Interview with Cat Warren

Cat Warren on working with her cadaver dog, Solo, and her bestselling book, What the Dog Knows.

Interview with Cat Warren about her book, What the Dog Knows. Photo shows Warren with her dog Rev
Cat Warren with Rev


By Zazie Todd, PhD

Cat Warren’s New York Times bestseller, What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World, was the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for April. I interviewed Warren about her wonderful book, training scent detection dogs, and caring for working dogs’ welfare.

The Young Readers Edition of What the Dog Knows will be published in October.


Zazie: What inspired you to write this book?

Cat: You know, this goes back a little because the book first came out in 2013. I really conceived of it in 2009 and it was quite literally, Solo and I had done a very hard search that day and it had taken all day and I was just exhausted. And he had worked long and hard and honestly. My legs were covered with seed ticks, and I was on the couch with my husband and I looked at David and said, “You know what, I think I want to write about this so I don’t forget.” So that was the beginning of it. And then it turned into a reporting project and a research project, which I love, but it also turned into a thing where you watch somehow more carefully and you pay more attention, just like when you video when you’re doing dog training and then you look at the video afterwards. You see so much more. And so in a way it sort of did double duty. I think that it made me more aware, as I was training and handling Solo, and simultaneously there was that kind of joy in reaching out to really good handlers and trainers and scientists, and finding out things I didn’t know. So that was a two-fer!

Interview with Cat Warren about  What the Dog  Knows. Photo shows book cover


Zazie: That’s fantastic. One of the things that interested me in the book is how you talk about where to search. I was wondering how your work with Solo has affected how you think about landscapes?

Cat: You know it’s such an interesting issue and it’s been a few years. I’ve got a new pup who’s about 11 months old and I think that he will really enjoy this work. I’m giving him a little longer because he’s a little slow to develop in some areas. But I don’t think I’ll look at landscapes the same way again. And that’s not because you look out at a landscape and think “There’s a dead person out there”. Instead when you look out at a landscape, immediately your mind starts to go to “how would I approach this if I were to be searching it?” And so I’m always kind of looking at points of access in a terrain, at where there are gaps, and I still pay attention just subconsciously to wind direction and things like that. Inevitably it does change the way you look at the world. And it doesn’t make it feel like a more dangerous place to me. I really don’t feel that way, even after years of doing this work. It actually is a way to appreciate nature. I know that sounds strange but it’s like a very thoughtful walk in the woods where you’re paying attention to things that normally you wouldn’t be paying attention to.

Zazie: When you’re training, how important is it to train to try and avoid false positives, and to talk about that kind of training?

Cat: I think that in so many ways training itself is greatly an effort in avoiding false positives. It’s such an interesting and controversial thing although it shouldn’t be. We know how in tune dogs are with us and to some degree when you’re working with any dog, you want that dog to be in tune with you and vice versa. Whatever dance you’re going to, you want that partnership. And many, many, times it involves having a dog be deeply aware of where you are and what you’re doing, and that dog is trying to adjust and vice versa to you. With search and scent work, yes you want to have that but you also have to have the additional thing, as you would with a herding dog, where the dog has permission not to “follow the leader” but to be the leader. The dog becomes a more independent appendage, because otherwise why use a dog, right? The dog needs to be able to move out and move places where you might not be able to get to, etc., and so the whole issue of false positives is that you’re working with the dog so that it becomes independent enough of you that it’s not always looking towards you to make decisions about “have I found this scent or not?”


"The fact is that R+ training has made me a better handler."


I see dogs, young dogs, uncertain dogs, dogs that are being exposed to new scent, they’ll sometimes check back with their owner, saying “Is this it?” And if you’re introducing a new scent, it’s fine if the dog is going to do that to actually say “Why yes, that is, and how smart you are for finding it”. But what I see also a lot and I think what creates a lot of false positives, and it’s kind of a pet peeve of mine, is I see even fairly experienced search and rescue people do this thing in training where the dog comes into the area where you’ve got the source, and the dog kind of goes somewhere near and does a sort of half an alert, and then the handler will say “Show me, show me”. It sort of gives it away. So instead of the dog going “I’ve got it and I’m going to do a down right by this source” or a bark, the dog’s just in the area then the handler has them narrow it down by basically saying “hey yeah, you’ve got it just get a little closer”. Does that make sense? And it easily creates false positives. And I understand the enthusiasm of the handler to want to say, “Show me, show me, show me,” but ultimately that will create false positives as well.

So just to sum this up, the area of false positives is that whole area where dogs and people have all of these strengths with exchanging oxytocin, bonding together, the dog being able to read you incredibly carefully. And so for search work in training you have to work constantly to either not know what’s there because somebody else has put it out for you, or to have nothing out there so that the dog learns that it will have to work for a long time and there may not be something there. So in training it’s so important to do that, because on searches 9 out of 10 times you’re not finding anything. And so the dogs have to be in a sense conditioned to not go “every 5 minutes I find a hide and I get a reward”. People who do obedience have the same problem. They give treats and encourage when they’re training in obedience, and then they go into the show ring and the dog’s got to work for 10 minutes solid with no treats.

Zazie: Now I have a couple of questions from a book club member, Marie-Ange Saintagne. Her first question is, “thinking back, what would you done differently with Solo now? The book was published in 2013, and with the new science on dog behavior, I was wondering if you would now change some training methods or approach at all.”

Cat: Yes, absolutely. The good thing about dog training and dog training methods is how far they’ve come. And so I can indulge in guilt post-facto of methods that I used that formerly were called balanced methods and that we now know are not the most scientifically sound practices that worked for dogs. And certainly Solo was truly a resilient dog, but while he was 90% positively trained, I used a pinch collar on him, not when we were searching but to get him to the search area. He was a big dog, pulled hard, and I was a small woman and it was like, okay, a pinch collar. At that time it was like no big deal, right. Everybody used pinch collars. Well, I would be horrified today to use a pinch collar. I have an 85lb puppy who is still pulling like the dickens, and I’m working on him. But with my last dog from the Czech Republic, the guy who’s now got epilepsy, I use a flat fabric collar and sometimes there’ll be a little bit of a martingale but it doesn’t work as a choke, it just keeps it from sliding over the back of his ears. It’s a good example. The fact is that R+ training has made me a better handler.

Interview with Cat Warren about  What the Dog Knows. Photo shows cover of Young Reader's Edition

And then secondly I think that foundations are really important. So right now I have a lot of people pressing me to go ahead and get Rev started on cadaver, and I want his and my relationship to be rock solid and I want him to be fully confident. There’s no reason to put him on scent at 11 months. He’s got a great nose. That’s going to be the least of it. I want him happy and confident and sure of himself in lots of arenas before I actually bother training him on cadaver scents. Because he’s got a good nose. He likes to use it.

And then the final thing is, scent work isn’t for every dog. Not every dog was meant to be a cadaver dog or a something else dog. Solo was a happy accident. He loved the work, he was incredibly resilient, I made tons of mistakes, he got past them because of the kind of dog he was. He was arrogant, he was full of himself, and he was really happy. With subsequent dogs, the degree to which I’ve had to learn to be a better, more nuanced trainer, and to pay attention when there’s hesitation or fear, I’m better now at reading it and better at dealing with it. You know, a dog that doesn’t want to go up and down stairs, the canine division is just like well you just ignore him and pull him up there somehow. Damn the torpedoes, right. And that’s not the way it works.

Zazie: I have a second question from Marie-Ange. She says, “I am very interested in working dogs and ethics: what were you doing to balance Solo's professional activities? Did you consider that cadaver search was fulfilling all of Solo's basic needs? What about providing special support for intense physical and mental training such as recuperation to allow cortisol level to decrease, massage, etc?”

Cat: If you’re talking about for instance law enforcement canines, it’s a huge issue where some of them are basically working every day. With Solo, we probably did 7 or 8 searches a year, maybe once a month, so there was always plenty of recovery time. I think it’s a really interesting question. I think that dogs can get physically exhausted and mentally exhausted by both training and searching. I think that we need to be cognizant of both those issues, and they’re separate and different issues. I mean in North Carolina, temperature can play a huge role. There are dogs that are doing searches where you really shouldn’t have them out working for more than 6 minutes in a particular condition before you bring their body temperature down and hydrate them and let them rest. For a lot of search dogs and the issue of stress and cortisol, you’re going to be paying attention to it because a stressed out dog doesn’t want to work. So there’s this point at which, if you’re pressing your dog and you’re not reading if the dog is showing signs of stress, then you’re not really searching successfully. Cadaver is one of those things that’s a little different than live finds in that with cadaver searches you’re actually going out, you’re working fairly small sectors, you’re bringing the dog back, cooling them down, resting them, playing with them, and then taking them back out.


"I don’t think I’ll look at landscapes the same way again. And that’s not because you look out at a landscape and think “There’s a dead person out there”."


And one of the other things that I did about stress levels is that I was fortunate that I mostly worked with law enforcement who knew me or knew of me. And I would bring along a jar that had some decomposition in it, where I would set it away from the search site, letting police know where it was. And then if we went out and for 15 or 20 minutes searched unsuccessfully in the area, I could just circle around the area where I had put the hide, on the way back to the car. And then, “Look at this! Oh my god you’ve done it!”

So that’s a real advantage. And live finds people do that for their dogs.  They can have a team mate hide or someone else, and that helps get the dogs joy up. But it’s also so interesting. It is a stress reliever in a way.

I will say, a lot of people got the wrong message from the dogs of 9/11. This notion got out there in the mainstream media that dogs mourn when they find somebody who’s dead. And the fact is that with cadaver dogs, that’s not the case. Now it is true that for an inexperienced cadaver dog that’s finding a whole body, that can be stressful if they aren’t accustomed to doing that. For the same reason that puppies can be frightened the first time you lie on the floor, and the puppy goes wait a second I knew you a second ago but now you’re lying on the floor. So that can cause a certain type of stress. But the dogs of 9/11 were live find dogs who weren’t finding anybody alive. And the stress between the handlers and the dogs was simply that they were working far too long, far too hard, and there was absolutely no reward there. And then it got out that dogs are stressed or dogs mourn if they find somebody dead. If they’re cadaver dogs and properly trained, they’re going to feel the opposite.

Zazie: If someone has a dog that they think would benefit from having a job, what advice would you give them?

Cat: I think that all dogs benefit from the kind of mental work that a job entails. I’m of the opinion that there are so many wonderful sports out there for dogs that provide 95% of what a particular dog might need. So my advice is go out and find one of those really serious sports. One of the things with getting a cadaver dog up and running is that it is such a crapshoot. I’ve had two failures. I have a dog who just ultimately didn’t really enjoy the work, and was not quite resilient enough to do the work, and then Jaco who was from the Czech Republic was brilliant at it but started having seizures. So finding something else that the dog enjoys and that you enjoy is critical.


"Solo was a happy accident... He was arrogant, he was full of himself, and he was really happy."


And I would also say, if people want to think about a dog in search and rescue and everything else, try to connect up with a team that will allow you to volunteer with them, or come along or observe, because for lots of teams they actually want you to be a ground pounder before you ever run a dog. In other words to have all those search and rescue skills and the devotion to search and rescue under your belt before you even think about a dog. So what I think is, if you’ve got a dog like that, see if canine nose work is something they would enjoy, or herding, or Treibball, or agility. None of those activities shut off the option of the dog becoming a cadaver dog or a search and rescue dog.  Those are all really complementary activities.

Zazie: I found the book absolutely fascinating and I know the book club did too. It’s a great read. So I would like to know what you are working on now?

Cat: There are two answers. Right now, the Young Reader’s Edition of What The Dog Knows is coming out in October. I completely rewrote the book and we’ve added 130 illustrations and photos, and scientific sidebars. I wanted to communicate some of the complicated interesting stuff to kids, because that’s where you get the next generation. So that’s coming out in October from Simon and Schuster.

And I’m playing around, frankly, with the idea of working on a book on farming in an era of climate change. It’s far away from dogs, but it’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. So I may do another dog book. What’s nice is to watch all the great stuff that’s coming out. I’m just reading Clive Wynne’s book that’s coming out in October on dog cognition stuff. I just feel like there’s so many good people writing about animals these days.

Zazie: I agree, it’s brilliant.

Cat: It’s a little daunting, actually! And I just signed up for your blog.

Zazie: Thank you!

Cat: And I’ve also got involved with Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, which has been a great resource, and a resource I would suggest to anybody. I know there are so many people who are isolated a little bit. Fenzi Dog Sports Academy is such a good way to go ahead and be able to take classes and get good instruction, even if you’re far away from a good trainer.

Zazie: Is there anything else that you’d like to say?

Cat: I’m really happy that people enjoyed the book and I do think it’s important to give that notion of feeling like training each dog and learning. I’m kind of amazed when I look at what I’m doing with Rev, and go “oh my god”. This is such a different dog but also my handling and training techniques have changed so much. And that’s the joy with working with animals. It’s like it’s always new.

Zazie: Thank you. It’s been a real pleasure to chat to you.


What the Dog Knows is available in my Amazon store https://www.amazon.com/shop/animalbookclub and in bookstores near you. You can find a full list of interviews at Companion Animal Psychology here.


About Cat Warren: 

What the Dog Knows, published by Touchstone in 2013, was a New York Times and National Indie bestseller, and won a number of awards, including being longlisted for the prestigious PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. It has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, German, and Spanish, was a best seller in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia, and was selected by BBC radio in 2018 as a nonfiction book club pick.

Cat Warren is a professor at North Carolina State University, where she teaches science journalism and creative nonfiction. Before starting her academic career, she was a newspaper reporter across the United States, from California to Wyoming, to Connecticut, and won numerous journalism awards for that work. She lives with her husband, David, a retired philosophy professor, and their two German shepherds, Jaco and Rev, in Durham, North Carolina.  For more information, visit catwarren.com.

You can follow Cat Warren on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

This interview has been very lightly edited for length.

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