I have had the pleasure of getting to know Cat Warren, and am excited to share this Q&A with the author of What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World (Touchstone, 2013, 2015).
Question #1: Can you please describe what inspired you to become a K9 Handler?
Becoming a handler wasn’t entirely accidental, but almost. Solo, my third German shepherd pup, made me do it. He was a singleton — the only pup in his litter. When we brought him back from Ohio as a 10-week-old, he spent his first evening with me and my husband in a frenzy, biting my arms, trying to hump my father’s female Irish setter, whom we had adopted. He ran roughshod over my fantasies of a calm, mature, gentle shepherd who would lie under my desk as I worked, and then jump up and play in the yard with me. His first night with us, he tried to chew his way out his crate, growling. I cried in my husband’s arms. David consoled me by saying we could just return him. I cried harder.
Serendipity is sometimes driven by desperation. Because he was a singleton, Solo didn’t know how to play well with other dogs. Well, that’s an understatement. He hated most other dogs. Yet, he had qualities that working dog trainers love: energy, toughness, intelligence—and a fine nose. I had no idea how to deal with him, though.
When he was four and a half months old, I took him to a wonderful K9 trainer, Nancy Hook. She looked at him misbehaving, snarling and barking at the dogs behind a cyclone fence, then looked 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-detection dogs — and the world of cadaver dog training.
I also had to do some thinking about training Solo for cadaver work once Nancy suggested it. The idea didn’t gross me out. I’d covered crime and courts as a newspaper reporter. I grew up in the fields and woods in Oregon. My brothers and father hunted. We all fished. And my father was a biologist. So at least abstractly, using a dog to find the missing and dead didn’t offend my own sensibilities. It’s true that hadn’t yet informed my English department colleagues what I was thinking of training Solo to do. But it seemed straightforward to me, and not that odd or arcane. Dogs are inherently hunters with good noses. Why not use those gifts?
Question #2: This sounds really general, but what is the most important piece of advice to a dog handler who is just starting out?
There’s so many pieces of advice that I might give! Each one links to mistakes I’ve made, so perhaps it’s not fair to impose them on someone else
But here’s one piece of advice that I’ve never regretted and never forgotten: Make sure that you are having fun and that the dog is having fun. Yes, this is a serious business. Yes, many times, tragedy is involved. And yes, if you are going to deploy a dog, you have to invest enormous time, resources, and skills. Nor is it a romp in the park to train yourself and your dog to the level where you can deploy as a reliable team. Sometimes you’ll be frustrated. You’ll certainly make mistakes. You’ll wonder why you’re doing this work if you’re so incompetent. Okay, that’s me. That’s what I do.
All that said, you and especially your dog need to love the work. Dogs don’t work because you’ve given them a stern little lecture that you are engaging in an important public service and that you are serving others. Dogs work because you’ve motivated them, that you’ve made each training, and even deploying, a joyous occasion for your dog.
Question #3: Who is your mentor and what is the most important lesson that they taught you about working with a dog?
I have several mentors, so I feel lucky. Nancy Hook first turned me on to this work. Mike Baker, who is now retired, but was K9 unit sergeant for the police department in my city, welcomed me into the world of working canines. Lucy Newton, another retired K9 sergeant, was central in putting the foundation on my current dog, who is certified in cadaver, but can’t work because of epilepsy. Each mentor brought me different kinds of knowledge. Nancy taught me not to take myself so seriously and to shut my mouth and not chatter at the dog. Mike taught me to be patient and to trust that consistency and exposure would make a dog like Solo solid and reliable. More recently, Lucy Newton has brought an exacting, methodical approach to understanding the work. She also taught me an important lesson: we are always training and conditioning our dogs, whether we think we are or not. She has helped me see numerous unconscious ticks that I have, where I inadvertently train a behavior that I actually don’t want!
Question #4: What is your favorite quote about dogs?
“Be more exciting than pee on a tree.”
Mike Baker’s quote always has resonated with me — especially since Solo was, because of his singleton status— fascinated and obsessed with the smell of other dogs. It’s a great takeaway, and simple to remember. Being exciting doesn’t mean you are spending your time leaping and chattering and funneling treats into your dog’s mouth and shoving toys at them (and, yes, I’ve done all those things). It does mean that creating a strong and playful bond between you and your dog will allow him to make great choices, like doing his job and working with you, instead of wandering off to seek distractions. He’ll do it because there’s no better game in town.
Question #5: Why are you considering continuing this work?
I am in the midst of a search for a new puppy, and it has had its hiccups! It’s never a given that you pick a dog, and then simply train him or her up and hit the woods. The dog’s health, the dog’s love of the work, your own health, the availability of a good team to work with — at different times, all of those have gotten in the way of my doing cadaver dog work. But I remain fascinated with it for all sorts of reasons. I love the immersion: it takes concentration and attention and time and patience. And when you and a dog are working in tandem? For me, there’s nothing more wondrous and wonderful.
You can follow Cat and buy her book at: