In the fall issue of The Bark, I gave a very positive review to Warren’s book, a story of “how she discovered what the canine worldview really is, and how she and her dog, Solo, learned to navigate it.” The following is a conversation with her and interviewer, Whitney Peeling.
Whitney Peeling: On the way to pick up your new German Shepherd puppy, you envisioned obedience rings and calm companionship, but this changed quickly.
Cat Warren: Solo, my third German Shepherd, spent his first evening with us in a frenzy, biting my arms, trying to hump our female Irish Setter—running roughshod over my fantasies of a calm, mature, gentle Shepherd who would lie under my desk as I worked. His first night with us, when he was nine weeks old, he tried to chew his way out of his crate, growling the whole time. I cried in my husband’s arms. David consoled me by saying we could just return him. I cried harder.
You’re a professor, but you also do some rather unusual work outside of the university.
We didn’t return Solo to his breeder. She advised me over e-mail. I stopped whining and started working with him. He became a cadaver dog. I occasionally get a call when someone is missing and most likely dead. For Solo, it’s a complex game. Find the scent of death he’s been trained to recognize, tell me about it, and get a reward: playing tug of war. For me, the last nine years of learning how to work with him has opened a world beyond the university. It’s a fascinating one: filled with mystery, sometimes with sadness, but also with the challenges and satisfaction that comes from learning a new discipline—working alongside dogs, working with law enforcement, and exploring the natural and sometimes unnatural landscapes of North Carolina. In the process, I’ve learned a lot of scent science, dog history, K9 law, and even more about dogs and people. And about myself, of course.
What made you take such a different route with Solo, training him to be a cadaver dog?
Serendipity is sometimes driven by desperation. Solo was a singleton puppy—he didn’t know how to play well with other dogs. That’s an understatement. He hated most other dogs. Yet, he had qualities that working dog trainers love: energy, toughness, intelligence, and a good nose. I had no idea how to deal with him, though. When he was five months old, I took him to a wonderful K9 trainer who looked at him misbehaving, then at me, and said, “He’s just a jackass. What do you want to do with him?” That simple question was the beginning of my odyssey into the world of scent dogs.
Some of your time with Solo is spent with others in the working dog world, including other handlers, trainers, breeders and police units. How have these relationships been important to you?
My epiphany in working with Solo wasn’t that working dogs are miraculous, but that their success is inextricably linked to the quality of their handlers, their trainers, and their breeders. I’m still a relative beginner. I make training and handling mistakes. Everyone does, of course, but it makes me appreciate the talent that I’ve been able to witness both while working with Solo and in researching this book. It takes imagination, deep knowledge and constant practice to train and handle dogs who use their noses for a living. It also takes careful, imaginative, competent work to use dogs effectively in criminal cases and on disaster scenes. I’ve grown to love not just working dogs, but many working dog people, and the forensic and police investigators who devote their careers to this difficult work.