What the Dog Knows: Understanding How Dogs Perceive the World

At K9 Magazine we're kind of obsessed about what dogs know that we don't yet know they know, if you know what I mean.

It seems like there isn't a year that passes where we don't learn something new about man's best friend and ways in which he can transform lives. And we love it.

Harnessing the power of the dog, not only as a companion but for their intuition and ability is what makes them truly wonderful and we can't wait to discover what they know next.

Luckily, it seems we're not alone in our eagerness to learn more about the dog's natural ability, as we discovered when Cat Warren, author of 'What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World' shared her story with us.

What the Dog Knows: Understanding How Dogs Perceive the World

Her latest book is the account of one woman’s journey to train her unruly German Shepherd, Solo, transforming him from playful pup to a detective in the form of a cadaver dog.

Here's Cat, who introduces us to her second cadaver dog, Jaco (pictured above) and takes us with them on one of Jaco's training exercises in a cemetery where we get a sense of just what she learnt and what the book reveals.

My German Shepherd, Jaco, has an arcane job title: he’s a cadaver dog, trained to detect human remains. Jaco has no idea that human death can be tragic. For him, it’s simply a smell linked to his favorite tug game. Find that smell. Get his reward.

He’s waiting in his crate in our small SUV, eyes fixed on me, impatient. It’s been a long drive from North Carolina to western Tennessee. I release the latch. His sable head and muscular shoulders surge out, I clip a flat collar and lead on him, and he leaps to the ground and snatches a tennis ball on a string I’ve placed on the ground. That ball means one thing: game on.

Jaco doesn’t realize that this current search has a new plot twist. How could he? He’s a dog.

His dense sable coat snaps with static electricity in the dry winter air. Anticipation makes his whiskers curl. His cream-colored ruff makes him looks a bit like a wolfish Elizabethan dandy, but it’s highly practical: it keeps his neck warm and wards off briars (prickly shrubs). He won’t be in briars for this search.

It’s early December, and a bitter cold front has descended on the Southeast. I’m shivering; Jaco isn’t. He pulls hard on the lead, prancing on his toes down the lawn at the manor house of this historic plantation. Doing scent detection work is not a good time to insist on obedience. That would be like putting on the brakes of a sports car when you want it to accelerate.

A few rules remain, nonetheless. I center him between my legs, tell him to drop the already slimed tennis ball, pick it up before he grabs for it, hide it in my pocket, and unclip his lead. He whips in a ritual and futile circle to reclaim the tennis ball and adds a few extra joyful turns, dolphining. His mouth is open, teeth shining. Then, he dashes down the incline.

What the Dog Knows: Understanding How Dogs Perceive the World

He seems to know where we’re heading, though I haven’t directed him. He wants to get there first, and I want him to. He’s in charge of this work; he’s the one with the fine nose. So I follow his lead. He knows the basic task: he’s hunting for human remains. What he doesn’t realize is that, for the first time since we started training more than a year ago, he’ll be trying to pinpoint the faintest of scents: people who died in the 19th century and who are mostly, if not entirely, disintegrated, and at least a couple of feet below our feet. Their scent can paint a very different portrait for a dog used to the scent profile of the more recently deceased.

Paul Martin stands next to me, watching Jaco work. He has handled and trained cadaver dogs for years to search for the dead: lost hunters, homicide and suicide victims, people with dementia. The list is long and sad. Paul helped start a program at a small university in North Carolina to help train dogs and their handlers using a forensic anthropology research facility that accepts body donations so anthropologists can understand the process of decomposition better. It helps dogs learn to recognize the plethora of scents in human decomposition as well.

Paul has Labradors. He and I don’t have discussions about breed superiority: lots of breeds and mixed breeds have fine noses and the drive to do this kind of work. Despite Jaco’s slightly intimidating Shepherd countenance, he’s more like a Labrador in his heart: eager and goofy, perpetually surprised and pleased when he finds material during training. Look what’s here! Wow!

Paul is now a doctoral student using some of nearly 28 cemeteries on this huge, historic plantation for his current dissertation research.

Can well-trained cadaver dogs, used in tandem with other methods, such as ground-penetrating radar, geophysical surveys, and historical records, reliably help locate the many unmarked graves on this vast expanse of agricultural land and woodland?

Paul is not the only one trying to establish whether cadaver dogs can help us understand the past. Across the United States—from suspected massacre sites along the Oregon Trail, to slave graves, to Revolutionary War and Civil War burying grounds, to the prehistoric mounds of the Mississippi Delta Indians—archeologists, historians, and geologists are partnering with cadaver dog teams to discover where the dead might lie. I say “might” here with deliberation. Only excavation or core samples, what archaeologists refer to as “ground-truthing” can establish for a certainty what lies beneath. Often, excavation isn’t possible. Or desirable.

The validity of the work is—as a sceptical cartographer might say—all over the map. Using dogs to help locate historic remains is a nascent field. Inevitably, stories of dog nose magic on burials older than mid-twentieth century abound. Much of the work lacks scientific rigour.

Archaeology is already a speculative discipline. What can the dog’s nose add? What are they alerting on? Old decomposed trees? Gravestones when they are there? Do people simply watch dogs work, add historical fantasy to an evocative landscape, and give unconscious clues that the dogs easily pick up on?

These are questions Paul wants to answer with this project, which will involve six or more highly experienced cadaver dogs and handlers, ground-penetrating radar, geophysical surveys, and historical information. He’ll look at slave and sharecropper cemeteries on this plantation, as well as farmer and planter-class cemeteries, and even prehistoric sites.

The cemetery we’re at has a couple dozen granite tombstones with carved images of praying hands and lambs with their heads gone from age and accident. It’s one of the oldest cemeteries on the plantation, and one of the best preserved. Cotton and slavery came to Tennessee later than other Southern states. They had arrived by 1860, by which time more than a quarter of the total population of Tennessee were enslaved. A few of the many cemeteries here are well-marked; most are not. Some have headstones buried under tangled periwinkle and vines. Some headstones were wooden and have disintegrated.

This cemetery houses almost the entire Jones family. Paul is using it as his “control,” as the majority of this small cemetery’s burials are well marked. John Walker Jones, one of the wealthiest planters on this plantation, owner of 240 slaves, wasn’t immune to tragedy. He lost all but three of his 13 children before they turned 10.

It’s the first time I’ve knowingly exposed Jaco to historic burials, but the past is everywhere. Sometimes, it feels as though the South is just one big open-air museum. I’ve watched enough dogs work in cemeteries to know that it’s an entirely different scent picture for them. Odor is faint when bodies that have been in the ground for that long. These are some of the coldest temperatures Jaco’s dealt with in cadaver training. I’m also changing what he’s used to finding and how. Generally, I don’t reward Jaco for simply narrowing an area. Even if a trainer puts something in an area that’s out of reach, I want Jaco to get absolutely as close as he can to it. Even if we’ve hung something redolent in a tree, or placed it in a tangle of brush, I want him to be able to almost touch it.

Burials are harder, which is why clandestine burials in criminal cases tend to be the nemesis for investigators. Old burials are hardest of all. The compounds travel using groundwater and air pockets, and scent can pop up a long way from the actual site. As bodies disintegrate, their scent changes and dissipates. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust isn’t simply Biblical. “The bottom line is, everything gets simpler,” says forensic anthropologist Arpad Vass. “Everything breaks down.” And yet, as he notes, it’s as though the chemistry of the soil is permanently changed around old burials. Bodies are surprisingly stubborn.

So I stand back with Paul and let Jaco work. I’m curious to see how he approaches this new problem. Jaco’s stubborn as well, once he realizes there’s no quick solution. He sweeps through the cemetery once, twice, three times, quartering back and forth like a hunting dog looking for quail to flush, slowing here and there, flipping, but not stopping. He’s never worked in a place with headstones and has no idea what they are. They don’t slow him down. But scent, slight in the frigid air, finally slows him. He walks more and more slowly, circling, lowering his head, then lifting it to test the air.

The headstone in the area that interests him is worn and modest. Willie Jones died in 1877, aged 6 years, 9 months, 20 days. Jaco has spent a long time deciding on this spot. But he commits and does a down, his signal to me that he has found the scent of human remains. Paul nods. That spot has been a choice one for several experienced dogs over the past months.

I reward Jaco with a nice game of tug on his tennis ball. He’s happy. I’m happy with his work ethic and his nose. I can’t help thinking about how young and small Willie was. His family had to count his short life not just in years, but in months and days on his tombstone. It was ever thus in that era.

But Jaco needs a little more practice, now that he’s started to understand what he’s looking for. So I send him again. This time, he heads toward the bottom of the cemetery and flips quickly toward a large hollowed stump. I can hear his snuffling, even from 40 yards away. Near the cherry tree stump is the headstone of Col. William Alfred Turner. The headstone doesn’t interest Jaco. Instead, he tries to climb into the stump. His head and shoulders disappear inside. He comes out, he walks around it and gets into it from the other side. He is working like a fiend. Then, he does his down. His mouth is open and relaxed, his eyes bright and fixed on me. The first alert took a long time. This time, he’s sure.

“Reward your dog,” Paul tells me. He’s grinning, too. I reward Jaco. Still holding on to the string of the tennis ball and tugging with a sable dog caught on the other end, I peek down into the stump where I see dirt and a hole going sideways. Two weeks before, Paul tells me, a groundskeeper discovered two metal coffin handles in that stump. An animal, probably a gopher, had burrowed between the nearby grave and the tree stump. I bet it provided a beautiful pathway of scent for Jaco to discover.

I’m no longer cold. “What a good boy,” I croon. Jaco is holding onto his tennis ball. His bushy tail moves back and forth, slowly, blissfully.

About the Author

From the science of scent, to the history of working animals, and the psychology of training dogs, ‘What the Dog Knows’ goes beyond this, though, and explores our relationships with animals, and the many ways in which they are essential to our world.

What the Dog Knows: Understanding How Dogs Perceive the World

Cat Warren’s ‘What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World’ (Scribe, £9.99) is out now.

Leave a Reply