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April 15, 2024

What the Dog Knows: Book Review

By Wendy Robards

What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs, by Cat Warren.

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. - from What the Dog Knows -

A small pup arrived from Ohio and came to live with Cat Warren one May day in 2004. He was born a single pup with no brothers or sisters which was Warren's only indication that he might be someone special. From day one, Solo, as he was named, turned Warren's household upside down with his brash combination of humor, intelligence, and wild-child attitude. Even Megan, the Warren's aging and dignified Irish Setter, was not spared Solo's special brand of attention.

She stared at us without seeing, the whites showing at the edges of her large brown eyes. To handicap Solo a bit more, I soaked her fringed ears and tail in bitter-apple spray so he was less tempted to swing from them. - from What the Dog Knows -

But despite Solo's overwhelming personality -- or maybe because of it -- he quickly won the hearts of his family. When Solo began to show signs of dog aggression, however, Warren sought the help of friend and K9 trainer, Nancy Hook, who spent one afternoon with Solo and then asked: "What are you going to do with him?" It was Hook who suggested Solo might have what it took to become a certified cadaver dog. So Warren did what she does best ... she researched the heck out of the discipline and then jumped in with both feet.

What the Dog Knows is part memoir and part science; it is Warren's unswerving journey with a bigger-than-life dog as they go from novices to professionals in the world of the working K9. The book is highly researched and examines the science of the dog's nose to better understand how dogs do what they do in law enforcement, the military, search and rescue, and other areas. Warren shares what has been discovered about the chemical composition of decomposing bodies, the unsuccessful attempts to create an artificial nose, and efforts to pinpoint ancient graves ... among other things.

Well-trained cadaver dogs can smell the faint remnants of the odor of death, impregnated on a carpet swatch, for months following the brief presence of a newly dead person. - from What the Dog Knows -

It is all fascinating, but made even more engaging because Warren has connected with dozens of well-known people in the field and fills her book with stories about real dogs and their handlers -- the searches they've been on, the hard work, the disappointments, the satisfaction of a job well done. At the center of What the Dog Knows are the dogs themselves who fling themselves into the work because to them it is less work and more play.

Those people who have been reading my blog from its inception know all about my search and rescue dog, Caribou, who gave my blog its name. She worked for 9+ years before retiring and passed away from spleen cancer nearly five years ago. Reading Warren's beautifully penned book brought me back to the days when I rose with the sun for a long day of training, or drove 300 miles to help find a missing person. It reminded me of the special bond I shared with my gorgeous girl. It re-ignited all the passion I had watching my dog work, wondering what exactly she was smelling and visualizing from the microscopic skin rafts floating on air currents.

The memories are not all positive. I met my share of egotistical handlers and surly law enforcement personnel who thought a woman should not be out finding dead bodies with her dog. And so, Warren's humility is refreshing. She does not pretend to know it all. She poses the questions, presents the research, gives first hand accounts and then admits we are a long way from understanding what the dog knows. She reveals her fears and doubts about her own skills and admits to her mistakes along the way.

Solo is getting older now, and a new dog has joined the Warren household -- little Coda who is a different kind of challenge. Cat Warren wants to keep following a dog, finding the missing, solving mysteries. I feel lucky to have been able to share some of her journey.

What the Dog Knows is one of the best books I've read this year. Readers interested in the working dog will most certainly want to read this one. But even if you have never imagined yourself working side by side with a dog, if you have ever loved a dog you will find much to love in Warren's book.

Highly recommended.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Learn more about Cat Warren and her work by visiting the author's website. Follow her ongoing adventures and observations by reading her blog. Check out the book trailer where you can see Solo in action:

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review.

  • Rating System

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ = Excellent
★ ★ ★ ★ = Good/Very Good
★ ★ ★ = Okay read
★ ★ = Not recommended
★ = Ugh! Don't waste your time.

Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".


Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-11-11
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