Cat and Dogs

Readers of this blog who know Cat Warren from her work as editor of Academe from 2010 to 2012 probably don’t know that, when she wasn’t teaching classes at North Carolina State University or editing the magazine, she could often be found looking for bodies in the North Carolina woods. Solo, Cat’s German shepherd, had become a cadaver dog, and Cat was being drawn more and more into the world of the working dogs.

In What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs, published late last year by Touchstone Books, Cat tells the story of how she came to be a volunteer cadaver-dog handler. It was an accident: Solo was a difficult puppy (a “jackass,” she says); eventually, a trainer suggested that Cat consider focusing Solo’s abundant energy on “scent work.” Solo turns out to be something of a natural, and Cat finds that she enjoys being a handler. Searching for the bodies of the dead is both important work and not nearly as depressing as it might first sound.

Cat was a newspaper reporter before she earned her PhD and joined the faculty at NCSU, and her journalism background is much in evidence in her well-researched and accessible discussion of working dogs. Those who know Cat will also recognize her wit (and her self-deprecating humor) throughout the book. What the Dog Knows is an enjoyable read.

It is also an unusual book for a professor to have written. At a glance, it’s a “dog book.” It is not geared primarily toward an academic audience. Yet it demonstrates many qualities of scholarly inquiry: What the Dog Knows blends history, science, and memoir, bringing research on topics ranging from the sense of smell to forensics to bear on its subject. The book is about what the dog knows, but it is also about what we know and how we know it. Why shouldn’t a professor have written it?

Such a question is not as far removed as it might first seem from the recent concerns of Academe. Our November–December issue on political engagement and our January–February issue on public intellectuals both considered why faculty members need to make their voices heard outside their disciplines and beyond the university—despite an academic culture that sometimes discourages them from doing so.

Good AAUP members, of course, will not be confined to silos or ivory towers. In its own way, What the Dog Knows is a testament to the intellectual curiosity and public spiritedness of one professor who has never been afraid to get her hands a bit dirty.

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