Penn Vet Working Dog Center: Where Detection Dogs Train

Center director Dr. Cynthia Otto talks about preparing dogs for dangerous jobs.

Jeff Harder  |  Jan 29th 2013


Socks isn’t like other dogs. That much was clear soon after she came to the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

Donated by a small breeder from western Pennsylvania, Socks was a roly-poly yellow Lab who, today, at 6 months old, isn’t so roly-poly anymore. In a lot of ways, she’s like all her peers: She climbs, tugs, sits, eats, and sleeps for some nine hours a day. When her foster father wakes up in the morning, Socks licks him with gusto.

But when Socks sniffs through the empty warehouse that serves as her training ground and finds her leather tug toy, that’s when she shows just how different she is. She doesn’t leap, or bark, or cause the ruckus you’d expect from a puppy who has found the object of her desire. Instead, she sits still. She’s quiet. It’s the kind of behavior that trainers work so hard to cultivate, says Dr. Cynthia Otto, the center’s director, and it’s a habit that Socks performs unprompted.

“She’s got it written all over her face: ‘I’m gonna be a bomb dog,’” Otto says.

If all goes as expected, Socks will join the University of Pennsylvania Police Department as a bomb detection dog once she finishes her training. Her six peers, who make up the remainder of the inaugural class of puppies training at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, will join police departments, search-and-rescue teams, and other agencies. The Philadelphia center, a part of the university’s School of Veterinary Medicine, is a research and training center that prepares these special dogs for the future, even if their futures aren’t clear at the moment.

In part, that’s because the scope of what detection dogs can do has grown beyond sniffing for drugs or finding missing people — and it continues to grow.

“It seems like every week I come across another article about a dog being used to detect something new, whether it’s bedbugs, sewage contamination, endangered plants, cancer, or diabetic crises,” Otto says.

Detection dogs are in high demand, but they are also scarcer than ever. Most professional working dogs, including many dogs used in the United States’ military and police departments, are from Eastern Europe, a region with a long tradition of breeding and training the animals. But this relatively small region supplies working dogs to countries all over the world. “What’s happening is there’s more pressure for them to produce these dogs, and the quality of the dogs, at least from what I’ve heard anecdotally, seems to be decreasing,” says Otto.

One of the purposes of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center is to have a stateside center to prepare dogs for the modern era, but detection dogs first piqued Otto’s curiosity in 1994. That’s when Otto, a working veterinarian and associate professor of critical care at the School of Veterinary Medicine, began working with the detection dogs used by the Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Task Force.

“Just watching them train — watching a dog climb a ladder, go across an elevated plank that’s six to 10 feet off the ground, crawl through a tunnel in the dark, underneath all this collapsed concrete, and find a person that’s hidden, you just go, ‘Wow, these are really amazing animals,’” she says. “They’re so valuable to everyone. Not just the owners and the people that directly and immediately experience the impact of the value of the dog. They have an impact on our national security, on our safety — on life.”

After treating the dogs who scoured the rubble of Ground Zero and starting a long-term study of the health of 9/11 detection dogs, Otto turned her interests toward the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in 2007. On Sept. 11, 2012, the center opened its brick-and-mortar headquarters and welcomed its inaugural class of five Labs, a Dutch Shepherd, and a Golden Retriever, all donated by domestic breeders. The group grows larger by the month — the center has added two more Labs, two German Shepherds, and a Springer Spaniel in the months since. And their names aren’t accidental: Socks, Bretagne, Sirius, and all the rest are named after dogs deployed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

The five-day-a-week program is built on a core of obedience, agility, fitness, and search behavior, and the training sessions are all videotaped and analyzed. The cornerstone of the curriculum is adapting a dog’s natural predilections for play into useful search behaviors. For example, a new puppy might play tug with one of its handlers, but soon enough they’ll have to follow a handler’s commands to retrieve the toy before playing. Later on, they’ll search for the hidden toy outside or in an empty office building, then find more than one toy in different environments.

The training continues during lunchtime: Speakers emanate sounds of gunshots and sirens to condition the dogs to the harsh aural environments they’ll encounter in the working world. At night and on the weekends, the puppies go home with foster families.

Once the dogs finish the program (in a year, maybe a little more — the length of the training hasn’t been clearly defined yet), they’ll enter the working world. Some of the dogs might work until they’re 11 years old. Others, like police and military dogs who work in more strenuous environments, might retire much earlier.

One of the long-term projects is to analyze genetic data to understand more about the ailments that cut dogs’ careers short. “We want this foundation to enhance the quality as well as the quantity of working life, where the emphasis on fitness and conditioning and positive training, that it’s all about fun, is going to help these dogs continue to want to work all their lives,” Otto says.

Not every dog reveals his ideal vocation as easily as Socks. Take Morgan, another six-month-old yellow Lab and one of the biggest dogs in the program, weighing in at more than 64 pounds. “He’s what I like to call our bull in a china shop,” Otto says. Once, the team hid the tug toy inside a radiator that ran along the wall of one of the search facilities. Morgan found it expertly, but instead of sitting — calmly and quietly, the way Socks might — he did something else: He ripped the radiator apart to pry the toy from the inside.

In time, his handlers will figure out what Morgan is best suited to do, but odds are he won’t be sniffing for bombs. And that’s okay, Otto says. “That’s the really fun thing about our program — we’re not relegating the dogs to a task. We’re giving them a foundation, so we can figure out what they’ll do best.”

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