Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Book Review: What the Dog Knows (dog, search dog)

What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs by Cat Warren (Simon & Schuster, 2013, 334 pages, $26.99) 

Good books. . . .

I have grown to generally love books either written by English professors or with a study guide. What the Dog Knows was written by an English professor. Therefore, doesn’t it follow that I would love this book, especially since the list of references is fantastic and I like reading the original peer-reviewed papers cited?

Riveting (in places)

I read with a highlighter and pen in hand, to highlight and to jot down notes in the margins. I also turn down page corners. One word I wrote early in the reading of What the Dog Knows is the word, riveting.

However, I changed my mind, but only slightly. Cat Warren (love that name for a dog book author!) does employ a riveting way of gaining the reader’s attention in each chapter by beginning with an anecdote about her own dog, Solo, a cadaver dog for whom “death is a tug toy.” Then the chapter usually goes on to educate the reader about the history of working dogs or details about their seemingly miraculous (to us) sense of smell.

Finally towards the end of the book, we read an entire chapter or two about Cat and Solo: those words are well worth waiting for. I only wish more of the book had this flavor of enticing writing.

Part non-fiction, part informational educational, part memoir (the best part), part history, . . . .

Did you know. . . . ? Dogs have been man’s helpers for centuries – for decades in war and police work. Other species have been tried and surpass the canine species in many aspects. Even machines have their advantages. But none is better overall than man’s best friend, even with his food needs and the fun they bring. Dogs think, sniff, raise an alarm (‘alert’), deter, and bite only when necessary. They are far and above, simply the best bomb detectors, for one. The can guard and serve as early-warning systems.

“Four-footed community police officers,” dogs are well-trained to intimidate more than injure. As a matter of fact there is only one case on record of a police K9 killing a suspect while pet dogs and strays killed 31 people in 2011 and tasers kill about 50 people a year.

If you are interested in forensic anthropology or criminal evidence, some of Warren’s prose will be a fascinating review on the decay of the human body under various conditions.

These details and much more will be revealed to you in only 334 pages! But, Warren also skillfully relates her story of leaning how to train a cadaver dog. However, I think a shorter, more organized book would get the ideas across succinctly.

I was particularly fascinated with the chapter on water recovery dogs but even after reading an entire chapter on the subject and being a dog trainer myself, I am not sure of the training necessary for the dog to be successful – or how long it might take. I feel the book spoke about working search dogs but never really got to the heart of the matter – sort of like taking a foreign language class in which the instructor talks about the foreign language but never really teaches it.

Overall, it took me too long to read this substantial tome: What the Dog Knows will satisfy many readers if they only read sections and never finish it (but the final chapter may be worth reading).

Reminiscent of Susannah Charleson’s Scent of the Missing, Cat’s book about dogs is a dichotomy of dry rambling facts and lively human-canine interactions.

What the Dog Knows may even change some lives. However, I hope Warren has more dog memoirs in her future for that is where her real talent lies.

See Catwarren.com for more, including photos of the author-dog team. 

Disclaimer: This book was sent to me by the publisher for possible review purposes via the GoodReads’ First Reads program.

PS – do you get the play on words in the title? It took me a long time, so don’t worry if it takes you a while.

PPS – lately I have been donating my review books to shelters and rescues but What the Dog Knows is one I will keep – to look up more of the references cited!

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