Finding New Life for a Dog by Smelling Death: A Book Review of Cat Warren’s What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World.

By Ben McClellandpaperbackcover-150x150

What do you do when your dog doesn’t behave? Well, most of us call someone at Wildrose or post a question on the Facebook site. Cat Warren had Solo, a red and black German Shepard pup, a smart, but “maniacal clown” that was noisy, had outsized energy and was aggressive toward other dogs. After consulting and quitting some trainers and vets, Warren took advantage of Solo’s scent drive and, with Nancy Hooks’ help, began training him to be a cadaver dog.

Warren was born in Oregon “in the 1950s, but now live[s] in the South. I came here in 1995 to teach at North Carolina State University and forgot to leave” (What the Dog Knows website).

Warren narrates her eight-year journey with Solo, becoming a sought-after cadaver search team. This remarkably told story winds through a three-hundred-page book: What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World.

Warren writes a brief history of the Cadaver Dog that all of us can benefit from reading. The cadaver dog world encompasses everything from missing-persons search and rescue, to searching unmarked, centuries-old graves for Civil War soldiers or slaves’ remains, to rescuing children from human sex trafficking and child-prostitution rings in the US.

Cadaver dogs provide such a valuable service to society, such as bringing comfort and closure to families of the missing. And much of the dogs’ work seems magical—like discovering a drowning victim in 200-feet deep water. But Warren stays humble throughout and speaks honestly about canine and human shortcomings.

Warren’s nineteen-chapter book is dense with training tips, eye-opening views into the world of cadaver dogs, the canine’s sense of smell, humor, and plain common sense for handlers of any service or field dogs. She hammers home two points that are valuable to all of us dog handlers. First, stay humble and second, don’t control everything; let the dog initiate the scent-seeking game.

Warren opens Chapter 3, “Nose Knowledge,” showing what she has learned about scent: “These days when I watch a good dog work scent, I can see him trace its passage in the air until he’s drawn a clear picture with his nose. An experienced dog can illustrate the difference between scent that has lifted in the heat of the day, settled down in the ridges of rough grass, or been pulled hard toward the rushing water of a creek” (27-28). She then delivers a compendium of knowledge in the science of olfaction, what we know and don’t know about smell.



But a central feature of the book is Warren’s evolving relationship with Solo. And that’s something all of us can admire, if not identify with. They go through highs and

lows, successes and failures before they bond as a team. To put it bluntly, the relationship began on a bigtime low. Not only was Solo unpredictable at home, but he was also a sociopath around other dogs.

Solo’s breeder described the German Shepard’s downside tendencies: “[S]heep-tending and service dogs can be unruly, even belligerent, without wise leadership or, on the opposite spectrum, with uncompromising harshness – a cringing or over-aggressive menace. An intelligent dog trained for a duty is a wonder to behold. When left to its own devices, resourcefulness can reach new heights of destruction!” (“Why Cat for a Dog?” Guest Post by Joan Andreasen-Webb, Framheim German Shepherds).

Solo fell on the menacing and destructive side of the spectrum. He was seriously troubled and Warren had not found any way to reach him. After going through a number of trainers, Warren took a suggestion that she associate with a cadaver dog trainer. Here begins the redemption of Solo—and Warren as his companion.

A big breakthrough comes in Warren’s training with Solo (oh, so many clicks and liver treats) when her trainer friend hands Warren something more enticing than treats: “I took it gingerly. It was a PVC pipe, about two inches in diameter and nine inches long, drilled full of small holes, the ends capped tight. . . . A little bit of death was trapped within on a piece of cloth, its odor gently seeping through the holes. . . . An old, independent Appalachian woman, increasingly vague with dementia, had wandered away from her cabin. She had been dead twelve days before her family found her. . . . [This pipe’s] smell was a light dry must, like mold on an orange… Just a twist of cloth with dried body fluids provided enough to start training Solo” (80). It was irresistible, “more exciting than even Whiskey. . . It had fully served its purpose—forever bonding the concept of play to the concept of dead human in Solo’s head” (81). After that, “a bit of form emerged from the chaos” and Solo launched on a steep trajectory into forensic science (82).

Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, describes the special kind of writing that Warren has achieved in her book: “narrative animal science writing: a genre combining rich storytelling with science to explain animals, the roles they play in our lives and we in theirs” (NYT Sunday Book Review, Dec 6, 2013).

Canine-human teamwork eventually evolves for Warren and Solo. After many missteps, the cadaver team finds success, usually when the dog begins to trust his nose over the handler’s command: “The dog learns how to ‘commit,’ to plant himself and ignore the handler’s prevarications or even a slight jerk on the lead to come off the scent, a pull that a less-evolved dog might respond to. It’s not mystifying. It’s not eerie. It is a beautiful sight, a dog ignoring his handler’s efforts to get him to unstick himself from the flypaper scent that he’s stuck to. . . The dog who ignores the handler’s gaze. . . This is what real faith should look like—hard and unwavering.

This is what the co-evolution of a working dog and handler should look like. The dog’s commitment to the truth in the face of your moving away. That’s real teamwork—the dog pointing his nose or paw or entire body at the scent, telling his handler, You bloody idiot! It’s here!” (160).

However, the human has to partner with the dog. Warren explains, “I had to learn when to step aside and when to be helpful to Solo. We were a team. Trusting your dog and letting him do his work doesn’t mean being an unthinking chump. You have to keep your eyes and mind open” (169).

In the course of her years-long study Warren meets dozens of trainers and dog teams. She presents the richness of these encounters with warmth for them. Here’s just one way that Warren shows her mettle as a writing teacher, describing the folks she meets: “Roy Ferguson, a tall hound of a Tennessean, arrived at a dress rehearsal decked out in a fluorescent orange sweatshirt and a tan vest covered with flaps and pockets, gadgets and badges. He looked like an ideal Boy Scout troop leader: geeky and capable of goofy humor, yet stern enough to keep high jinks at bay, and with a handy tool to fix any problem” (161).

Warren and Solo learn a lot of the practicalities about cadaver-dog handling from Roy and several other trainers that she travels across the country to meet, including an early fall in the Mississippi Delta: “the cypress, their toes dug deep in the water, were turning gold and crimson; monarchs were wending their way south before the first frosts” (169). There she meets Lisa Higgins “with large hazel eyes slanting at the corners, a strong nose, round cheeks with slight freckles, and short salt-and-pepper hair” (170). Lisa, who “has worked with the FBI on numerous cases” sets up a training exercise—“a simple scenario with some buried placenta” (170). Warren learns a new location technique from Lisa, just as she does from the many other trainers that she introduces to us. And we can benefit from each new training technique, as well.

Reading Warren’s inspiring story gives a dog handler like me new ideas and motivation to get back to work in the field with his gundog. I recommend that you read it, enjoy, and learn.



Cat Warren. What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

What the Dog Knows Website

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