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#Review: What The Dog Knows (Cat Warren) #dogs

I love dogs. And I love reading about dogs. So when What The Dog Knows caught my eye, I knew I had to buy it. A book about cadaver dogs? Colour me intrigued. And the first four plus pages of fulsome praise didn’t hurt:
  • “A beautifully written, fascinating, heartwarming, and oft-hilarious homage to working dogs”
  • “Warren writes with verve…”
  • “Fantastic…”
  • “A meaty fascinating tour…”

How could I resist? I bought the Touchstone trade paperback edition (2015).

At first, I bounded along. The concept that what others find depressing–finding dead people–is actually a source of joy and purpose for dog and handler was an intriguing one. I hadn’t ever thought of it like that before and it was grand. There’s nothing I like better than having my preconceptions shaken, and Warren had got off to a good start.

But then things began to niggle. It’s my fault, of course, because I’m not just a reader but an editor myself, and have been for more than thirty years, almost always with non-fiction. My first frown came on p 23:

Historian Sophia Menache…posits that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions were threatened by dogs… Though the antipathies and insecurities of the three religions have softened and shifted somewhat in intervening centuries, dog get short shrift in many Muslim countries, and some Christians want dominion over the natural world.

Do you see the problem? It’s like saying, “I like three flavours of ice-cream: vanilla and cookie dough.” Wow, how about that, I was thinking as I read the original paragraph. Living in a predominantly Muslim country, of course I know about their attitude to dogs, but I hadn’t thought about Christians or Jews. And you won’t, because Warren leaves out the very group I know the least about. At first, I thought it was nothing more than a bad edit but, as I got further into the book, I changed my mind.

If we have the phrase “paint by numbers” for someone going through the motions with their oil or acrylic paints on a mapped out canvas, we have “write by numbers” in What The Dog Knows. Every character is introduced the same way: name in the first sentence with an adjectival phrase; description that attempts some psychological insight; move on with the plot in the next paragraph. Like these:

Two months after Solo’s arrival, I found myself in Nancy Hook’s backyard in Zebulon, perched on the edge of an aluminum folding chair. Nancy slumped back in her sturdy canvas chair, her hand wrapped around a foam beer insulator wrapped around a Gatorade. She was mellow except for the warning she occasionally gave the dogs quarreling in the kennels next to the yard: “Don’t make me come over there.” They stopped. (p 15)

Andy was at a cop conference in the mid-1970s when Jim Suffolk gave a presentation on body dogs. Andy, fascinated, approached Jim afterward. The two men must have made a distinctly odd couple. Jim Suffolk looked like a burly James Garner, with an even more heroic chin. He filled out his immaculate state trooper’s khakis. He had a full head of dark wavy hair, usually confined under his trooper’s hat. Because he was at a conference, Andy might have been in uniform and not wearing his trademark faded baseball cap pushed up at an angle, exposing his large eyes, mobile mouth, slabs of facial plane, and magnificent ears. He probably was smoking a Pall Mall. (p 60)

Canadian Kevin George is a conjurer, a dog trainer, a people trainer. Before he was a master dog trainer, before he tried his hand training an alephant and a bear, before he was a cop, before he was a rodeo clown or a shiatsu massage expert, Kevin was a kid who loved magic, who loved learning how to make his fingers furl and then unfurl like birds set free, who plucked coins from behind ears. (pp 75-76)

Ken Young–with his military bearing, his trimmed mustache with a sly smile beneath, an olive fatigue cap, and a pistol strapped at his side–ran a florist shop. On weekends, he ran dogs and people. He would stand in front of a group of slouching handlers in the firehouse, many of them with cuds of tobacco tucked under their lower lips. Ken’s version of the classic sign-off that Hill Street Blues sergeant Phil Esterhaus gave the gathered day shift, “Let’s be careful out there,” was “Now, let’s go have some fun out there.” (p 105)

Mike Baker was still standing with his arms folded. Medium build, medium-brown short hair, medium Irish-English features–the kind of guy who might not stand out in a crowd of noisy dogs and macho cops. But as one handler who comes from another agency to train says, “Mike’s magic.” (p 114)

Then there are the “mini-me” versions:

Roger Titus is a big fan of bloodhounds, which is as it should be, since he’s had fourteen during his long career. (p 40)

Nick Montanarelli, now retired but then a project manager at the U.S. Army Land Warfare Laboratory, remembers that era clearly… (p 49)

Jim Polonis, a project manager at SwRI for thirty years, helped manage a number of the successful and even some of the not-so-sucessful animal behavior projects. (p 50)

Joan Johnston, whose husband, William Johnston, was a researcher with the U.S. Army center that co-sponsored the study, remembered the great picnic SwRI hosted the year of the pig study… (p 51)

Andy’s wife, Marcia Koenig, a famous volunteer handler and trainer in her own right, helped write and edit and provide illustrations for Cadaver Dog Handbook. (p 66)

Yawn.

And I haven’t even included all the references in the first one hundred and fifteen pages. Warren has managed to turn the “infodump” (that dreaded fiction clanger) into her default non-fiction tool. Read one such description in a longish article and that’s fine. But finding so many when you’re only a third of the way through the book is tedious. And it was mostly this that tipped me off to the fact that I was reading Warren’s first book. To confirm, I went back to the start, to find the “Other titles by” page, but there was none. Later, when I had finally (with utter relief) reached the end, I read that, “What the Dog Knows is her first book.” Colour me surprised.

Warren doesn’t have any strong opinions of her own. What The Dog Knows tries to please everyone, with the result that the narrative around the extremely interesting experiences of Solo and his working dog peers resembles tasteless porridge. In her effort to be as bland and yet as engaging as possible, Warren also ends up bringing up more questions than she answers. It’s as if she’s afraid to even approach first principles. Here are two short examples:

General Zachary Taylor, to his everlasting regret, approved importing [Cuban bloodhounds] into Florida to track and attack Seminole Indians. The dogs weren’t any good at finding the Seminoles, but they did create a public outcry, so they were removed. (p 44)

Really, they created a public outcry? Why? How?

And, back to p 23, what do Jews think of dogs?

And then there are the lies. The “nonprofit Southwest Research Institute”, we’re told, is “dedicated to developing breakthrough scientific and engineering technologies and practical research” (p 47). Warren coyly adds that such products “translate into immediate benefits for its funders, from oil and gas companies to NASA and the Department of Defense.” But then adds:

SwRI also plays around with the kind of wacky animal research that makes you think, with affection and wonder, “only in America.” (p 48)

Did you see what she did there? She had to include the truth, that SwRI plays around with formulating destructive technologies (what, you think the US DoD wants a better creche design?) but then adds the “ha ha” headshaking “only in America” line that’s patently untrue. How I know this is because, only a few pages before (p 36) she talks about the Czech Republic (now Czechia) where “much of the groundbreaking work on dog cognition has taken place”. So “only in America”? Not so much.

If I want to read about cadaver dogs, I’m not going to be thinking of politics or jingoism but, if you’re going to go there, by golly, you’d better get it right.

In November [2009], just two months after their arrival, the military sent [Kathy and Strega] into Afghanistan… As they flew in, Kathy could see the country’s wild beauty below: its glorious tan and ocher mountains, its winding rivers, its stunning farms and orchards, which were finally starting to recover from being razed and bombed by the Soviets during their nine-year occupation fighting the mujahideen. (p 212)

Oh where do I begin? The Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in early 1989, thirty years before Kathy and Strega flew over the country. And, of course, not a whiff of how the mujahideen had been created, funded and supported by the US government, as part of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s grand plan to create a “Vietnam” for the USSR. Nope, not a sniff of that. Soviets bad, mujahideen (those we now call Al-Qaeda or al-Nusrah or Islamic State, by the way) good. We can mention how destructive the Soviets were, but the use of USian depleted uranium causing birth defects in Iraqi children? Razing entire cities to the ground? Killing anyone over the age of thirteen? Nada. Warren coyly slips in a semi-reference but, again, it barely rises above obfuscation:

Solo…hasn’t had constant exposure to toxins, compared with, for instance, the military working dogs deployed in the Middle East and South Asia. And the military working people deployed there. [Love that? Not soldiers, not combat troops, not even euphemistic “military advisers”. Nope, now they’re “military working people”, which is both disingenuous and clumsy at the same time –Kaz] People come back with a variety of health problems that might or might not be related to what they were exposed to while serving.” [my emphasis –Kaz] (p 257)

In pain and can’t get it up anymore, soldier? Well, that may or may not have had anything to do with working with carcinogenic substances that your government exposed you to. It’s the same with a paragraph on p 258 about military personnel who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nothing to see here folks; move along.

Back to Afghanistan. Kathy and Strega battle the ruthlessness of the Afghanis (who are different from the noble mujahideen, naturally) in order to find bits and pieces of US soldier blown up by IEDs. No mention of why the USG was in Afghanistan in the first place. And it wasn’t because of 9/11 as–and I know this is hard to believe, so please go and independently verify this–the Taliban offered Osama bin Laden to the United States government immediately after 9/11 if they could be showed evidence of his wrongdoing and were turned down!

As I said, I didn’t want to think about politics, but it was Warren who first opened that can, so here we are. She waxes lyrical about the military (sniff), the police (sniff sniff). Oh what a selfless bunch they are. Things go wrong, but it’s understandable, can’t you see?

So we’ve tackled the “write by numbers” and the lies, but how about Warren’s writing style?

It’s serviceable enough. A few too many adjectives, a bit of “trying too hard”.

A great blue heron rose up out of the loblollies in primordial slow motion. [Not just “slow motion” but “primordial slow motion”! –Kaz] Crappie, bullhead, bass, and catfish lurked beneath the lily pads and hunkered under the scrubby swamp roots that reached out into the alluvial floodplain. [Hunkering within the alluvium! –Kaz] I couldn’t see them, but a blue-gray-and-chestnut belted kingfisher knew they were there. She was perched on a snag, her outsize head cocked slightly. [Only slightly? –Kaz] At our approach, she dropped and flew along the edge of the shore with a chittering rattle of irritation. (p 204)

Okay. So she wants to impress. Constantly. Just read it and move on, I tell myself. But then I come across one paragraph per chapter that throws me for a loop. Like this one from p 267:

When they are four to six weeks old, [German] shepherd puppies have a flop-eared cuteness that makes everyone go soft and gooey inside. By nine weeks old, they start looking and acting like clumsy tiger sharks. To each her own.

Huh? To each her own? How does that even make sense? The sentence “To each his/her own” is usually used to describe two static and discrete objects/events. “I like fishing but John likes shooting. To each his own.” It is not used to describe the continuum of the same object, unless there’s a conjunction like “but” in between. And there should be, at the very least, an implied attribution in there.

This makes sense: “I love babies but Chloe prefers them when they’ve grown into toddlers. To each her own.” I get that. You’ve got two attributions and a conjunction. The two sentences make sense. This? Not so much: “Babies are cute and smell wonderful, with their chubby cheeks and gap-toothed grins. Toddlers are food test subjects on small, fast-moving legs. To each her own.”

No, I’m sorry, that’s just lazy writing. There’s no “anchor”, nothing to weave the observations into something strong and primordially coherent. There are nineteen chapters in What The Dog Knows, so I’ve read about nineteen such paragraphs. That’s a lot. We’re not talking the occasional misspellings that work their way into a manuscript but entire paragraphs, so what the hell was her editor doing? Also, what was her editor doing letting this slide by:

Sweat poured down Danny Gooch’s face. He’d just removed the suffocating decoy suit and rolled up his soaked dark blue T-shhirt sleeves over the tops of his shoulders, exposing the dark-blue-inked portrait of a Dutch shepherd head on his bicep. (p 249)

That was another indicator that I was dealing with a newbie writer with a newbie mistake. I’m not ashamed to say I’ve made the same mistake myself. But only once. And my editor correctly pulled me up on it before the book was released. This is supposed to be a “real” publisher, who is superior to the digital-first and boutique presses. I’m actually quite delighted to say they’re not.

It’s not “bicep”. It’s “biceps”. Yes, even the singular muscle. Go look it up.

But all of that, every word that I’ve written so far, pales into insignificance next to the worst sin that Warren commits in the name of political correctness and let’s-not-upset-anybodyness (unless it’s about those fucking commie Russians, of course!).

The one thing that Warren does throughout the book is laud Solo then, later, Coda. She loves shepherds. She tells us constantly how majestic, handsome and fluid they are as they work. As the book moves closer to the present day, and Solo starts slowing down, the topic of a replacement dog comes up. And so do the references. She’s in the world of working dogs, remember? Here’s what we find:

“I watched almost-adult dogs get shipped in from Europe, get evaluated, and wash out. Not hitting the bite sleeve hard enough. Hesitating before leaping up a metal stairway… Breeding kennels, even top-notch European ones, don’t always provide dogs the exposure they need.” (p 269)

Wow, you wonder, why do these people bring in dogs from Europe? They must be more expensive to transport and they sound a bit substandard! Why not stick with good American stock? Then we move on:

Steve got lots of eighteen-month-old dogs to evaluate: He would have his pick of a large and mostly unrelated litter from all over Europe… One vendor offered to fly him over to Germany… (p 270)

[A] vendor he knew well called to say he thought he had a pretty special dog for Steve. The dog had been flown in recently from Slovakia… (p 271)

And, if you go to her website, you’ll find on her “About” page that:

David and I now live with a German shepherd from the Czech Republic, Jaco, who is following in Solo’s footsteps.

You, of course, want to know what’s up. Why the emphasis on European working shepherds? And it’s here that Warren is at her most damaging and deceptive. With a writing style that obviously appeals to the North American reading audience, Warren has a chance to make a real difference; to make sure that her precious working shepherds get the full rewarding lives that they deserve. Instead, she continues the appeasement that runs like a dark primordial thread through the entire book and turns a blind eye to the most troublesome issue facing North American shepherds. Hell, I’m a bull terrier lover and even I know the current problem with shepherds. What’s her excuse?

The critical point is only covered in small type in the Notes at the end of the book, at the bottom of p 307, where she says:

For the German shepherd fan, no argument is as heated as the one about whether Americans, especially the American Kennel Club…ruined the German shepherd.

Then, in her usual fashion, she does a further bait-and-switch on something she knows very well is a current fact that she can do something about and follows it with an historical fact that she knows is a done deal.

I can best illustrate the issue pictorially. This is what shepherds used to look like:

Here’s what they look like now:

It’s not just an American Kennel problem, to be fair. The photo above was taken at Crufts, which is a British show. To each her own.

Warren knows that dogs with such deformed hips can’t be working dogs. I’ve been casually reading about this shepherd issue across several countries myself (it even touched Malaysia when one of the Sunday papers interviewed a local German breeder of shepherds). The “modern” dogs lack endurance, fitness and the structure necessary to produce work from those crippled hind legs. They can’t run, they hop and, when they do try to build up speed, they land on the equivalent of their calves (“hocks”, I believe they’re called) not their feet. They are not only weak but in pain. This is what Cat Warren is deliberately hiding while still slyly bringing in a better bred European shepherd for herself:

Do you think that dog looks healthy? If you had the chance, and loved the breed as much as Warren claims to do, would you let the “working dog” line of North American shepherds continue to degrade in this fashion? Wouldn’t you, at a minimum, mention why all these working dogs are coming from Europe? Unlike the numerous K9 handlers she’s met, Warren has “platform”. In fact, she has more “platform” than all the other K9 handlers combined. That’s why What The Dog Knows is written by her and not by Andy Rebmann, for example. So why isn’t she using her supposed journalistic skills for the good of the dogs?

Lastly, Warren is a professor of science journalism and creative nonfiction. Yes, that’s right, she supposedly teaches the kind of stuff that she writes. I can only imagine what kind of deceptions she attempts to foist on her students as templates for them to follow. And a professor teaching non-fiction with only one non-fiction book to her name? I’ve laughed at many an author’s “fiction workshop” for less.

I’ve said enough about What The Dog Knows and it’s a fraction of of what I’d like to say. If I stopped to question every contradiction and deception in Warren’s book, every editorial glitch, every logical inconsistency, this review would run to almost a hundred pages, so I’ll halt now as I have better things to do with my time.

I think I could swallow most everything in What The Dog Knows, but not the exploitation of a breed of dog in order to do nothing else but inflate Warren’s own ego. That was a step too far for me and working dogs all over the world deserve much better than the mealy-mouthed platitudes she offers.

Our 15yo daughter is great at detecting buried bullshit, regardless of age, in film and on TV; however, I’m not sure how good she is at detecting it in the written word. It’s a different environment, much as land and water are different environments for cadaver dogs. I’ll pass this book on to her as some light reading in between exams but, really, What The Dog Knows is too airy and deceptive to be a satisfying read for anyone else.

Cat Warren is without honour or honesty. I won’t be reading anything else she writes.

Copyright © KS Augustin, 2017

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