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D.G. Martin: In love with a sociopathic dog

D.G. Martin

D.G. Martin

D.G. Martin

“Hey, come here, will you? Quick. The dead stuff is over here. Let me show you.”

These are the thoughts of Solo, a German shepherd that loves his job. His job is finding the lost remains of dead humans.

These dog thoughts have been translated by N.C. State writing professor Cat Warren in “What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs.”

But simply calling Solo “her dog” is misleading. Warren’s relationship is more than owner-pet. Solo is her child, playmate, best friend, business partner, and boyfriend. She is totally into this animal.

Solo is a cadaver dog. He uses the keen sense of smell and high energy his genes have given him to find dead bodies or what remains of them.

Solo’s genetic gifts set him apart. But they do not, by themselves, make him a successful cadaver dog.

He needs trainers and a human companion to hone his gifts and connect him to the needs of the human community.

Warren describes how these connections develop. In her memoir, Warren describes the ups and downs of her love affair with Solo. Eventually Solo became a talented and valuable asset, a welcome addition whenever a group searched for a missing person.

However, Solo’s success did not come quickly or easily. As a singleton (a puppy in a litter of one), he lacked the social skills other dogs gain by interacting with their siblings.

When Warren and her husband first brought Solo into their house, “He spent his first night with us whining and growling, methodically chewing through an inadequate and expensive fabric show cage.”

Warren writes that she fell into her husband’s arms and cried, “I don’t like him.”

She writes, “I saw a grim future, a German shepherd roaring through our house and marriage, leaving shards of pottery and anger.”

Still they realized that Solo was the smartest animal they had ever seen, and they fell in love with him, even though he was, they thought, “an unpredictable sociopath.”

Warren recounts the long process of training Solo, starting with simple experiences like having scented material in only one of a set of boxes, and having him indicate the correct box.

Later, more taxing exercises trained Solo to focus only on the distinctive scents released by dead humans.

The growing affection Warren felt for Solo would be enough to sustain this poignant memoir.

But Warren, a respected journalist before she came to N.C State, uses Solo’s story as a framework to share a fascinating variety of information.

She gives her readers science lessons to help them understand how the senses of animals and humans operate.

She recounts numerous examples of working dogs in all sorts of different projects: mine sniffing for the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, tracking the paths of suspected living criminals, identifying airline passengers carrying drugs or explosives, and assisting law enforcement officers in apprehending dangerous criminals.

Also, she describes with grudging admiration the efforts of some scientists to develop substitutes for sensing dogs, either using alternative animals, or complicated machines.

In the end, however, her loyalty to Solo and Solo’s cousins leads her to express strong skepticism about the possibility of finding anything that could do a better job than her beloved Solo.

This book has another story, one of how the book got written. In a lengthy appendix, she describes how and where she found the information shared in her book, making it both a model and a guide for how to research, organize and write non-fiction.

The story of the author’s love for her animal is heartwarming. The related factual information that she gathered and shares is mind-expanding. That blend makes for a fine reading experience.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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