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Bound to Please / The enthralling world of ‘cadaver dogs’

The Japan News

By Saori Kan / Japan News Staff WriterWhat the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World

By Cat Warren

Touchstone, 402pp

I would never say I can imagine the pain of people who know deep in their heart that a beloved family member, missing in a natural disaster or other tragic incident, is already dead. I am still unable to completely accept my own father’s peaceful death even though I witnessed it more than a year ago, taking his very last pulse as he lay on his bed.

“Cadaver dogs,” like writer Cat Warren’s male shepherd Solo, can play a key role in recovering the bodies of missing family members.

“What the Dog Knows” is a firsthand exploration of the captivating world of working dogs and the amazing things well-trained canines — cadaver dogs in particular — can do with their greatest tool: their noses. They have been known to pinpoint unmarked graves from the American Civil War and detect drowning victims dozens of meters below the surface of a lake.

Warren mixes her personal experiences with historical research into such questions as how the human-canine relationship developed and the presence of dogs or doglike creatures in religions, in roles such as protectors or a guides for the dead.

The extraordinary bond between Warren and Solo is seen everywhere, in and between the lines. But she never romanticizes what Solo and other working dogs do, as evident in a sentence in the introduction: “For Solo, human death is a big game.”

The author’s analytical approach comes from her background as a former journalist, who now teaches science journalism at North Carolina State University. To her, working as a cadaver dog handler is a “serious hobby.”

It’s no surprise that dog people like this book, but even those who don’t care for dogs will be drawn into the world of cadaver dogs, thanks to Warren’s great storytelling skills. The anecdotes describing their search missions, even in such places as swamps, are more like you-are-there mystery dramas.

Warren says the scent of a cadaver is chemically generic and not linked to an individual person, making it possible for dogs to specialize in finding the dead.

She also introduces other types of search dogs and human efforts to develop them — including mine detection experiments conducted by a U.S. nonprofit institute using not only canine breeds but also other domesticated or wild animals: pigs, coyotes, deer, raccoons, foxes, timber wolves and even raptors.

Working dogs’ abilities are something magical to me as a person who lives with two dogs of ordinary ability who are good only at entertaining their human companions (though I’m satisfied with that). But Warren shows the patient and multifaceted techniques that can turn talented canines into “capable working dogs,” including rigorous training and skilled handling.

Following searches for the dead through the book may bring you a new perspective on death, a reality we all face. In my case, it helped me find a more cool-headed approach to the topic by recognizing that decomposition is part of the life of my body.

Where to Read

Anywhere with your dogs calmly resting beside you, if you are a canine owner. If not, at a park or any spacious outdoor location, where you can smell things in the wind.

Maruzen price: ¥1,280 plus tax (as of Oct. 26)Speech

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