“What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs,” by Cat Warren. Touchstone Books. $26.99
Don’t let the title fool you here. This riveting read, while it focuses largely on the author’s German shepherd Solo (came from a litter of one), is all about people, too. Many of them and from all parameters of the working-dog world – trainers, breeders, handlers, law enforcement, historians, veterinarians and a wide array of scientists.
Warren, a university professor and former journalist, takes the reader through the emotional selection process of a puppy – twice – bookending this emotional course of action and then through the intense training regimen for cadaver-dog work.
She segues into that arena while trying to harness the “wild dog” Solo’s behavior and utilize his olfactory skills. As the reader accompanies the pair into the deep swamps, lakes and rivers, Civil War sites with unmarked graves and police training sites in the Southeast, you are also introduced into the fascinating world of working dogs with U.S. military forces in the Middle East and widespread science laboratories.
Warren wastes no time getting one’s attention. In her Introduction, she writes: “I’ve grown more comfortable working with the dead. With parts of them, really.”
Seemingly, you are left to wonder how Warren’s two worlds – university journalism professor by week and cadaver-dog handler by weekend – are compatible. But she weaves the two together with colorfully descriptive in-the-field storytelling to historical anecdotes tied to the working dog.
Warren’s honesty and candidness are key here, too, since she admits to numerous beginner handler miscues and thanks her instructors’ patience and encouragement for pushing her forward.
One of the most compelling chapters deals with water scent skills and how dogs in boats reflect a marked difference when signaling a corpse find several feet to a couple hundred feet beneath the surface.
“Cadaver dogs’ ability to find human remains,” she writes, “may be analogous to humans’ ability to recognize faces.”
Working-dog history, Warren notes, extends back only to the 1960s. Good ones, she adds, have to “move swiftly, hear acutely, smell well and communicate clearly with their handlers – even bite on occasion.”
She adds, “Though we’ve been using working dogs for tens of thousands of years, academic researchers are just starting to catch up with what these dogs do and how. . . . If working dogs are overrated in the popular imagination, they have been most underrated in science, although that is rapidly changing.”
When detailing the partnership with Solo on searches, she emphasizes: “Sure, I trust the dog; I also like to verify. I don’t always trust me. Or the terrain. Or the search conditions, which are never as easy as the most difficult training you can set up.”
It’s critical, she writes, that the handler must set up the dog for success. “Trusting your dog and letting him do his work doesn’t mean being an unthinking chump. You have to keep your eyes and mind open.”
Through her travels with Solo, Warren switches from a personal and engaged mode to cold facts like a reasoned, unbiased observer, which probably can be attributed to her journalistic background.
That refreshing bluntness and candor enhances her vibrant storytelling and keeps the reader on a short leash throughout.