Sitting inside the brand-new home of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center—where seven puppies are chasing one another in big circles, toppling over like pro wrestlers, playing tug-of-war with rope toys, and generally being adorable—Cynthia Otto, founder and director of the Center, simply smiles.
She knows that she may very well have the best job at Penn. The work that Otto, an associate professor of critical care at Penn Vet, is doing at the Center serves society by providing research and training for detection dogs. And she gets to spend her days with puppies.
Officially, the Penn Vet Working Dog Center was established in 2007 as a national research and development organization dedicated to gathering scientific knowledge about the genetics, physical training, rearing, and conditioning of detection dogs. But for years the Center didn’t have a building to call its own.
That changed on Sept. 11 of this year, the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, with the grand opening of the Center’s new headquarters, located at Penn’s South Bank site in Grays Ferry. On that day, in addition to paying tribute to the search and rescue dogs that labored at ground zero at the World Trade Center, Otto introduced the Center’s inaugural class of seven puppies—Bretagne, Kaiserin, Morgan, PApa Bear, Sirius, Socks, and Thunder—all named after 9/11 dogs.
In between teaching the puppies to heel, balance on squishy pillows, and run through a tunnel (during the first week of training), Otto sat down to discuss what inspired her to get involved with working dogs, how the Center acquired the puppies, and what the young dogs must do to graduate and embark on careers of their own.
Q. Your association with Penn has been long, hasn’t it?
A. I’m in my 21st year. I went to vet school at Ohio State. Then, I did an internship here for a year. I went on to [University of] Georgia to do my residency and Ph.D., and then [Penn Vet Dean] Joan Hendricks recruited me back and I’ve been here ever since.
Q. Were you doing dog training at that time?
A. No, the dog training only started for me about 10 years ago, and the involvement with working dogs … well, the seeds were planted when I was still in my residency down in Georgia. It all started with a simple phone call. Somebody called the [animal] hospital asking for some veterinary support [for the dog rescue team in Georgia] and I talked to them and was educated about what these dogs were doing, and the interest in it just got planted in my brain and never left. They called and didn’t ask for me, they asked for anybody, and the phone call got transferred to me because I was interested in emergency medicine and they thought it was a natural match. That triggered everything.
Q. What did it spark in you?
A. To be honest, I was having so much fun being a veterinarian, but I wasn’t having the kind of global impact that I wanted to have. Veterinarians do so much in so many areas, particularly in the food animal realm they have such a wide impact. I had thought that I was going to be doing food animal [medicine], and having given that up I felt the need to have a bigger impact, besides the immediate impact of taking care of individual animals.
Q. Was the idea of using dogs for this kind of work in its infancy?
A. Search and rescue? Well, there was a woman named Penny Sullivan, a dog handler, who was one of the original founders of wilderness search and rescue in this country and that was about 40 years ago. So she and her group [the Ramapo Rescue Dog Association] have been doing that ever since. Of course, dogs for the longest time have been bred for work of some sort. Hunting, for example, although it was hunting game instead of hunting bombs. It [detection] is a natural progression from what they were bred and raised for.
Q. But urban search and rescue has been a more recent development, right?
A. Oh yes, the urban search and rescue teams, even the whole FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] system … I think it was Hurricane Andrew , or maybe the Northridge earthquake , those two major national disasters really raised the awareness and expanded the program. FEMA has 28 teams right now, and they are looking to expand to a 29th team. Pennsylvania has one of the teams, and a lot of states have developed state resources. New Jersey doesn’t have a federal team, but it has a state team.
Q. So when you arrived at Penn, you started looking around for teams. What did you find?
A. The federal team was just nascent, and they were defining themselves, trying to understand what they were and what they wanted to be. The challenge was that because it was a federal team they only had certain slots, and there wasn’t a slot for a veterinarian. The medical care was assigned to the human physician that would go out with the teams, and the medics. They would take care of the people on the team, they would take care of any victims that were extracted, and they were also assigned to the dogs. And so it was an effort on my part to try and figure out how I could fit in.
During Hurricane Floyd, I went as what they called a technical information specialist. The job of the technical information specialist is to record all the data, and at Hurricane Floyd that meant about 16 hours a day of punching things into a computer, and I never saw the dogs.
Q. So what changed? Because in 2001 you were at ground zero taking care of the rescue dogs at 9/11.
A. When the call came for 9/11, the task force leader at the time was a man named Fred Endrikat [branch chief, FEMA Urban Search and Rescue] who was with the Philadelphia Fire Department. He said, ‘Cindy we need you, the dogs need you, you can come as a support specialist.’ Usually the support specialists drive the trucks, but I did not drive the trucks. My job for 9/11 was strictly to take care of the dogs. I was basically there for the Pennsylvania dogs, but also for any other dogs that might need me.
Q. Where were the dogs on the team from?
A. Search and rescue handlers personally own their dogs. They buy their dogs, they train their dogs, they pay for all of the medical care for their dogs, and only upon deployment do they become employees of the government. These trainers are really top-notch. They train 20 hours a week and every weekend. The dogs that came from all over the country were certified. They had to pass tests. They were a known entity. They were really well-trained, and the handlers were really well-trained. So the federal standards are now very high and preparation is very extensive.
Q. But there are all kinds of dog rescue teams, not just the FEMA teams, right?
A. Yes, locally there is Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue. They do mostly wilderness, and they are all volunteers and they do a great job, but they don’t have quite the level of rigor [as the FEMA teams]. They are probably more highly trained than some other organizations. But there are no national standards for search and rescue.
Q. Wait, did you just say there are no national standards?
A. The federal level has standards, and they are rigorous. But on the local level, they can make their own standards. That is one of the things we’d like to be able to raise awareness about, guidelines for national standards.
Q. So there you were at 9/11, dealing with the dogs. Was it overwhelming?
A. It was, and it was crazy. Part of my job was to keep the dogs from being overworked. There was a huge desire to get the dogs to find people, and that meant the people didn’t want the dogs to take a break, because you’d be missing vital moments to find people. But without taking a break, you are putting the dogs at risk. So one of my jobs was to say, ‘No, this dog has to have a break now.’
Q. I read somewhere that the dogs were depressed because they weren’t finding survivors. Is that true?
A. No. I think the dogs were tired. I think the dogs were overworked, and if their handlers were upset the dogs were responding to their handlers. I think they weren’t winning their ‘game.’ It’s not fun if you play a game for three days in a row and you don’t win, ever. Their sleep cycles were off. Their eating and drinking was off. But depression would be anthropomorphism. I wouldn’t go that far.
Q. Am I correct that you’ve done some research in that area?
A. Melissa Hunt [associate director of the clinical training program in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology], James Serpell [director of Penn Vet’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society], and I just published a paper in Anthrozoös looking at the behavior of the people, the handlers, and the dogs. Clearly, there is such an impact of handlers’ post-traumatic stress disorder-like syndromes on the dogs’ behavior. We talk about the leash being a connection between the dog and the handler. It’s an incredibly tight bond. Our study couldn’t say who changed first, but it was pretty suggestive that if the handlers had problems, the dogs’ behavior would change.
Q. So, it was right after 9/11 that you started thinking about creating a working dog center?
A. Yes, it was right after that. Also, around that time an orthopedic professor [at Penn Vet], Gail Smith, had just come back from a meeting where they talked about the military and its super dog program, and he and I started tossing around this idea. That was back in 2002. It was a great idea, but we didn’t have a place, and we didn’t have money. So, it fell by the wayside. Then in 2007, they were starting to close all those military bases around the country, and the Naval Air Station in Willow Grove [Pa.] was one of them. The state wanted to turn it into a Homeland Security center, and we thought wouldn’t that be cool? We actually had 14 acres assigned to us there to build the center. We had a budget. We had a plan. But in the end, that all fell apart when the finances of the state and the government disappeared. So that went away. And then it was in 2010 that I found out that Penn bought this property [the former DuPont plant at Grays Ferry]. We identified this building, and this space, as a really great spot. I kept talking about it with the anticipation that we would have some federal funding, and when that didn’t work out it turned out some of our private donors saw the vision and stepped up. We raised $600,000 in about seven months.
Q. What does the private funding pay for?
A. Everything. It paid for all of the construction. It pays the rent. It pays all of our salaries. This is all done by donations, so raising money is a major part of what we do.
Q. Can you give me a two-sentence mission statement for the Working Dog Center?
A. Basically, what we are is a research consortium and our goal is to answer the questions that are important to both science and the practitioner, meaning the dog handler, and to provide that information to improve the health and performance of the working dog. Essentially, we’re talking about education, research, and implementation. The puppies are laboratories.
Q. So the main focus is not to be a farm for professional working dogs?
A. Oh, heavens no! We need to have enough dogs here so we can begin to answer the questions. We will have a breeding program, because of the importance of genetics in the research—the effect of genetics, of nature versus nurture. Two of our breeding females will be working for Penn police as explosive detection dogs. We don’t want the breeding females here to just be brood stock; we want them to work.
Q. So in a way this is like an Olympic training center, where athletes go to train and there is data collection?
A. Yes, absolutely. We’re trying to collect all of the information about how we are approaching things: What we are introducing the dogs to, when we are introducing them to it, how they are responding to that.
Q. Can you tell me more about the research?
A. Right now most of our research is based on genetics, behavior, and physical performance. You referred to the Olympic training camp—well, Olympian athletes don’t just go and swim. They do weights, and they do other stuff. In the working dog world, a lot of dogs just train to do the finding, and they kind of forget about the physical fitness and conditioning. That is an area we are really interested in promoting and documenting.
Q. What does physical fitness look like in dogs?
A. Core strength, endurance, stretching. There are a couple of things that dogs don’t do well. They don’t use their core very often, but we have exercises that help build their core. Also body awareness; we call dogs front-wheel-drive animals because they tend to know where their head and their front feet are, but they don’t know a lot about their back feet. So awareness of their back feet, being able to back up, we work on that a lot.
Q. You have seven puppies here. Will all of them be successful?
A. That is absolutely our goal. Our definition of success is becoming a detection dog. That is success. So, they might be a bomb dog. They might be a drug dog. They might be a cancer detection dog, or a search and rescue dog. And if that doesn’t work out, if they aren’t using their nose they way we expect them to, they might become a service dog. Our goal is to have all of these dogs working.
Q. Where did the puppies come from?
A. They were all donated by breeders. The breeders are really special people, and they’ve been very engaged with this program. They are proud to have their dogs in this program. If their dog is successful in this program, that tells the world that their breeding is really amazing.
Q. You went through breeders, and not shelters?
A. Yes, because we absolutely needed to know that time after time the history of these dogs has produced successful dogs. The best predictor of success is their parents’ success.
Q. Will you be training the puppies yourself? Who else is hands-on with the serious training?
A. I will meddle with the training, but Annemarie DeAngelo is the training director.
Q. What will the dogs be expected to do at the end of their year of training?
A. They will be able to do an extended search for a toy in an area that is unfamiliar and the toy is hidden. They will have off-leash directability, agility, and physical fitness. They will also have what we call impulse control, what you might call an ‘off switch,’ so they can relax even in an exciting environment. And finally, they will have to have all of their health clearances.
Q. I understand that the Center is committed to including the community in its work. How will you do that?
A. We have one intern who is working here through The Mission Continues that supports internships for veterans in non-profits. She has a service dog because she has PTSD. Her dog came from Puppies Behind Bars. ... The other two groups we are working with are New Leash On Life USA [in which prison inmates train service dogs], and Hand2Paw, which connects homeless youth with homeless animals.
Editor’s Note: Facebook users who “like” the Penn Vet Working Dog Center can watch the puppies’ progress through daily updates, photos, and videos.