Last week, a small group of Penn graduates, surrounded by loved ones, was feted for their rigorous training and bright future in a ceremony punctuated by enthusiastic barks.
On May 18, the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (WDC) celebrated three of its canine graduates: Jerry, Fearghas, and Kilo. Having completed an intensive training program at the Center, the three are joining up with police departments in the region to contribute their highly tuned skills in scent detection.
“This is so exciting because we’re coming up on [the Center’s] five-year anniversary and we really didn’t anticipate being involved in law enforcement to the degree that we are,” says Cynthia Otto, the WDC’s founder and director. “[Our relationships with local police departments] allow us to do so much and learn so much so our dogs can keep working better, safer, and healthier.”
The WDC trains dogs in skills such as urban search-and-rescue, and cancer and accelerant detection, but the recent full-time hire of Bob Dougherty, who served as a police K-9 officer for three decades in Cheltenham Township, as the Center’s law enforcement canine coordinator, has ramped up the Center’s efforts in training police dogs.
Jerry and Fearghas, both German shepherds, were part of the Center’s foundational training program, and began working with the Penn Vet trainers as young puppies. Jerry will join Officer Bryan Nawoschik of the Norristown Police Department, specializing in narcotics detection. Fearghas is teaming with Officer Stephen Patton of the Lower Merion Police Department, specializing in explosives detection.
Kilo, a Belgian Malinois, was donated to SEPTA by the Throw Away Dogs Project, and attended scent detector school at the WDC. He will join Officer Tanya Ganoe of the SEPTA Transit Police as the agency’s first narcotics detection dog.
All three teams completed a 320-hour detector dog handler course at the WDC. Assistant trainer Jason Walters, a SEPTA police officer, says the officers and the dogs entered the training program as two separate entities—one cop and one dog—and left as a unified K-9 unit. “It was our responsibility to make sure they left as a team,” he says. “I think they did a fabulous job at doing that.
“Having a K-9 team is one of the best things you can have on a police force,” he adds. “He’s always going to have your back, he’s always going to protect you, and he never ever complains about where you’re going to eat for lunch.”
In addition to the officers and trainers, the WDC graduation celebrated the foster families who played a key role in raising the pups. The Center’s operational model is built upon the idea that the puppies-in-training live with foster families at night and on the weekends, learning to be a good family member, as they will be to their eventual handlers.
“This isn’t an easy job because these dogs are high-drive pups,” says Annemarie DeAngelo, WDC training director. “There is no sitting around and being couch potatoes with these guys. We couldn’t run our program without our fosters.”
After the ceremony, Jerry, Fearghas, and Kilo showed off their detection skills in a series of demonstrations outside the Center. After Kilo sat calmly next to his target, Ganoe rewarded him with a prize only a dog would love: a good long tug on a neon yellow ball she pulled out from her belt.