What the Dog Knows

Author: Cat Warren

Type: Non-fiction, single subject, memoir

Full title: What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs

Published: 2013

I read it: April 2015


“For him, human death is a big game.”

This is the way Cat Warren introduces how her German Shepherd, Solo, views his work. (That’s him on the book cover.) It’s mostly play. After trudging through a swamp for hours looking for a body, Solo gets rewarded with a tug toy and the praise of his master. He’s a body-recovery dog, also known as “body dog” or “cadaver dog.” For Warren, training a cadaver dog was not in the plan. But after she got Solo, the only of his litter, she found this path because this big rambunctious dog needed something to do. A purpose.

Though the subtitle suggests a more general analysis of all working dogs, the book is about Warren’s personal journey with Solo through the cadaver work world. She notes humorously:

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.

To be clear, cadaver dogs train for the specific purpose of finding dead bodies. Ideally they are distinct from dogs searching for lost people who are most likely alive, though city budgets often force K9 units to train their dogs for a variety of tasks. The book does a great job of showing how the life of a working dog handler is almost fully consumed by the work, and how the dogs are similar to or different from regular pets:

It’s critical that a working dog be able to lead, to independently decide where and how to search, instead of timidly looking to the handler for cues. It is the inverse of a relationship that most trainers suggest we have with our household pets.

This hobby/profession is a powerful mix of art and science. Warren describes other animals that research organizations have tried to train for “scent work” but none are all around as effective as the dog. This probably has a lot to do with the tight co-evolution of dogs and humans, which caused dogs to have the one thing that helps most: that eager need to please. A trained dog wants a happy handler. Warren has no disillusions about what a dog can and can’t do. She goes to lengths to emphasize that a dog’s nose is not perfect and people shouldn’t expect the body to be found every time. But they are pretty great tools for the job at hand:

Good dogs seem to move through a kind of complex decision tree on difficult searches: “This, not that,” “Up, not down,” and “That thing doesn’t belong here, but it’s not the thing I’m looking for.” Although dogs aren’t perfect, they adapt to a variety of search conditions.

Trained as a journalist, Warren keeps a skeptical mind and weighs all the research she can find as she takes this journey with Solo. A lot of it is spotty, and a lot just plain wrong. (I love her jabs at Animal Planet when they claimed the bloodhound has a nose “up to a million times more sensitive than that of humans.” She responds: “I’m not making this up. Animal Planet is.”) She does uncover a lot of other factoids from better research, always up to revision of course. One is the statistic that “a sniffing dog breathes in between 140 to 200 times a minute, compared to a dog out for a stroll, breathing at thirty times a minute.” Regardless of how much the dogs enjoy their task, she makes sure to illustrate the “work” in “working dogs.”

So a woman named Cat wrote the book on cadaver dogs. It’s a pretty fascinating little slice of modern life. But this is also just as much a memoir about a woman and her dog, not unlike the different but also wonderful Pack of Two. Warren weaves together the internal and the external in a graceful blend that is real without being sappy. The university professor comes out through a bunch of little epigraphs in front of chapters and sections, and the reader gets to know Solo as much as anyone can know a dog without meeting them in real life. People interested in just dogs or just forensics would find this a satisfying read. It makes you want to get outside, but be careful. You never know what your pup might uncover when they bound down into a weed-covered ditch.

3 thoughts on “What the Dog Knows

  1. Thanks so much for this great review! It absolutely made my day, and you highlighted a couple of things that took me MUCH time to think through, like a dog’s decision tree, so I very much appreciated your unique take on the book. The book is out in paperback now, with a different subtitle (and cover): What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World. All the Best, Cat Warren

    • Thanks, Cat! I’m really excited that you saw my review and took the time to thoughtfully comment. This book was an unexpected addition to my reading list because I hadn’t heard of it until my mom gave it to me as a gift. I’m glad I finally got around to it. I did notice the new cover–it was when my toddler happened to grab it off the shelf at Target and force it into our cart. He must have liked the dog face. Did I read somewhere that that’s Coda? Good luck on your continued adventure.

      • That’s not Coda (who looks like a little black wolf), but a Labrador retriever. I was sad to lose Solo’s face on the cover, but do love the design of the paperback overall. As your toddler did, clearly! It’s true that the adventure continues. I’m continuing to train Coda, though it’s such a different process with her that I am back to the beginning. So much for being “an expert”!

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