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The Nifty Noses Of Forensic Canines

Cat Warren is a North Carolina State University professor by day and a superhero by night. Well, sort of. Her dog Solo is a cadaver dog. Warren takes him out to suspected crime scenes to help police find the bodies of the missing and presumed deceased.

The hobby started innocently enough as a way to keep Solo’s energy in check. He wasn't very well behaved, and he flunked out of obedience school a number of times.

“He was a singleton, so he didn’t relate well with dogs," Warren said on The State of Things.

Eventually, she turned to a friend for help. That person suggested she have Solo trained as a cadaver dog.

“Cadaver work is difficult. It’s a strenuous, an arduous kind of task for a dog,” according to David Latimer. He is a master trainer of scent detecting dogs. His company is called Forensic & Scientific Investigations and is based in Alabama.

He said that the seemingly worst behaved dogs sometimes make the best working dogs because a job gives them somewhere to spend all that energy.

He said people will call him wanting to donate dogs, and he often hears a similar story. The person says about the dog, “'It’s crazy, I can’t do anything with it.' I say, 'Don’t move, I’ll be right there. That’s my kind of dog,'” Latimer said.

Warren remembers the first time she and Solo found a body. The stench from a real body is potent, way more so than the scent used to train the dog. So, she had to stay engaged and make sure to reinforce Solo's success.

“To reassure the dog that this is the exact thing that we’ve been training on --  just not this amount --  is important,” Warren said.

Warren's experience is captured in her new book, “What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs” (Touchstone/2013). She details her relationship with Solo, and she also investigates other attempts to turn animals into human helpers.

“The most successful creature that really wanted to please, beside the dog, was the pig,” Warren said.

But it didn't work out so well.

“They were trying to train them on finding mines and bombs, and pigs are deeply enthusiastic about rooting,which meant that you would have had a lot of exploded pigs," she said.

Humans also tried to see if cats could become working animals, with the kind of results you might expect from the finicky feline.

"I think the report said that cats demonstrated an unwillingness to work with man,” Warren said.

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Alex Granados joined The State of Things in July 2010. He got his start in radio as an intern for the show in 2005 and loved it so much that after trying his hand as a government reporter, reader liaison, features, copy and editorial page editor at a small newspaper in Manassas, Virginia, he returned to WUNC. Born in Baltimore but raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, Alex moved to Raleigh in time to do third grade twice and adjust to public school after having spent years in the sheltered confines of a Christian elementary education. Alex received a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also has a minor in philosophy, which basically means that he used to think he was really smart but realized he wasn’t in time to switch majors. Fishing, reading science fiction, watching crazy movies, writing bad short stories, and shooting pool are some of his favorite things to do. Alex still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up, but he is holding out for astronaut.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.