Solo: The Adorable Demon

Solo with his duckie

When What the Dog Knows by Cat Warren was first published in 2013, I read the many reviews with wonderment. Each reviewer interpreted and described Solo’s character, sometimes with bewildering portrayals. I penciled various versions of a blog post about Solo but always ended up shelving the undertaking.  Stories of redemption are most moving when the starting point is as dire as can possibly be. So – I accepted that, to be of the most interest, people would interpret Solo’s adolescent character as terrifying.

It wasn’t. He wasn’t. Solo was an unruly, full-of-himself adolescent working breed male who pushed the limits and once trained for a job, he matured into an awesome dog. A dog who applied himself splendidly to his training and service. He was a good dog and good friend to his humans and even to his eventual new puppy friend who joined the household later in his life. Redemption at its finest!

With the publication of the Young Reader’s Edition of What the Dog Knows, I looked forward to the new crop of reviews believing these would be of a friendlier nature. After all, the book was geared toward young people and had lots of pictures and illustrations of appealing dogs! After reading this edition, I was pleased with the in-depth information that young readers would glean from the book. I sensed many young readers would connect with Solo’s story as they themselves are working out relationships with their peers and likely feeling some of the similar conflicts that Solo displayed. Knowing that an adolescent dog could find meaning and accomplishment with a job well done could motivate some adolescent human to aspire for similar.

One day as I meandered through online notices and reviews of the young reader’s edition, I checked Goodreads. There, a reviewer with a side bar full of accolades, published the review I have displayed at the end of this post.

I read this review with astonishment that Vita, Solo’s mom had produced “over 20 litters”. This was news to me! This would be news to veterinary theriogenologists! (Veterinarians who specialize in the study of reproduction) Of course, this wasn’t true. Vita had one litter: Solo’s litter of one pup. Vita lived a long and happy life after her one litter of one pup with a dear friend who had had 3 of our dogs over our many years of friendship.

When doing the math required for producing “over 20 litters” in the average life span of 10-13 years for a German Shepherd dog, I was surprised that any adult human would consider this possible, let alone a self-described librarian at a medical library. Methinks, this person should have enrolled in fewer library science courses and more basic biology classes!

For simplicity’s sake, lets consider that a bitch’s first estrus would be at 6 months of age. My females typically didn’t begin their first estrus until 12 months but, as I say, for simplicity’s sake, let’s place it at 6 months. Also, for simplicity, we’ll assume an estrus cycle every 6 months. With this scenario, if Vita had a litter every single estrus cycle from her first estrus, she would have to be at least 10.5 years old when she whelped Solo! The reviewer states that she understood the “poor momma” to be young. Ha! Time to get those little gray cells working, I’d say! Ten and a half years of age in a breed that typically lives to 10-13 can’t be considered young.

I hope that readers of this review had their little gray cells working because they would have understood this proposed scenario was an impossibility. There is a lesson here, though. When a person’s biases are so entrenched that they interpret, however incorrectly, the words in front of them to rationalize their own prejudices, almost anything – however preposterous – is possible: even a ‘young’ 10.5-year-old German Shepherd female whelping “over 20 litters”!  Additionally according to this reviewer, there was no mention of giving ‘poor momma’ a rest. Did this reviewer believe that Vita would carry-on at 11, 12 or even 13 years of age popping out litters of puppies? Where’s the Guinness Book of World Records when you need them?? I’ve got to write to them!

Service dogs are being trained and utilized in ever expanding ways. Dogs’ wide-ranging abilities will ensure that humans will need service dogs for a long time to come. It seems there is hardly a thing that a dog can’t do! There is a reason why organizations develop their own breeding programs or rely on other’s well-developed breeding programs to source their dogs from. Genes are tricky little devils.  Science is understanding genetics more all the time but generations of carefully monitored breeding dogs remain the most reliable source for service dogs. Organizations who supply service dogs don’t have the time or resources to raise and train dogs of unknown and potentially unreliable health and behavior.  Dogs from shelters and rescues are also a good source for various kinds of service work and trainers are evaluating and training rescue dogs more and more. That’s all good! Sourcing dogs from breeding programs and rescues/shelters is not mutually exclusive. There is enough work for all.

This reviewer’s ignorance of basic canine reproduction along with her prejudices against purebred and purpose-bred dogs make this review a dubious source for judging one’s reading choices.

For ease of reading, here is the review copied/pasted. I have highlighted parts of the review to point out the offending misrepresentation.

What the Dog Knows Young Readers Edition: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World by Cat Warren is currently scheduled for release on October 8 2019.  In this young readers edition of the New York Times bestseller, Cat Warren and her canine companion, Solo, teach readers that the nose knows no bounds when it comes to working together, being persistent, and helping others. Solo has a fine nose and knows how to use it, but he’s only one of many thousands of scent-detection dogs all over the United States. That’s a group that includes cadaver dogs, tracking, trailing, and apprehension dogs; dogs that can locate unmarked graves of Civil War soldiers; and even dogs that can find drowning victims more than two hundred feet below the surface of a lake. All these dogs love to use their noses. They think their job is simply the best, most interesting game they’ve ever played! What good working dogs can do may seem magical or mysterious, but What the Dog Knows shows the science, the rigorous training, and the skilled handling that underlie these amazing abilities.

What the Dog Knows Young Readers Edition is a book that interested me on a scientific standpoint, but I have to admit that the very beginning made me very sad. Solo was not a rescue- rather from a breeder. His poor mother had already had over 20 litters and no mention was made of letting the poor momma rest after having this litter of one- although letter she is referred to as young.. I am not saying that all breeders are necessarily bad, this one is labeled as a reputable breeder and the descriptions of some of the things she did for the dogs sounded wonderful, but my heart broke for the momma dog- and for the dogs losing their lives in shelters every year.  The authors description of what she wanted from a dog also sounded like it could have been fulfilled by many different types of dog- aside from the bonus idea of winning in the obedience ring. I also found the expectations she had for the new puppy to be a bit selfish and naive. I will get off my soap box now and get on with the rest of the book.

Once I got past that initial set up, I found the research into the science of olfactory nerves, the history of cadaver dogs, and  the training methods to be very interesting. I found the informational parts of the book to be thoughtful, well researched, and accessible. Reading about working dogs, how they work and train, and why they are good at what they do was engaging and interesting. It was only when the book verged into the author’s wants and issues that I would catch myself skimming instead of reading.  I think it is more because of our difference in opinion on why and how add an animal into a family, rather than anything else. It is a personality conflict, which does say something about how well she infused the story with her own voice and personality- which is something not everyone can do well. I would have liked to see some further information in the endpages- suggestions for further reading, resources for those interested in training or working with dogs, and so on. 

What the Dog Knows Young Readers Edition is an well researched book, and would be a good read for middle grade and older readers that are interesting in working dogs and everything about them.”

1) The Curtain Opens: Cora and Cascha Arrive

Vanda was my teaching assistant in dog training classes. Solid, stable and lovely!

The summer of 1991:

I had been monitoring Vanda’s temperature for days and when the significant drop in her temperature occurred, she and I traveled to the veterinarian for her final c-section. Two female pups were delivered, one weighing 14 ounces and the other, a diminutive 8 ounces. The vet advised me that he would prefer the pups stay at the hospital a few hours to be sure they were nursing well.

As I drove into the city that evening to pick them up, I was eager to see these last of the Vanda and Falk off-spring while filled with some trepidation. Trepidation because of the fragility of life in the first several days of puppies’ lives and with Vanda unable to have more pups, these two little girls were precious.

Falk was the father of Cora and Cascha. He was a German import of high quality!

The first hours with a litter are usually spent reveling in the beauty of newborns as they greedily seize life. Tiny personalities emerge even though eating and sleeping are all they do. As we watch them, their appearances inspire names to match their emerging personalities.

Regrettably, the technical staff had not put the pups on to nurse. We raced home and settled Vanda and her small family with fresh blankets in their box. Five hours after their arrival into this world, I began to rouse these sluggish pups to nurse. One would begin to suckle only to fall back to sleep in moments. Hours went by as I worked with them, coaxing them to grasp onto life. A certain terror was overtaking me when they, unlike our usual pups, were too lethargic to feed.

I was too worried about their listlessness to appreciate their sleek bodies, wrinkly muzzles and that wonderful smell of puppy. Names were out of the question. I could only think, “Nurse! Just nurse, please!” The stimulation during birth spurs newborns to search and grab onto their mother’s nipples. It is a natural process. That fine line between life and death can so easily be crossed during and just after birth. Since these pups had had no feeding for more than 5 hours, they were in even more jeopardy.

Hours into this struggle, the bigger of the two girls was discovering the joy of nursing. She became more determined as she nursed. Celebration! We were making progress.

The surgeon had expressed concern about the smallest girl. Was she properly formed? Could there be an unseen problem? Her vital signs had checked out properly, but he was worried about her size. She must eat and eat well, he counseled me. I massaged her, stroked her head, waking her frequently reminding her to suckle. Vanda, the quintessential mother, worked just as hard. Licking and cleaning to wake this little ‘mole’ up.

‘Little Mole’ was soon named Cora – after her impressive grandmother.

As the milk flowed, ‘Little Mole’, as I was beginning to call her, suckled with increasing persistence. Well after midnight, I stole into the kitchen to prepare a cup of tea. Exhaustion is not an unusual experience for the breeder with worry following along in the shadows. The beauty of these two perfect little girls began to unfold to me and the terror eased somewhat. The bigger of the two would be called ‘Cascha’ but what would I call the little mole? I delved deep into her illustrious pedigree to choose a dog I admired as much as my dear Vanda. She would be the namesake of her maternal grandmother, Cora, after Cora vom Haus Jacobs. Cora was perhaps the strongest, most solid bitch I had met in German Shepherd Dogs and a major reason I purchased Vanda. I prayed that this indomitable spirit would help this tiny mite to survive, no – thrive. Survive was not enough for these girls, they would thrive!

Cora developed into an Imp of the First Order!

Mornings come early in June. I awoke from my brief night’s sleep to the rhythmical suckling of our pups. That is a sound sweeter than any music but this morning, a complete orchestra would not have sounded as glorious! Cascha and Cora were winning in the toughest competition of all: Life!

Cascha had a huge personality and was very opinionated! All toys belonged to her!

Each day they gained weight. They vigorously crawled about their whelping nest. Cora was more vocal and agile than Cascha. In fact, Cascha’ s favorite past-time was fast becoming ‘eating’. With only two pups, it was like having a twenty-four-hour banquet. Cascha ambled her way up and down the awaiting faucets, taste-testing from each. Cascha looked like she was becoming a ‘swimmer’ where a pup eats so much that laying on their stomach with feet splayed out is the norm. This flattens the rib cage and extreme cases can be very dangerous. I rolled towels to cradle her and keep her on her side as she slept. Ever adamant, she would refuse to sleep on her side. She would roll back onto her tummy and fall to sleep. I learned to sneak in when she was fast asleep, shift her gently onto her side and ease the rolled towels around her. She slept!

After a week of steadily gaining weight, Cora was nursing well but one day went by without weight gain. When the second day proceeded with no weight gain, I prepared a formula for her to nurse from a bottle. Nothing doing for her! One would think I was forcing bitter-apple into her mouth. My folks had read about a litter of Rottweiler pups that had come several times a day to our neighbor’s goat farm and nursed from their goats. The mother had been lost while the pups were young. The pups had thrived on fresh goat’s milk. I called and heard the unhappy news that the goats were past milking. The farmer did have some milk frozen and would be happy to let me have this.

I held my breath as I offered a bottle of warmed goat’s milk to Cora. Initial annoyance at having a baby bottle pressed into her mouth gave way to noisy sucking when she tasted the milk. This was good stuff! Another week of supplementation with goat’s milk while her weight increased and her appetite for her mother’s milk re-established.

Because this was Vanda’s last litter, she had been spayed during this c-section and her milk supply dwindled as weeks went by. The girls suckled for the social interaction, but nutrition was increasingly supplied by their formula. Cascha was always the first in the bowl (and ‘in’ is not a misprint!) and the last to leave when every molecule was lapped up.

Vanda was talented in work and did well in showing.
Cascha knew no limits!

Puppy-hood for these girls included a lot of competitive games. Fortunately, we had wonderful adult dogs that patrolled and diverted their focus from each other. They each had such strong characters, that both refused to compromise in their contests. Most pups learn to win and lose in games and tussles. Important lessons that serve them well later in life. With just two in the litter and both being dominant, resourceful and persistent, it was clear that these girls needed to spend quality time away from each other by the time they were just a few months old. I would not part with either of them, so we, the dogs and I, built our days around these precocious girls.

They accompanied me everywhere possible, going to training clubs, shows and trials as well as visits to friends and family.

Cascha and ‘friend’!

Cascha was indomitable and commanding with a strong personal presence. She never doubted herself or her prerogative. Cascha expressed her strong opinions quite freely. Everything was a competition to Cascha – to be won, never tied, certainly never lost. She assumed that victory was her birthright. Her adolescence showed her to be highly talented, motivated and single-minded. That single-mindedness could be daunting. She would become one of my greatest teachers as well as one of my most trying students.

Cora was always studying ways to be slightly outrageous!
Cora: You may recognize this photo from Cat Warren’s book: What the Dog Knows (Young Reader’s Edition)

Cora was the more tractable of the two. She was also cunning and lightning fast figuring out how to influence others. Cora learned at a very young age to size people up and have fun with teasing. Her sense of humor showed itself early on. She thought it very funny when visitors would squeal with surprise if she goosed them. When they turned to look at the offending pup, Cora twinkled her eyes triumphantly with not the least amount of remorse. Perhaps when your only sister is the controlling type, one learns other ways to have fun – and influence people.

Alas, we are getting ahead of ourselves. There is much living to do before I discover the full import of these girls’ personalities. Stay tuned to learn more of Cora and her sister, Cascha!

Falk was born in 1982 and lived into his 13th year. He, too, had a huge presence about him.
Vanda as a young pup. I was younger, too!