One year ago, seven puppies joined the inaugural class of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. At the Center’s opening celebration last September, the puppies toddled down the aisle to meet their new foster families. One dog, a tiny chocolate Labrador Retriever named Thunder, had to be carried.
This time around, at the Center’s one-year anniversary and working dog graduation ceremony, held Sept. 24 under sunny blue skies in Penn’s South Bank, the dogs moved with newfound confidence and purpose. One member of the initial class, a yellow Lab named Socks, trotted up the stage to “graduate,” joining her new handler, Penn Police Officer Julie Wesley. After completing a 13-week advanced training course in ordnance detection, Officer Wesley and Socks will become the Penn Police Department’s first K-9 unit.
What a difference a year makes.
“We started with big ideas and small puppies,” says Cynthia Otto, executive director of the Working Dog Center.
The Center’s initial class of seven dogs has grown to 16, and the jauntiness and confidence in their steps are well-earned: The canines have spent hours and hours hard at play, learning how to use their perceptive sense of smell to detect everything from explosive materials to people hiding in barrels.
After Joan Hendricks, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine, opened the graduation ceremony with a nod to the Center’s “genius dogs and genius humans,” Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli, who fostered Socks during her initial year of training, shared anecdotes about life with a working-dog-in-training, including a harrowing clamber over a tall, chain-link fence to retrieve a rubber ball that Socks needed to get back.
As Socks treated the audience to a demonstration of her acquired skills, locating some previously planted black powder on stage, Maureen Rush, vice president for Public Safety, described Officer Wesley and Socks as “a match made in heaven.”
Otto describes the progress of the dogs as “mind boggling.”
“This has been an incredible ride,” she says. “Each dog has its own special area of excellence, and they are really excelling.”
While Socks begins explosives detection school, plans are in the works for PApa Bear, a charismatic chocolate Lab, to become a diabetic alert dog trained to signal when his handler’s blood sugar rises too high or falls too low. Other dogs will likely go on to work in search-and-rescue operations.
Otto says her hopes for the year ahead can be boiled down to one word: growth. The program is expanding further into medical detection with a recently launched ovarian cancer project in concert with Penn Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
“We’re also building a lot on our education side,” Otto says, with more formal internships and externships for veterinary students, puppy training courses for the public, and even continuing education programs for working dog handlers and vets.
Meanwhile, the other arm of the Center’s mission—research—is likewise expanding, with projects that track behavioral and physiological aspects of working dog training and performance.
“We want to keep growing,” says Otto. “Our vision from the beginning was to become a national center of excellence—for research, for training, for education, for all things working dog. We’re pushing our way there.”
Originally published on September 26, 2013