Cat Warren, an English professor at N.C. State University, will be reading from her book, “What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs,” today at Flyleaf Books. Warren has been working with her German Shepherd, Solo, for 8 years as a cadaver dog, whose job is to find people who have been reported missing and are often dead.
Warren spoke with Arts Editor Josephine Yurcaba about how she became involved in the world of working dogs and why she is so interested in the subject.
DTH: How did you get involved with working dogs?
Cat Warren: I got involved quite accidentally when I started training my then 5-month-old pup as a cadaver dog. So I simply took him to a trainer because I was trying to find something for him to do — he had a lot of what people call drive — he was really a little hellion. So this trainer suggested that I might try him as a cadaver dog and it was an odd long shot, but it was started working with him and it was really compelling, even fun work. That’s what I ended up doing with him.
DTH: How did the your first search with Solo go?
CW: Well, I can’t talk about cases. So, because they are police cases, so they are confidential. I talk about Solo’s work (in the book) and then I talk about other dogs’ work. Nine times out of 10 you don’t find anything. You’re actually trying to clear areas to make sure that there’s nothing there. You don’t necessarily go out thinking, ‘I’m going to find somebody’ or ‘I’m going to find part of somebody.’ That’s remained the case. 99 percent of searches end up being what are called negative searches.
DTH: When did you have the idea that you wanted to write a book about this?
*CW: Solo had turned 6 years old and I had been working with him for several years and it’s only about 20 percent memoir and the rest of it is science reporting and reporting on other trainers and handlers and the history and science. But it really was that I was getting more and more involved and enamored of the world of working dog and enjoying working with really experienced K-9 handlers, watching military handlers occasionally. I realized that it was a world that I wanted to tell about because I think that a lot of people have this kind of magical version of dogs being perfect and self-trained and never being wrong. The dog is (the) hero, and what was I seeing out there instead is it is really hard work and the dog and the people were teams.
But it took this amazing team work with the very best handlers and dogs and usually with really good trainers behind them, and then pretty constant training and upkeep and challenges. I’m new to this world, so I had both an insider-outsider perspective. I was working with my very first dog, this is a really serious hobby for me, but I don’t do it full time. I was learning as I went along. It was a combination of thinking, ‘I want to capture Solo while he’s still at the height of his abilities.’ And I really like him. He’s a funny, powerful, interesting dog with a good nose. And I also realized that I wanted to write about some of the things that I was learning along the way. I’m a former newspaper reporter, so part of that just appealed greatly.
DTH: The information on your website says you interviewed psychologists, medical examiners, and trainers and learned a lot about the remarkable abilities that these teams can have. So I was wondering if there are any anecdotes or stories that stood out as your favorite in the book?
CW: I think that I have lots of stories in there, and I think that a couple of them to me that stand out are, for instance, one of the greatest handler trainers of all time, Andy Rebmann, used his dog Josie the German Shepherd to search for victims of a serial killer who essentially picked up women, drug addicts who were prostituting themselves in Bedford, Mass., the old whaling town that was part of ‘Moby Dick,’ and these women were killed and dumped along several highways. One or two were found by accident and then police began to realize that it was the work of a serial killer or perhaps killers. These women were lost to their families and lost to themselves. It really was Andy who came in and was a Connecticut state trooper at the time — just an amazing guy — and he organized bringing dogs in and he brought his own dog in and he and his little German Shepherd, Josie, found three of the women — their skeletal remains. I think that it speaks to the power of both the kind of work that these dogs can do. It’s really hard conditions to work along a highway and find remains of people who have been gone for a while. You’re working with lots of traffic and a lot of animal remains. And there’s also the issue that Andy cared.
The movie ‘Fargo’ was based, sadly, on a case of an airline pilot who killed and disposed of his air flight attendant wife by using a wood chipper. He disposed of the wood chips and her body along a riverbank in Connecticut. It was Andy who came in and it was his dog who managed to alert on just very tiny fragments in these piles of wood chips. It was what brought a prosecution, without a body, to say, ‘A crime was committed here.’ So it was big. And Andy with another one of his dogs helped find a woman who had been buried feet deep with a slab of concrete and a swimming pool patio built over the top. His dog was able to say, ‘Hey, you really need to jackhammer this patio,’ and of course, she was down there and she was buried underneath lime. I think that these kinds of cases speak, always to two things: first, the importance of the skill of the handler, and Andy is very skilled. And then the skill of dogs under these very different conditions.
DTH: What do you think are the good aspects for the dogs in this kind of work?
I think that’s such a interesting question. I think several things. I think working dogs like to be busy. The fact is that for them, I think that this complex game, if you’ve ever watched Border Collies herding sheep — the dog is using its body, it’s using its brain, it’s using its nose, it’s using its bark — it’s bringing all those things into doing something where the dog is sort of self-rewarded. The Border Collie doesn’t go out thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to get a liver treat out of this.’ The Border Collie goes out and says, ‘Oh my god, I get to herd sheep!’ I think that to a great degree the same is true for patrol dogs and everything else. For them, when it’s good, it’s really fun work. It is both as fun and challenging for them as it is for their handlers.
The moment I pull on a pair of pants that Solo knows are my training pants or my search pants, he will just flip out. Start screeching through the house, barking at the door, barking at the back, all of these little subconscious signals I give that say we’re going to go out training, and that makes him the happiest dog in the world.
DTH: What is your goal in writing this book?
CW: I think there are three goals: one is that I want people to appreciate both how complex dogs’ work is and how rewarding. I want people to realize that dogs aren’t magic. That dogs are very, very good at what they do, but there’s nothing miraculous about what it is that they do. Even though science doesn’t know all the things that we need to know about exactly how good dogs’ noses are or why they’re good, we know that they can do these things.
And I think, number three, I want people to realize that whenever you have a working dog, that dog is as good as the trainer and the handler behind it. It really takes just lots of training, lots of vigilance, lots of work. I’m not saying this about me, I’m saying this about when I watch really top handlers and top trainers work with top dogs, it’s like there’s no more beautiful sight in the world.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.