If you're interested, you should go take a peak at the original post on my blog, you'll see that the Cat Warren responded to some of what I wrote -- and was incredibly gracious, too.
People are smart, just like dogs.
Seriously, how do you not like a book that contains that line?
Honestly, the only reason I gave this book a second glance -- okay, a first glance -- is that Robert Crais blurbed the paperback edition and it showed up on his Facebook page. It seemed kind of interesting, but I wasn't sure -- then I noticed that Spencer Quinn also wrote a blurb. And if two of my favorite mystery novelists (who have a thing for dogs) tell me the book is good, it must be.*
They were right -- Warren was a journalist, is now a professor, and knows her way around a sentence. She clearly cares about the subject and has invested a lot of time and effort into getting to know it, her style is engaging and charming (I was chuckling within a couple of pages), and she doesn't mind showing her own failings and weaknesses.
Warren basically covers three topics: there's the science and history of using working dogs (of all sorts of breeds, not to mention pigs(!), birds, and even cats) to find cadavers, drugs, bombs, etc.; there's the memoir of her involvement with cadaver dogs via her German Shepherd, Solo; and anecdotes of other cadaver dogs and trainers that she's encountered/learned from/watched in action.
The history and science of dogs/other animals being used for their sense of smell, is probably the most fascinating part of this book, but it'd be really easy for the material to be too dry to bother with -- Warren's voice keeps that from happening. I think it's terrific that at the end of the day, no one knows what it is about the smell of the human body that dogs sense -- she'll explain it better than me, but that's the kernel the story. I just really enjoy it when the best and the brightest have to shrug and say, "I don't know." The chapter she spends on the future of dogs and/or digital replacements is good for similar reasons. Actually, I could just keep listing little facts/factoids/ideas here, but I don't want to steal Warren's thunder.
The best part of the book -- the part that I found most interesting, and most frustratingly small -- is the Warren's story about getting Solo, discovering he had just too much energy and personality, and needing to find an outlet for it all. Which is followed by the trials and tribulations of a newbie cadaver dog handler and her pup-in-training, growing into a capable working dog. Anyone who has a dog lover as a Facebook friend knows just how easy it is for someone's stories about their dog to get to the point where you can't stand to hear another**. Somehow, Warren avoids this totally -- not an easy feat. It probably helps that dog does far more fascinating things than just hiking through the woods or chasing a ball.
The stories about the others -- her friends, colleagues, teachers, etc. -- round out the book. It's not just about Warren and Solo, it's not just about the military/police efforts with training animals -- it's about dedicated volunteers, K-9 officers and dogs all over the country (and the world) making a difference. In places and ways you wouldn't expect. Really? Sending in one guy and his dogs into Vietnam decades later to search for POW/MIA? Also, seeing how different dogs act differently, yet get the same job done was mind-boggling. Especially for dogs trained together/by the same person, you'd think they'd act similarly.
I imagine it's to spotlight the work of others, to not brag about Solo too much, to talk about things that she and her dog haven't done/seen/smelled -- or whatever reason there is, I wanted more Solo. A lot more. I have no problem with the rest of the book, it's just that there's not enough Solo (or Coda).
Fascinating, entertaining, and educational -- can't ask for much more than that.
* Yes, I'm aware there are flaws in the thinking there.
** Of course, your friends don't have dogs as cool as mine. Let me tell you a little bit about her . . .