Nonfiction

What the Dog Knows

This isn’t a review because I haven’t read the book yet, but I am definitely planning to after hearing Cat Warren talk last night at May Memorial Library in Burlington about What the Dog Knows. And it’s not just because I used to be one of her journalism students at N.C. State University! She’s an excellent professor and a captivating speaker, so I know her new book has to be just as good!


The idea for the book came about from the unique hobby Warren picked up about seven years ago after buying an extremely hyper and unruly German shepherd named Solo. A dog trainer friend recommended that she turn Solo into a working dog — namely, a cadaver dog! Cadaver dogs, as the name suggests, help police search for the remains of the dead. Unlike search and rescue dogs, cadaver dogs are trained to seek out the smell of decaying human flesh. It’s a gruesome job, but these dogs are vital in cases where police need to find a body to prove a crime. Warren pointed out that cadaver dogs were also used in the awful landslide in Oso, Washington, to find the deceased and help bring closure to surviving loved ones. You can read more about this on Warren’s blog.

Two things struck me last night… The first was the emotional bond between Solo and Warren. She teared up when telling us how she recently retired 10-year-old Solo. They were a team, she explained, practically on auto pilot because they worked so well together. Now a full-time pet, Solo no longer conducts searches for the police or trains regularly. Warren has a different relationship with her new dog, Coda, and you can tell she misses the “old days” with Solo, who she described as “a natural.”

The other point that stood out to me last night was the contradiction between the type of work these dogs do and the fact that handlers must turn the search into a “game.” As a reward for doing a search, Solo gets to play with his favorite tug-toy, so he associates work as fun. Warren told of being bitten accidentally by Solo, as they were playing tug-of-war, and having to suppress a cry of agony. She didn’t want to make the situation stressful for Solo, she explained, so she held her tongue. This level of dedication is pretty overwhelming!

Here’s a book trailer that shows Warren and Solo at work, and gives more details about the book itself:

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7 thoughts on “What the Dog Knows”

  1. Interesting. Actually, I have a friend who is the top cadaver dog handler in TX and was the first team (she and her dog) in at the Pentagon on 9/11. I think it takes a very special person to do that work and the dogs really need to have their feelings considered because it’s very difficult to only find dead bodies.

    1. Wow, that’s interesting! Yes, Cat Warren pointed out that the dogs have to be trained to see a person lying on the ground and not get upset. Very stressful for all involved, I would imagine. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  2. Thanks for this, Louisa. Wow. I’m touched. Darlene, it’s such a sensitive issue, I know, but if a dog is trained as a cadaver dog, they are actually fine with finding dead bodies. That’s what they are trained to do, and if it weren’t fun for them, they’d stop. So the problem comes when people and dogs have to be deployed when they AREN’T trained to do that. The Pentagon 9/11 cases were so, so difficult because people who had live find dogs weren’t finding live people. That was so utterly difficult for both the handlers and the dogs. Properly trained cadaver dogs think it’s the cat’s meow to find human remains. They aren’t thinking “death,” they are thinking tug toy reward, or Kong reward, or liver treat, or… But we always have to keep the dogs in mind when they’re being deployed: they shouldn’t get exhausted, dehydrated, have to work far too long without a break, etc. That can easily happen when you have a disaster — and that WILL bring the dogs down…

    1. Hi Cat, thanks for your comment! I hope I said it correctly — I remember you mentioning that the dogs could possibly get upset if they were to find an entire deceased person (rather than, say, parts of remains) if they were not properly prepared for the experience.

  3. Cat, apparently, you didn’t read my comment carefully. 🙂 My friend is the top Cadaver Dog handler in TX. She and her Cadaver Dog were the first team in The Pentagon on 9/11. Of course the dogs must like to work BUT they also need to have exercises where they have LIVE finds because they are living, breathing sentient beings and dogs DO get depressed. Another friend literally wrote the book on SAR and never thought the dogs should have been at the Twin Towers on 9/11. Those were SAR dogs and, as she predicted, they all died of cancer and there were no live finds, as I recall. As you know, there’s a difference between SAR and Cadaver dogs. My friend in TX has more than one trained dog and she also does SAR with the other dogs. BTW, I probably should have mentioned that I’m a Certified Animals Behavior Consultant so I do have credentials or I never would have said what I did. I find this entire area of work with dogs fascinating but have never had a desire to do it myself. 🙂 Hats off to you for having the courage and fortitude to do it. Please hug your dog for me.

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