Puppies no more, Penn Vet’s working dogs serve society


John Donges

From left, Cindy Otto, executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, SEPTA Inspector Teri Clark, SEPTA Police Officer Cory Fox, with Kaiserin, and SEPTA Police Officer Javier Class, with Ronnie.

One by one, puppies at the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Working Dog Center (WDC) are growing up and trotting off to serve society by apprehending alleged criminals, sniffing for explosives, alerting their owners to health concerns, and rescuing people in need of assistance.

Last week, two of the latest graduates began advanced training for their new careers. Ronnie, a German shepherd who is sponsored by Wawa, and Kaiserin, a Dutch shepherd, will join the SEPTA police force after they receive patrol training and complete an explosives detection class.

“They are just rock stars,” says Cynthia Otto, executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. “They’ve only just started their explosives training, but they’re already showing some good responses.”

At the WDC, volunteers and trainers used positive-reinforcement techniques with Ronnie and Kaiserin to teach them to track footprints on pavement—a challenging task. Trainers also worked with “bite sleeves” to teach the dogs to safely restrain a suspect accused of a crime.

The Center’s first graduate, a yellow Labrador retriever named Socks, is already on the job as part of the first canine unit at Penn’s Division of Public Safety, working with Penn Police Officer Julie Wesley to patrol campus and perform bomb sweeps when necessary.

Other WDC alumni are also destined for distinguished careers.

PApa Bear, a chocolate Labrador retriever, and Bretagne, a golden retriever, will likely become diabetic detection dogs, alerting their owners when their blood sugar is too high or too low, and fetching a blood test kit when one is required. A college basketball player who has aspirations of playing professionally in Europe has put a deposit down for PApa Bear, who may also be trained to perform wilderness search-and-rescue; a New Jersey man with Type 1 diabetes has placed a deposit for Bretagne.

SEPTA Working Dogs

John Donges

The Working Dog Center is also forging relationships with police departments to secure placements for other dogs on K9 units.

Another chocolate lab, Thunder—a member of the WDC’s inaugural class along with PApa Bear, Socks, and Bretagne—has met his future handler. Spring Pittore, a long-time urban search-and-rescue volunteer who helped look for survivors after 9/11, has put down a deposit so that she can work with Thunder, and is currently fundraising so she can purchase him outright by the summer.

“Almost all of search-and-rescue dogs are owned by individuals who buy the dog themselves and do training themselves,” Otto says. “They’re doing it not because they’re paid to do it, but because they’re really good people.”

Otto says it’s likely that another WDC dog will soon find a placement as a search-and-rescue dog. The Center is also forging relationships with police departments to secure placements for other dogs on K9 units.

“It’s heart-wrenching to have them go, but the pride of seeing them step into their careers is extraordinary,” Otto says.

Originally published on February 20, 2014