“I’ve grown more comfortable working with the dead. With parts of them, really. A few teeth, a vertebrae, 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 hit of mildewed alder leaves. Solo smells the departed.”
So begins What the Dog Knows, The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs by Cat Warren. It is, by any measure, a very fine non-fiction book.
Disclosure: Years ago, Cat and I were colleagues, but only briefly. She left her reporting job at The Hartford Courant shortly after I accepted an appointment as the paper’s first writing coach. But somehow she remembered me and sent me an advance copy of the book, which won’t hit the stores until October. I’m glad she did.
The picture on the cover is Solo, a dog she raised from puppyhood and trained to assist the police in searches for dead bodies — both murder victims and people who just wandered off and got fatally lost. To me, the photo suggests intelligence, strength, high spirits, and the potential for ferocity. As it turns out, Solo is of all that and more.
When Cat, who now teaches science journalism at North Carolina State University, first got him, he seemed destined to be a nuisance. He came from a litter of one, which dog lovers know usually spells trouble. Without littermates to roughhouse with, a puppy doesn’t learn that biting hurts. He fails to pick up the signals others give off when they’ve had enough. Such dogs often grow up to be rambunctious, aggressive, and too much for most pet owners to handle.
So Cat was desperate when she brought Solo to an experienced dog trainer who promptly branded him a “jackass.” He might not be well-suited to be a house pet, the trainer said, but his aggression and high energy were qualities that might make him a fine search dog. And so Cat and Solo set out together to make it happen.
The book’s subtitle, the Science and Wonder of Working Dogs, is a tad misleading. You will find nothing about herding or seeing eye dogs in these 351 pages. Instead, the author focuses on the military and police work that dogs do — tracking, attacking, drug-sniffing, explosives detection, and, most of all, locating the dead.
Cat was a fine journalist, and it shows. Her painstaking research on the history and science of working dogs debunks myths and explains what is known–and how much remains unknown–about canine abilities and behavior. By combining this hard information with anecdotes about training Solo, accounts of searching the North Carolina woods for dead bodies, and the stories of other trainers and their dogs, she has produced a book that is both informative and entertaining. Although her love for Solo is palpable, she remains analytical and clear-headed, never romanticizing what he or other working dogs do.
And, as the first passage in this review demonstrates, she tells it all in tight, precise prose that is truly a pleasure to read.
You can order the book in advance here.