What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs

By Cat Warren
Touchstone; 334 pp.

Cat Warren

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Throughout What the Dog Knows, Cat Warren treats her double existence as her favorite refrainher weekend hobby is too strange to share with those who know her through her status as a journalism professor at N.C. State University, while her profession is too soft to share with the hardscrabble folks she meets in hot pursuit of a cold corpse.

Warren writes about her experiences with Solo, her high-spirited German shepherd, and the recondite topic of canine olfactory capability with the research-forward focus of an academic and the sweat-and-scabs storytelling of someone who has lived in the field. She interrupts a tale about fighting through poison ivy thickets in search of a dead criminal in order to explore a 1907 report about a German grifter and his horse. She navigates between conflicting studies and problematic anecdotes about the strength of dog senses to turn back to her young pup and his initial attempt to find a bloodied wisdom tooth hidden in a white bucket.

This is a 300-page compendium of Warren’s stories about dogs and the people who love and manage them, of her research into how dogs smell and why that matters, of Warren’s own attempt to sate a midlife crisis with a new skill.

That sprawling approach prevents What the Dog Knows from being as compelling as it often threatens to be. Warren is a gifted storyteller with a knack for details and an even approach to drama. When she follows Solo through that field, or when she turns him loose in Durham’s Liberty Warehouse for a training session, you are with her, marveling at the customs observed by these dogs and their devoted handlers. She’s candid, too, professing to the mistakes she made rearing Solo and her own reasons for needing something else to do.

Warren’s husband, an academic, is also a chef and baker who, as she writes, “hung out with chefs, thought about food, and wrote about food.” Warren admits she wanted something of her own when she learned of Solo’s fine nose: “I wanted to do something that made me lose track of time. I wanted to push my limits. … I wanted to master scent-detection dogs.”

But much of What the Dog Knows feels like organized field notes and fireside chats related to that quest. Too many pages are spent battling the notion that technology will soon supplant the great sniffing dog (that’s a blog entry, not a chapter), and she explores the work that animals have done in finding dead soldiers in American combat zones (a New Yorker feature, perhaps, but not a piece of Solo’s tale).

The book provides a platform for the talents of some remarkable canines, who are able to track cadavers underwater or suss out graveyards that have gone unnoticed for centuries. Solo eventually joins this action, but his bailiwick is less spectacular: In open spaces, he systematically traces the scent of the recently deceased.

More important, his expertise is his relationship with his handler, in what he has shown her with the power of his snout. When Warren writes about him, she’s armed with facts and affection, and it’s powerful prose.

In a recent interview, Warren said, “It’s not a book about dogs. It’s a book about dogs, history, science and sociology.” She’s right, of course. But at its best, What the Dog Knows is an incredibly poignant book about dogs and people and how the lost can become found againwhether they’re dead, missing or simply staring down middle age from the relative comfort of a lectern.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Sniffing out the dead.”