dark hybrid of colt and Tasmanian devil. He would snarl and bounce off the cyclone fence. I bounced off the lawn chair, wrestling Bil-Jac dog treats out of my fanny pack, trying to distract him and minimize the behavior that Nancy was witnessing. “Solo? Solo? Watch me! Gooood dog!” I funneled liver into his mouth.

“Stop chattering at him,” Nancy said. “And stop giving him so many treats. You're making him into a wuss.” My hand froze in mid-dive. “He's just a jackass,” she said. “What do you want to do with him?”

And with that simple question, my weird dog world started righting itself. By “What do you want to do with him?” Nancy didn't mean endless rounds of dog counseling and dog tranqs, creating a sedated and submissive shepherd who needed an occasional cautionary Dog Whisperer “hisst” with an index finger held up to keep him in line. Nor did she mean that I could click-and-treat this dog into executing perfect obedience routines. That didn't work with him; besides, I
was bored with the obedience ring. Nor did she mean that Solo was capable of becoming the quintessential park dog who would allow me to sit on a bench with other tranquil owners, gossiping, watching our dogs romp and bark into the sunset.

She meant: What would you like this dog to do?

I had no idea. I wanted him to be so busy that he didn't have time to do what he was doing in front of Nancy. I wanted him to have a job, if possible. Not a pretend job that would simply exercise out his little heart of darkness. Probably not a job as a therapy dog in a nursing home, because of his rhino ways. I wanted his work to have meaning, as I was constantly struggling to find meaning in my own work.

Nancy didn't indulge my angst for long. “Stop thinking so much,” she said. “That's part of your problem.”

She ordered me to leave Solo alone. I pulled my hands away from the greasy treat bag and put them at my sides. I turned my gaze away from Solo's evilness. Within a couple of minutes, he came over and flopped in the shade. Being bad wasn't as interesting if I weren't reacting.

Nancy and I talked, running down my options. She taught everything from housebreaking to bite-breaking to obedience and trailing. Training Solo for search and rescue wasn't ideal. I couldn't leave students waiting in the classroom for a lecture on feminist essentialism because I was running off to search for a lost three-year-old who was in fact playing with Transformers at the next-door neighbors' house. Nor could I count on my own body being the ultimate fitness machine, capable of running for miles after a dog tracking in thick underbrush; I might end up asthmatic, shambling, sciatic nerves aflame, eyeglasses either fogged or smashed. Lost people needed better odds than I offered.

That made sense to Nancy. Besides, she had become less enamored of search-and-rescue team politics over the years. She described them in ways that made them sound similar to my English department, without the Victorian charm. More issues emerged. I didn't want to wear search gear that would make me look like a Girl Scout. Then there was the idea of a team. I could collaborate, but I couldn't really relate to the
cheery phrase “Remember, there is no ‘I' in team.” It didn't suit Solo, either. Better that he didn't constantly have to deal with the hurly-burly of dog society. Sending him out to track alongside several self-assured search dogs? They wouldn't put up with his nastiness. They'd reduce him to tufts of black-and-red fur spread over the trail.

There was one way around all of the scheduling problems, my team-player problems, and Solo's psycho-puppy problems. Nancy was pleased with herself for coming up with it: “a cadaver dog.”

I didn't know exactly what Nancy meant, but I could guess. Dead dog. I'm good at putting words together and knowing what they mean. It's what I do for a living.

It's ideal, she told me. The dead will wait. In the meantime, they emit scent. With a few frozen exceptions, more and more scent over time. And cadaver dogs and their handlers work mostly by themselves, in methodical search grids, not alongside other dogs and handlers. The dog's job is both simple and complex: to go to where the scent is the strongest and tell the handler it's there. It's work that needs to be done. Families and law enforcement, mostly, although not always, want bodies found. Besides, she told me, beaming, her smile lines in full evidence, “It's a ton of fun. You'll love it!”

Nancy avoided mentioning that my salmon-colored linen pants were probably not the ideal thing to wear on searches.

At the end of our session, she sent me and Solo off down the road. I was sweaty, I reeked of liver treats, and I was filled with inexplicable happiness about those who go missing for a long time. Solo, exhausted, slept soundly in the backseat, although his outsize feet continued to twitch, pedaling air-conditioning instead of cyclone fence.

Nancy, knowing my compulsive habits, expressly forbade me to read about training dogs on cadaver scent. I would screw up Solo's training by reading too many theories too soon. She had two exceptions: Bill Syrotuck's
Scent and the Scenting Dog
and Andy Rebmann's
Cadaver Dog Handbook
. I ordered the two books. Then, because waiting
isn't my forte, I sneaked onto the web to learn the basics of death and dogs.

•  •  •

No house would stand firmly founded for me on the Ahura-created earth were there not my herd dog or house dog.

—Ahura Mazda, Zoroastrian god

In 2012, archaeologists in the Czech Republic published their discovery of three skulls of what appeared to be domesticated dogs, shorter of snout and broader of braincase than their wolf cousins. One of the skulls, 31,500 years old, had a flat bone fragment, probably that of a mammoth, inserted in its jaws. It was so purposeful and evocative that the archaeologists couldn't help speculating: Was that bone part of a funerary rite, appeasing the spirit of the animal, inviting it to come back, or encouraging it to accompany deceased people?

The speculation wasn't much of a stretch. For all that dogs seem to lurk on the edge of civilization, we've also let them in and granted them special status. For thousands of years and in numerous religions, the living have depended on canines to help guide the dead—to get us from here to there, wherever there is. Few myths have such worldwide resonance. One can see the temptation of assigning dogs this task: They appear custom-designed for it. Dogs howl at the moon, warning us that death is just over the horizon. They can hear and smell, growl and hackle, warning us of specters that our dull senses miss.

They also like to eat things. Even us, given the opportunity. Dead people aren't so different from other dead animals. We're protein. Given an opportunity, dead people get smelly. We become deeply attractive not only to bottle flies but to more developed animals. Like dogs.

Part of the religious connection of death and dogs no doubt comes
from a ritualized spin on the grim but useful reality that dogs and other canids, like jackals, scavenge. People witnessed that behavior—done with joy and impunity—and came to the obvious conclusion that dogs and their close relatives must be powerful, immune to the demons of death surrounding bodies. That made canids useful beyond the simple housekeeping function of getting rid of bodies. So in ancient Egypt, in a simultaneously pragmatic and religious switch, the jackal-dog became a god. Anubis, friend of the dead, was a protector, not a predator, of the deceased in their tombs.

While artwork and accounts of Anubis are plentiful, we have only one or two nineteenth-century accounts about how the ancient Bactrians (in what is now Afghanistan) and the Hircanians (then part of the Persian empire) handled this canid propensity. Those accounts note that the Bactrians used dogs called
canes sepulchrales
. The dogs had a specific job description: to eat the dead. In exchange, they received the greatest care and attention, “for it was deemed proper that the souls of the deceased should have strong and lusty frames to dwell in.” It was a pretty nice deal for the deceased, who then got to hang out in a mobile furry coffin. The limited history doesn't note what happened after the dog died.

In Persia, the Zoroastrians made canids' roles more layered and central to mortuary rites. Like the Egyptians and Bactrians, they clearly decided to make the best of canids' tendency to love smelly protein. Zoroastrians were already using working dogs as a central part of their ancestors' nomadic herding existence. Mary Boyce, considered the greatest scholar of ancient Iran, wrote that “mortal dogs receive a striking degree of attention” in Zoroastrian holy texts. They likened the dog to fire, both protective and destructive. “It seems probable that this power came to be attributed to the dog because dogs are the animals always referred to in the Avesta as devouring corpses,” Boyce wrote.

It takes some real mojo for dogs to do that and not be harmed by Nasu, the demon that brings putrefaction. The funerary rite in Zoroastrianism
was called the
sagdid
, “seen by the dog.” It took a special kind of dog for this work. A kind of German shepherd-like dog. The ideal
sagdid
dog was to be at least four months old and male, “brownish-golden” with “four eyes”—perhaps not unlike rust-and-black Solo, with twitchy black spots of fur over his eyes. One of the small cast-metal art objects in the Tehran museum looks like a stocky German shepherd, although German shepherds didn't exist then. The dog could be white with tawny ears, probably not unlike what we see in the Canaan dog of Israel, an ancient herding breed still in existence, or one of the guard breeds of that area.

The dogs chosen for
sagdig
got paid for their work. Zoroastrians knew their dog training. Three pieces of bread were placed on the corpse to induce the dog to approach, gaze steadily on the body, and drive Nasu away. That would be exactly how I started training Solo to both recognize and happily approach the scent of human death—only I used liver treats and then toys, rather than bread, to draw him in.

The work of dogs didn't end with
sagdid
. After the four-eyed dog was done with his job, corpse bearers took the body away, and the village dogs and vultures followed and feasted.

Zoroastrian dogs—from the herders to the hunters to the house dogs and the village dogs—had a pretty good deal: They got especially well fed when people died, and not just by getting a bit of bread or helping dispose of the bodies. They were given a whole egg and portions of the food offerings for the dead. When Zoroastrian house dogs died, they got extra-special treatment: Boyce noted, “Until the mid-20th century when a house dog died, its body was wrapped in an old sacred shirt tied with a sacred girdle, and was carried to a barren place, and brief rituals were solemnized for its spirit.”

All the rituals sounded lovely, especially the one for the house dog. It was a step up from what we did with Zev after he died: We got his ashes in a hard plastic canister from the vet. The canister came with a burgundy velvet sack with a small rainbow bridge embroidered on it. The canister still sits in my great-grandfather's oak secretary. I don't
know what we're waiting for. We should probably carry his ashes to a barren place.

•  •  •

Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring

Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing!

That wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy reign

The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;

Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,

Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.

—Homer, the
Iliad

Westerners haven't been nearly as kind to canids as the Zoroastrians were, although we should have been deeply grateful to the female wolf who fed and raised Romulus and Remus so they could found Rome, our version of civilization. In the Western world, we balk at the notion of including dogs in our religious life. We're genuinely repulsed by the idea of dogs eating people. Homer used dogs' attraction to bodies to open the
Iliad
, the perfect frame for horror and chaos.

The large, evil, and almost always dark dog lurks on the edge of Western civilization: Hecate, the Helenic goddess of ghosts and witchcraft, had a black bitch familiar at her side. Greeks used to sacrifice black puppies to Hecate; dogs were a favorite sacrifice in a number of religions. Cerberus, the three-headed monster dog, let new spirits enter the realm of the dead, though no one could leave. Gamr, a bloodstained watchdog of Norse mythology who looks a lot like a German shepherd, guarded the gate to the underworld where evilgoers went. The Cŵn Annwn, Welsh spectral dogs, foretold death.

BOOK: What the Dog Knows
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