Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Monday, January 20, 2014

What the Dog Knows by Cat Warren

Cat Warren has written an engaging account of training Solo, her German shepherd, as a cadaver dog, a dog used to find the bodies of missing people.  As everyone who has ever worked with a dog knows, the hardest part of training a dog is training the owner.  At one time or another, Warren does nearly everything wrong, yet Solo not only survives her mistakes but triumphs.  Her candor about her own errors make us appreciate what Solo can accomplish all the more.  You come away from the book thinking that Solo is a great dog and that Cat Warren would be a great person to have as a friend.

Good as it is in its separate chapters, the book as a whole ultimately is unsatisfying.  I decided to read the book because of its title: What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs (Touchstone Simon & Schuster, 2013).  The problem is, not much can be said about what a dog knows and how the dog knows it--we don't even know much about how well a dog can smell.  Warren has a chapter on "Nose Knowledge," admittedly, but she's pretty much reduced to saying that little agreement exists about how and why dogs can smell so much better than humans can.  Other senses like vision get omitted.  I saw no reference, for example, to something I learned only a few years ago:  dogs see in two dimensions, not three.  Put a plywood silhouette of a dog sideways a little distance away, and a dog will assume it's another dog.  And hearing?  Nothing. What about memory?  Nothing.  But surely these are aspects of what the dog knows.  The title is thus inappropriate. 

What about the subtitle, The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs?  "Working Dogs" takes in a number of categories in addition to the cadaver and K9 dogs that Warren covers: sheep dogs, for example, and sled dogs, guard dogs, and companion dogs.  Hunting dogs might or might not come in here, along with the terrier breeds used to kill rats, and so on.  As far as What the Dog Knows is concerned, these don't exist.  The title and subtitle are marketing hype, pure and simple, and the book doesn't remotely deliver on what it promises.  A title like Solo and Me:  The Wonder and Frustrations of Training a Body Dog wouldn't have left this reader, at least, feeling he had been sold a false bill of goods.  I'd still like to know Cat Warrren.  But if I ever do meet her, the first thing I'm going to say is that she should get a new publisher.

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