The Penn Vet Working Dog Center (WDC) recently received an injection of cuteness—and talent. Five Labrador retriever puppies from the “Q litter” reported to the Center to start qualified training on Aug. 21, at exactly 8 weeks old.
These puppies, while undeniably adorable with their oversized paws and insatiable curiosity, also represent all the different facets of the WDC’s serious mission of optimizing the production of valuable working dogs, a mission that involves research, breeding, training, and education. Despite the puppies’ young age, more than a decade of expertise has already been invested in their pedigree, and thousands more hours of training will be required before they’re ready to work at any number of life-saving jobs, such as detecting cancer, narcotics, and explosives.
Though other universities are engaged in various aspects of working dog research and breeding, Penn’s Center is unique.
“No one else has their puppies cared for by foster families like we do and no one else starts training as early as we do,” says Cynthia Otto, WDC director.
The Center, Otto’s brainchild, was established in 2007 but launched as a full-fledged operation in 2012, when the first puppies arrived at the Pennovation Works campus to begin training. Since then, nearly 40 dogs have been part of the Center’s training program, which entails a schedule familiar to many human office workers: The dogs train at the Center from about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. before retiring home to romp about and bond with their foster families—all volunteers—during nights and weekends.
The Q litter’s story began with their mother, Ffoster, a 4-year-old yellow Lab. Ffoster came to Penn Vet as part of a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA had established a breeding program aimed at developing top-rate explosives detection dogs, but the program was shut down in 2013 after it lost funding. As part of the partnership, Penn received two of the TSA’s dogs. One female, Zzisa, was bred last year—and the “P litter” of nine puppies was the result. Ffoster is the second TSA dog to be bred.
“Ffoster is a very special dog,” says Otto. “She’s excelling in ovarian cancer detection. She is also one of the older dogs at the Center, so we wanted to breed her while she was still in her prime.”
The Center chose to maximize the diversity of the litter by inseminating Ffoster with genetic material from two males, one from the TSA program and one from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), an organization that specializes in the breeding of dogs to provide assistance to people with disabilities. Her six puppies received names, according to TSA convention, in honor of 9/11 victims: linQ, Quinn, Quiqley, Quilty, Quori, and Quackenbush.
As part of the breeding agreement, CCI will keep one of the puppies and one will participate in some WDC testing, but will be owned by Eric and Tracy Darling, who cared for Ffoster and her puppies during their early weeks. The other four will live with foster families during their training.
Many other working dog programs don’t start training canines for their detection jobs until they are a year or older, but the overachieving Penn puppies officially begin at eight weeks—and the research on them starts even sooner. When the puppies were just three weeks old, WDC staff, volunteers, interns, and residents began using a protocol supplied by the U.S. Border Patrol’s canine training program to evaluate their dogs using a variety of behavioral and sensory tests.
On a visit to the Darlings’ home one warm afternoon this summer, the puppies and the WDC team were caught in action. Lorenzo Ramirez, a post-doctoral fellow at the WDC, proffered small jars containing distinct scents to the puppies one at a time and noted their reaction.
“Narcotics,” Ramirez announced as he waved the jar under the puppy’s nose. “Indifferent to narcotics,” he noted, the puppy turning his head away.
“Arson.” The puppy licked the jar. “He’s a fan of arson!”
“Pepper.” The puppy balked. “He doesn’t like pepper, not at all.”
The task isn’t necessarily designed to test a dog’s affinity for certain scents, Otto says, but rather to begin stimulating neural pathways the puppies will rely on as they learn to detect and differentiate odors.
Additional tests involve playing “fetch” with jangly keys or rattling cans to measure the puppies’ drive and boldness, while others require handling the puppies in various ways to evaluate their social tendencies.
“We’re looking for the bolder, more outgoing dogs that want to chase things and aren’t scared by loud noises,” Otto says.
By pairing the power of pedigree with early, directed training, Otto hopes to continually improve the pool of dogs that are available to serve society with their sensitive noses and confident demeanors.
“It’s always that question of nature versus nurture,” she says, “and what we’re trying to do is control both sides.”