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

by Cat Warren

Touchstone Simon&Schuster, 2013. ISBN 978-1-451-66731-8.
Reviewed by Martha Meacham
Posted on 11/10/2013

Nonfiction: Animal Companions; Nonfiction: Science

Dog enthusiasts will no doubt enjoy What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs, by Cat Warren. What may surprise the casual reader is that Warren's German Shepherd specializes in finding dead bodies. Cat Warren is a handler of a highly trained cadaver dog who detects the scent of decomposing bodies. With her dog, Solo, she achieved her status as a volunteer "human remains recovery" team for law enforcement while leading a double life as a university professor. Given the inordinate amount of training required for both human and dog to have a reliable and competent working team, this is no ordinary feat.

"Not all dog-and-handler teams are effective. But when they are good: they can distinguish scent, cover territory and accomplish tasks that no machine is capable of." Warren and Solo set out to prove this to be true.

Understandably, the author has been drawn into the fascinating world of scent detection dogs and learning about the working relationship between human and canine. Andy Rebbman, one of her teachers and an expert in the field, told her, "Search is the classic mystery."

Scent-detection training rewards a dog's instincts. Whether he's running in the woods and doing what dogs do naturally, or grabbing onto a rope to play, Solo is having great fun. Warren is rewarded when watching her dog work and observing the intricate complexities of a case unfold. She confesses, "I hope we are called out." That fact that the experience is positive for both is a testament to Cat's mentors, who insisted on training methods to keep it that way. While Warren provides much information about "sniffer" dogs that are specially trained to use their noses to find lost people or alert on other scents, her primary focus is about finding human remains.

What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs weaves the personal stories of Warren and Solo with tales of the earliest characters who helped the world of military and police K9 teams evolve to what we know today. She is on the trail of how dogs become working "disaster dogs," willing to navigate any terrain, to persist and "find." Warren beautifully shares the grim topics that are the nature of her work, the science behind the training and her own emotional personal disclosures. Because I have a German Shepherd Dog who transformed from an embarrassment as a puppy to an incredible tracking dog, I understood her feelings as she described Solo's behaviors before training. Once I had experienced what a dog knows and does in the context of a working team, there was no turning back.

If scent-detection dogs intrigue you, What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs does a good job of breaking the process down into its simple components. I'm not that sure that science is even close to understanding all the complexities going on inside the dog's nose and brain. To an observer watching a dog searching to find hidden scent, it appears easy, wondrous and magical.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Cat Warren lives in North Carolina with her husband, Solo and new puppy, Coda, who is in training to be a cadaver dog. She teaches science journalism, editing and reporting at North Carolina State University. Though Cat has been a reporter and journalist; this is her debut book. Visit her website.

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