There are many reasons to seek help from a dog trainer, and Cat Warren confronted almost all of them when a new puppy came barreling into her life. Even a seasoned dog person like Warren wasn’t prepared for Solo. Born to a litter of one, Solo hadn’t learned many of the things that a dog in a litter of many would pick up, like bite inhibition. Once in Warren’s home, Solo had a hard time learning “Ouch!”, and instead excelled at dog aggression. A real gem.
Warren did the opposite of throwing in the towel; some might even call her next move unexpected — a former journalist and current English professor, Cat Warren trained her “enthusiastic” dog Solo to be a cadaver detection dog. Which brings us to her book, “What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World” (@Cat_Warren). It comes out in paperback tomorrow, March 10, 2015.
I’ll be honest: if this book were simply one woman’s transformative relationship with her working dog, I probably wouldn’t be covering it. As interesting and valuable as that story is, this blog needs that next layer — the whys and hows behind dogs and the dog-human relationship. How does a dog start as a dog with a nose and become a dog who uses his nose to stop beside a corpse under a canopy of trees in the woods? How do dogs learn that dead squirrels and rotting trees are not the end goal and should be ignored? Warren explains that researchers are slowly learning about the volatile organic compounds released from human remains. Additionally, while “…we humans smell much more like chicken than pig when we decompose,” cadaver detection dogs should only be trained on human remains. (To that I am obliged to add, ‘One day you will smell (somewhat) like a dead chicken’).
Warren does not sidestep real issues in canine scent detection work. The Clever Hans effect, a dog alerting based on a human’s behavior instead of what the dog's nose says, is to be avoided at all cost. Double-blind training and searches can help avoid this. Dogs can also false alert (indicate that something is present when it’s actually not). In rare instances, there have been issues with law enforcement, sometimes resulting in incorrect arrests.
Done well, Warren shows us the amazing abilities of cadaver detection teams:
“Robin Oppel, twenty-eight, had disappeared. Her husband, Kent Oppel, a twenty-nine-year-old self-employed businessman, had given the police permission to search the premises without a warrant.
“Rufus had been working as a body dog for three years when he and Andy [his handler] arrived at the Monroe house to search. While Kent Oppel watched, Andy started Rufus on the front lawn, then down the side of the house and to the rear of the lawn. Rufus walked along the fence toward the swimming pool, stuck his nose in the dirt next to the newly laid concrete patio, and started digging. That was it. Andy walked him away and shrugged casually. He could hear Oppel telling bystanders that the dog obviously hadn’t found a thing.
"For long terrifying minutes, Andy thought perhaps Rufus had screwed up. Investigators jackhammered the concrete next to where Rufus had indicated, dug down a foot, and ran into electrical wires. Andy brought the dog’s nose back in. Rufus, Andy recalled, started “digging to China.” Investigators kept shoveling. Just a little farther down, they saw a small object in the hole: the other half of the plastic owl key ring found in Robin’s abandoned car. They kept going. Robin was four and a half feet down, under the concrete, beneath a layer of lime powder.”
“What the Dog Knows” is not a training manual, memoir, or history lesson, and it’s not just about scent detection and cadaver dogs. Sure, it has all those elements, but it’s also about what it’s like to live with a dog and to try and do the best for that particular dog. Running through it is a relationship, something both dogs and humans understand.
“What the Dog Knows” doesn’t easily fit in any one box, which is probably why so many have embraced it — it was Long Listed for the 2014 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award and recipient of several Dog Writers Association of America awards. On top of that, Books-A-Million chose “What the Dog Knows” as their May 2015 Nonfiction Book Club Pick.
People have harnessed the dog’s nose for many centuries. What dogs can pick up on is an awesome sight to behold. Warren lays it out for us:
“Abalone and accelerants. Termites, truffles, and TNT. Crack cocaine and citrus cankers. Mildew, moths, melanoma. Peanut butter, pythons, and people. Spotted owls and spiny lobsters. Cows in heat. Gas Leaks.
“If there’s a particular smell out there—illegal, endangered, delicious, destructive, invasive, or dangerous—handlers will try to train dogs to find it. The list of smells is lengthening daily.”
And what about death? How is it that death is actually the last thing on a cadaver dog’s mind? Before reaching the second page of “What the Dog Knows,” Warren has already let us in on the cadaver dog’s big secret:
“People have asked me if Solo gets depressed when he finds someone dead. No. Solo’s work—and his fun— begins with someone’s ending. Nothing makes him happier than a romp in a swamp looking for someone who has been missing for a while. For him, human death is a big game. To win, all he has to do is smell it, get as close as he can to it, tell me about it, and then get his reward: playing tug-of-war with a rope toy.”
I wonder how other dogs would react if they knew that this is what scent detection dogs were up to. Would it lead to large-scale mutiny? Picketing for ‘equal pay’? Scent-detection dogs get to do some of the best doggie activities out there: learning, engaging the nose, discriminating and detecting odors and letting people know about it. AND TUG TOYS!! Not all dogs will share the same motivation for these activities, but many dogs find these experiences rewarding on the deepest of doggie levels.
I recently asked Cat Warren what other activities Solo might have enjoyed. Here’s what she thought:
“Solo would have thrived in any situation where he could have worked independently. He probably could have done search-and-rescue or air-scent work, but partly my own schedule precluded our doing that. When you are looking for someone who is missing and possibly still alive you need to get to the site in a very short period of time, and I couldn’t do that with my work schedule.”
Good point. Activities need to be realistic for both dogs and humans.
I continued: Do you think other companion dogs would enjoy this kind of work?
“For people who are thinking about their own dogs, canine nose work classes are incredibly fun for people and good for dogs. Whenever you can get a dog engaged in something — particularly if the dog is shy — when it’s something else that the dog can concentrate on, it’s a great way to build their confidence. For Solo, it was a great way for him to ignore distractions, including other dogs.
"Canine nose work is fun because it’s not about telling your dog to be obedient. It’s about working with and understanding the dog. It's about letting your dog be a total dog.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
~ ~ ~
This is the second post in the March 2015 Dog Spies Nose-a-thon.
“What the Dog Knows” comes out in paperback on March 10, and today (March 9), Cat Warren kicks off her multi-city book tour. First stop, Ann Arbor at Literati Bookstore! In the next week, she’ll hit Milwaukee, Denver, Oakland, Seattle, and Vancouver before heading back to North Carolina. For those of you interested in the human behind the book, check out her upcoming book tour (also on her website).
Tuesday, March 10, 7 p.m.
2559 N. Downer Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53211
Wednesday, March 11, 7 p.m.
2526 East Colfax Avenue, Denver, CO 80206
Thursday, March 12, 7 p.m.
6120 La Salle Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611
Friday, March 13, 7 p.m.
4326 University Way NE, Seattle, WA 98105
Saturday, March 14, 4 p.m.
6613 E Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver, WA 98661
Durham, North Carolina
Wednesday, March 18, 7 p.m.
720 Ninth Street, Durham NC 27705
Raleigh, North Carolina
Wednesday, March 25, 7 p.m.
3522 Wade Ave, Raleigh, NC 27607
Pittsboro, North Carolina
Saturday, March 28, 2 p.m.
220 Market Street, Pittsboro, NC 27312
Asheville, North Carolina
Saturday, April 11, 7 p.m.
55 Haywood Street, Asheville, NC 28801
Columbia, South Carolina
Saturday, June 6, 1 p.m.
Basenji Rescue and Transport (BRAT)
2015 Convention Speech
More event details to come
Durham, North Carolina
Tuesday, June 9, 7 p.m.
3605 Shannon Road, Durham, NC 27707
More event details to come
Saturday, Sept. 12
More event details to come
Friday, Oct. 16 and Saturday, Oct. 17
Association of Professional Dog Trainers Conference
Seminars on scent theory and training working dogs