Cat Warren is a university professor and former journalist with an admittedly odd hobby: She and her German shepherd have spent the last seven years searching for the dead. Solo is a cadaver dog. What started as a way to harness Solo’s unruly energy and enthusiasm soon became a calling that introduced Warren to the hidden and fascinating universe of working dogs, their handlers, and their trainers.
Solo has a fine nose and knows how to use it, but he’s only one of many thousands of working dogs all over the United States and beyond. In What the Dog Knows, Warren uses her ongoing work with Solo as a way to explore a captivating field that includes cadaver dogs, drug- and bomb-detecting K9s, tracking and apprehension dogs—even dogs who can locate unmarked graves of Civil War soldiers and help find drowning victims more than two hundred feet below the surface of a lake. Working dogs’ abilities may seem magical or mysterious, but Warren shows the multifaceted science, the rigorous training, and the skilled handling that underlie the amazing abilities of dogs who work with their noses.
Warren interviews cognitive psychologists, historians, medical examiners, epidemiologists, and forensic anthropologists, as well as the breeders, trainers, and handlers who work with and rely on these remarkable and adaptable animals daily. Along the way, she discovers story after story that proves the impressive capabilities—as well as the very real limits—of working dogs and their human partners. Clear-eyed and unsentimental, Warren explains why our partnership with dogs is woven into the fabric of society and why we keep finding new uses for their wonderful noses.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
What the Dog Knows
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.
My epiphany was not that working dogs are miraculous—by themselves, they aren’t—but instead, how inextricably linked their success is to the quality of their handlers, and the trainers who train the handlers. Working dogs’ success is far from a given: It takes imagination, deep knowledge, and constant work to train and handle dogs who work with their noses for a living. These are the dog people whose lives and careers are so interwoven with working canines that it can be difficult to see where the person ends and the dog begins; they complete each other. Not because the work they do is smooth or easy. The opposite is true. Often they are working in dangerous environments, or in the midst of devastation—whether from crime, war, climate change, earthquakes, or airplane crashes. The rare perfection of that human and canine partnership in our weird, complex, mechanized world is what keeps working dogs from obsolescence. Working dogs are a holdover from simpler times. Sometimes they’re seen as a sentimental and unnecessary indulgence. Not all dog-and-handler teams are effective. But when they are good, they are very, very good: They can distinguish scent, cover territory, and accomplish tasks that no machine is capable of. We have new needs for the old work of dogs.
I don’t handle and train dogs full-time. I probably will always be a serious hobbyist. Despite the nightmares I have when I make errors, I still return. I’m hooked. As I get better at juggling university demands and training demands, and as I learn to deal with the inevitable sadness, what remains is the intense physical and mental challenge of stripping a search to its essential elements so the dog can do his best work. Walking in the woods with Solo, as scent starts to loft in the morning warmth, I can concentrate so fiercely on our surroundings that time slows and warps. Or I can simply enjoy a night of training as the fireflies come out and Solo waltzes through solving a complex scent problem, a dancing figure in the dark.
He is a dog who both lives and narrates as his brown eyes snap with pleasure and impatience and he comes bounding across a cow pasture to lead me back to what he has discovered two hundred feet away.
Hey, come here, will you? Quick. The dead stuff is over here. Let me show you.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for What the Dog Knows includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Cat Warren. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Researchers have only just begun to understand dogs’ olfactory abilities. The mystery deepens with scent-detection dogs. What started as a hobby to train her unruly German shepherd puppy transformed into a passion, as Cat Warren, a science journalism professor, started to train Solo as a cadaver dog and learn about the complex world of working canines. Combining powerful storytelling with painstaking research, Warren takes us on a fascinating journey to learn what the dog knows.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Why does author Cat Warren believe researchers have studied vision more than olfactory sense? Why do you think it receives less attention in the research community?
2. How do some of the training methods used for working dogs differ from training companion dogs? Do you think every dog needs a job? Why was having a job so important for Solo?
3. Both Nancy and Mike encouraged Cat to “let go” when it came to training Solo. What did they mean by this? Why do you think this is a difficult instinct to overcome?
4. How can handlers’ moods and personalities influence their working dogs? Give some examples of Solo reacting to Cat’s moods.
5. What is a “false alert”? Why do these alerts come up during training? What did Cat do to minimize their happening with Solo?
6. What techniques did Cat use to get Solo to ignore her gaze? Why was this so crucial in their detection work?
7. Why is the Winthrop Point theory important to criminal investigators and cadaver-dog handlers? How could relying on it be potentially distracting for handlers and their dogs?
8. What fine line do handlers have to tread between searching where law enforcement tells them versus following their and, more especially, their dogs’ instincts? When is it appropriate to bend the rules? When is it not?
9. Describe the differences between a traditional cadaver-dog search on land and a search on water. What scent detection skills did you find most interesting? Why?
10. Despite the technological advances of artificial noses, law enforcement continues to supplement investigations with tried-and-true working dogs. How reliable are electronic or bioengineered noses? What’s the biggest problem Cat identifies with these technological innovations?
11. What kind of challenges did Cat face juggling her academic pursuits with her cadaver-dog handling?
12. Would you train your own dog to be a working dog if you had the time and opportunity?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Cat Warren notes the high number of unsolved missing-person cases in the United States. With your book club, select a missing-person case that’s compelling to you (from the news, a history book, etc.). Discuss whether detection dogs were used or not, and whether detection dogs might have made a difference if they had been used.
2. What research or researcher did you find most interesting in What the Dog Knows? Select a research article to discuss at your next book club.
3. Invite a volunteer detection-dog handler to your next book club. Ask that person to bring his or her dog, if possible.
4. Visit Cat Warren’s website, www.catwarren.com, to watch videos of Cat’s training with Solo, listen to audiobook excerpts, and read Cat’s blog.
A Conversation with Cat Warren
At what moment did you realize cadaver-dog training was going to become a central part of your life?
There wasn’t one “Wow, this is so cool” moment. Instead, it was cumulative, a series of small steps where I turned around, looked back, and realized how far I’d come with Solo—and how much fun I’d had along the way. It wasn’t just me. The work made Solo happy, too. I expect Solo and I share some of the same reasons for loving this work: We like the woods. We both share a desire to get to the source of whatever it is we are looking for. We like to be acknowledged and rewarded for that work. For Solo, that’s his tug toy and my telling him what a fine dog he is. As for me, I like mysteries to be solved.
If Solo had been born with siblings, do you think he would have evolved into the cadaver dog he is today? How do you imagine things would have been different?
Solo would have been as capable of being a cadaver dog without having been a singleton. Being an only pup didn’t give him his drive and good nose. But I doubt I would have trained him to be a cadaver dog if he hadn’t had issues with other dogs. He would have been a great companion dog, but I wouldn’t have pushed to find something for him to do. In retrospect, I’m grateful that he was such a jackass.
Do full-time working dog handlers exist within detection work?
The world of working canines is huge and complex. Many law enforcement departments have full-time K9 handlers. A number of police departments have dedicated bomb- and explosives-sniffing dogs, who do nothing else. Or dogs whose only job is to sniff out currency because there are large ports and airports nearby. A handful of police departments nationwide still have full time cadaver-dog handlers. But departments make hard choices depending on their needs. Mostly, they don’t need a dedicated cadaver-dog team. That’s why well-trained volunteer units fill such a need. And I’m so happy to be a volunteer.
Would you have ever used Solo in another kind of work, such as a therapy dog?
Let’s face it: He’s a great therapy dog for me, but Solo’s personality wouldn’t make him a good therapy dog for others. Calm and quiet usually wins the day for therapy dogs. Even as an adult, Solo is like a baby rhinoceros who doesn’t always realize he’s mowing things down. I shudder to think about how he might inadvertently harm a patient with his enthusiasm. I have great admiration for people and dogs who visit nursing homes and hospitals, but Solo would be evicted instantly because of the noisy ruckus he can’t help making.
In Chapter 10, you discuss “bullshit” and some handlers’ refusal to acknowledge false alerts. Do you consider false alerts inevitable?
All handlers want their dogs to do an amazing job and never “false alert”—that is, indicate something is there when it isn’t. But for dogs to work at the peak of their ability, they have to be constantly challenged during training—and that means making mistakes. Good trainers try to create scenarios where either the dog or the handler will make a mistake because they are being faced with new scenarios. Let’s face it: No dog and no handler is perfect. I don’t think that false alerts are inevitable, but I do think that failure is inevitable. That’s how you and your dog learn. An occasional false alert is part of training hard and pushing the dog and yourself.
When it comes to dogs working independently and “ignoring their handler’s gaze” and influence, are some dogs more prone to ignoring the gaze? How much does the dog’s personality, like stubbornness, factor into it? What about breed?
Learning to ignore the handler and work independently doesn’t necessarily depend on the breed. It’s more about the particular dog, the training it has, and the dog’s relationship with the handler. In some ways, getting a dog to ignore his handler and do his work can have more to do with the handler than with the particular dog. One experienced handler sent me a wonderful e-mail after she read the book. She finally realized why her second search dog didn’t work independently: She was so used to training other handlers and explaining things that she was talking constantly while she was working her own dog. The dog, she said, was completely distracted by her chattering. So she tried, in Nancy Hook’s term, “zipping her lip.” It worked. The dog performed beautifully and independently, she wrote.
What was the most difficult case you worked with Solo? Have any cases impacted you long-term?
I don’t write at length about specific cases in the book, except for one, because the majority of cases are part of ongoing legal proceedings. But every case is difficult and haunting in its own way. I still think about a number of searches that Solo and I went on. I even think about some that I never went on but know about. Some cases stay with me because of the perpetrator’s brutality and indifference to the victim’s suffering. Some haunt me because they were so avoidable and sad. And some cases that touch me aren’t even cases, but part of our more distant past. Watching Solo or other dogs try to locate the remains of slaves and soldiers makes me think about the history of this country in ways I never have before.
On average, how often do authorities require dogs who can search for bodies underwater compared with traditional detection scenarios? Is it worthwhile to train a dog in both techniques?
I don’t know how often authorities request cadaver dogs trained for water. There’s no tracking mechanism for that. Many times, though, authorities don’t even know that some trained cadaver dogs are also trained to work in water. It’s an important part of educating law enforcement and rescue officials. It’s very worthwhile to train a cadaver dog in both techniques. Cadaver dogs with good water training can be enormously effective in helping pinpoint or narrow down the location of a victim in water—in ways that radar or other tools cannot.
Would you ever consider handling a dog for military purposes? Do you think Solo would have been suited for it? What about Coda?
I personally wouldn’t consider it, although I greatly admire people like Kathy Holbert and Matt Zarrella who took their dogs to Asia and the Middle East to search for the missing. It’s interesting to imagine the different reactions of my two dogs to the challenges of a conflict zone. Solo might find it stressful, just as I would. Coda might thrive in such a situation; she has a number of different gears, some of which I’m just learning about. She’s perfectly at home with chaos, loud sounds, and new environments. “Bomb-proof ” is an apt term for little Coda.
How do you cope when you’re waiting for a call that never comes? How much did this type of waiting affect your other job?
I make sure my search gear is packed and ready to go. My university work has its own schedules and demands: If students are sitting in a classroom, that’s where my attention and focus go. In some ways, the juggling has made me more efficient. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
How much do you consider detection-dog handling as part of your identity? Do you see yourself doing it for as long as you can?
I mostly don’t live life with regrets for roads not taken. But I sometimes wish that I were twenty years old, with the possibility of decades of working dogs still in front of me. I came to this late, but I was so lucky with Solo. He gave me this new identity, which feels like an integral part of me. Now, I want to do it as long as I can. I know people who are in their seventies working dogs. They are my inspiration.
Despite the tools and technologies developed for detecting specific scents, authorities continue to rely on dogs’ noses. Do you think technology will ever advance beyond that?
Technology can always surprise us. When I wrote about artificial noses, I didn’t know what I might discover. I’m a reporter, and while I have my personal preferences, I didn’t go into the research thinking the dog’s nose was inevitably superior to what science and technology might offer. For certain purposes, artificial noses are a better choice. But dogs still rule in so many arenas where we need their noses, fine judgment, and adaptability. Tomorrow, a new technology may emerge that does a better job in finding dropped weapons or helping narrow the area of a drowning victim. But dogs, too, can surprise us. We continue to make strides in how effectively we understand, train, and handle working dogs.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a handler for a cadaver or detection dog?
Do it! Find the people who can help you, find the dog who will help you along the path. Don’t do it because you think it’s a public service or because you think the world needs more volunteers out looking for the missing. Don’t do it because you think you’ll become indispensible. Do it because it’s a wonderful way to be with a dog and a wonderful way to learn about the world. I feel so lucky to have stumbled upon this work, but there are hundreds of different ways to partner with dogs.
Does Coda seem better suited to a certain kind of cadaver work compared with Solo? What are the biggest differences between them?
Coda is young and has so much to learn. The differences between her and Solo are significant: She is still less bonded to me than Solo is, but that’s coming along as I learn how to be more interesting to her. She’s innately more independent than he is. Because Solo is smart, he learned how to, ignore me. Coda is already more methodical. She’s a puppy perfectionist. Once she gets into scent, she slows down to a crawl and works out the problem at a pace that I find both frustrating and admirable. She wants to get her nose on the training aid and anything short of that isn’t good enough. But it isn’t always possible to do that. She’s also an agile little gymnast. I didn’t train Solo for disaster work, but I think Coda might excel because of her love for scrambling and balancing. Of course, that means I will need to step up my game and learn a whole new demanding set of skills. But Solo in retrospect was so easy to train that I look back and sigh in nostalgia.
Do you have plans to write another book? What’s next for you, Coda, and Solo?
Of course I have plans to write another book. I learned so much writing this one. I’m still narrowing down the topic. The next step for Coda? I hope to certify her in the near future. Solo, I’m sad to say, is retired. I shed some tears, but it was time. We had so much fun while it lasted. He’s still healthy and happy despite his age. He joins Coda and me in training sometimes and still shows Coda what it means to be passionate and focused in your work. She’s competitive, so she goes nuts waiting in the car, watching him work. And he is still so incredibly efficient. I love watching him solve problems. By the time I let Coda out to work, she doesn’t saunter. She flies. Solo is teaching her, just as he taught me.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
altho some of this info elsewhere, the good writing made it enjoyable as well as informative and yet easy to skip the parts individual reader didn't need or have interest in
I really enjoyed reading this book. It was informative, easy to read, and interesting. The author provided good descriptions and detailed information about the training of her dog plus many other dogs.