BOOK REVIEW: What the Dog Knows - The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs by Cat Warren
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Saturday, January 11, 2014
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 If you've ever watched a working dog demonstration, there's a sense of wonder and awe that ripples through the audience. Did you see that? How'd he do that? Unbelievable! While the casual observer may see a canine magic show with sleight of paw and nose, a deeper look reveals so much more. In What the Dog Knows Cat Warren acts as our guide for that in-depth investigation that includes a dose of history, science, psychology, and art. Art? Yes, art.

As Warren shows us, matching the right dog to the right task, training that dog for the job at hand, and developing the handler is a complex and beautiful mixture of art and science. Neither dogs nor humans are robots. We all have our good days and bad days. There are personalities to contend with at both ends of the leash, and the situations each dog-handler duo deals with are rarely without complications. The number of people required for this entire process would surprise most people. Enter the breeders, the veterinarians, the training specialists, the mentors, the handler, and you've now assembled quite a panel of experts, all of whom play a part in the final result—a well-oiled K9 team. In the end, this is what Warren and her dog, Solo, have become. An effective, bonded team.

When most of us think of working dogs, we typically picture dogs leading the blind, search and rescue missions, patrol dogs, bomb and drug detection, but not usually cadaver recovery...finding the dead. At first that might sound...well, rather gross to the unusually squeamish. But that is Warren's specialty, and the manner in which she covers the topic makes it fascinating and approachable by not being overly clinical. You'll learn things you never learned in science class and find yourself pondering the wonders of life and yes, even death. But this field of cadaver recovery goes beyond interesting. It's also a necessary and valuable service to society, bringing solace to friends and families when a loved one goes missing.  

Joining Warren on training missions, cadaver searches, the hunt for historical burial grounds, and observing all of this through her eyes puts the reader in the middle of the action and makes for a fun read. I was especially intrigued by a search over water when one particular canine was able to identify the location of a drowning victim that was still more than 200 feet under water. I suddenly felt that ripple through the crowd'd he do that? That was just one among many amazing stories the author shares as she grows from a green canine handler into a seasoned veteran with several years under her belt.

One endearing quality of this book is Warren's honesty and candid humility. Her willingness to share her trepidation at each stage of the learning process was equally countered with her joy and feelings of accomplishment that come with success. I found myself quietly rooting for her and smiling as she and Solo completed each training challenge while still allowing Solo's "jackass" personality to shine through. While it would be easy to romanticize the abilities of these incredible creatures, Warren makes no bones about their limitations. Thus, the book goes beyond a unifaceted look at what the dog really knows and provides a well-balanced, realistic assessment of these dogs' capabilities. Does that diminish the marvel and wonder of working dogs? Absolutely not. If anything, it paints a picture that leaves room for growth through new training methods, new scientific discoveries, and even dumb luck.

Art and science. Dog and human. Success and failure. Joy and heartbreak. It's all part of What the Dog Knows. As Warren begins training her new German Shepherd Dog, Coda, perhaps she'll compile more information to share with us. In the meantime, you can visit her web site at and read her blog. We've already discovered much about how dogs think and work, but when compared with other scientific disciplines, the study of the canine mind is still in its relative infancy. Or perhaps toddlerhood. It's people like Cat Warren who can shed more light as time goes on. We owe so much to the trainers and handlers who work side by side with working dogs. Sometimes it requires slugging through the muck and the mire, working in the midst of challenging weather or hazardous elements, and at times even putting their lives in danger. Thank you, Cat Warren, for a fascinating book and the hard work it required both on and off the leash.


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