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.
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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.
Death is an inescapable part of your work, and you address it matter-of-factly, yet with great respect. But is it sometimes difficult when your search leads to a body?
If we are out looking for someone, it’s because law enforcement is almost certain that person is dead. So finding a body isn’t a nightmare. It represents success. Certainly for Solo, for the investigators, and for me. Usually for family and friends, although not always. But nine of ten times when we go for a search, we don’t find anything. Investigators are following vague leads, unreliable witnesses, or the need to simply rule out areas where a body might be. That’s their job, and at the best of times, it’s difficult work. Clearing areas—being able to say, “We don’t think the missing person is here”—matters, as well. The cases where we don’t find someone are the ones that keep me up at night.
A handler and a working dog’s training is ongoing. What are you and Solo working on now?
Solo is an experienced cadaver dog now, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need to practice. And training is the fun part of this work. He’s also getting older (he’ll be ten in March), so I’m slowly trying to train him to work on water, a skill that will still challenge his nose but not require quite as much stamina as covering fifty acres of dense woods in the summer. David and I have a new German hepherd pup as well, Coda, who has kept me awake at night stewing about brand-new training challenges. It feels as though I’m starting all over from the beginning with her. There’s a term for it, of course: “second-dog syndrome.” Each dog is different. As one of my mentors said, gently reminding me of my early training: “Solo’s on automatic pilot now.” Dogs make you live in the present, and forget what came before. Coda, the new pup, has an amazing nose and loves the game of search, but has an independent streak. That’s working dog-training shorthand for not entirely caring about what I think. In the long run, that independence will be an advantage. If she realizes we are a team. If I learn to communicate with her. Right now, she’s busting my chops daily. When I’m utterly frustrated with myself and with her, I look over at Solo, lying calmly, looking at me with devotion. He’s now the good one. We might get there yet with her.
Working dog training appears to be very much “a man's world.” What was it like for you, starting to train in that world?
It was hard at first. The vast majority of handlers and trainers in law enforcement are men. The same is true for sworn officers generally. In the first months, I found my heart pounding when I showed up for K9 training with a police unit, though I tried to hide it. A couple of years after I started, one handler admiringly noted my “zen calm.” I had to laugh and admit it was closer to “frozen fear.”
As the years go by, it’s less difficult. The handlers and trainers like Solo. I try to be true to who I am: I'm a woman who likes working dogs and likes to train. I don’t want to be a law enforcement dog handler. It’s not a job I could do. And while I have some close professional relationships and real mentors in that world, boundaries are still important. I work hard to stay out of the way during aggression training, to not get in the middle of work conversations. If it’s a regular training and not a seminar, I don’t follow handlers to lunch or dinner break. Their world is unrelentingly 24/7.
Any group—whether it’s K9 handlers, or cops, or college faculty, or AKC confirmation breeders—is going to have its rituals and its special language. It’s going to have people who welcome you in and mentor you, and those who prefer to keep you at a distance, or even eye you with suspicion. I understand all those reactions, and I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve had several great mentors in law enforcement K9. It’s more work, no matter what, to have an outsider around when you are training law enforcement dogs. It can be challenging work, especially if you are doing it right, and really working the handlers and dogs so they are learning new skills. It doesn’t even matter whether that person is from another agency or a volunteer female handler like me. I have the same reaction when someone sits in on a class I’m teaching. I have to think more about what I’m doing.
Now, I have two K9 law enforcement units that I train with regularly. I’m fortunate. They are very different from each other, and I learn different things from each of them. It’s been more than seven years now since I started training regularly with law enforcement teams and watching at seminars. But it always feels new. I still get a thrill from watching the joy of a new handler who realizes for the first time what his dog’s nose can do.