A unique program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine—the Penn Vet Working Dog Center—not only trains detection dogs from puppyhood, but also, studies every aspect of their development in order to determine how to identify and train the finest detection dogs possible, dogs whose work is critical when natural and human-caused disasters hit. The center officially opened on September 11, 2012, at a former DuPont facility just south of the main campus. All of the puppies are named after dogs who served at Ground Zero and elsewhere in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We want to focus on what the nose can do,” says the center’s founder and director, Cynthia Otto, associate professor of critical care at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Otto, who had been providing medical care to detection dogs for FEMA since 1994, joined a contingent of first-responders from Pennsylvania at Ground Zero in September 2001. Initially, the dogs were deployed to search for survivors, but ended up locating the remains of victims.
After the disaster, Otto and some of her colleagues in the working-dog world took a serious look at the factors that come into play in the best detection dogs. Was it genetics? Or could a dog’s natural talents be optimized? Was it possible to identify successful detection dog candidates from shelters or rescues? If so, how? Otto, a scientist, began planning a program that would provide answers.
Otto decided to break with the practice of most detection-dog programs—including those of the military and many law enforcement agencies—which wait until dogs are a year old before beginning their detection training. Instead, she wanted to give puppies an overall “liberal arts” experience that included obedience, agility, searching, direction and control, drive building, impulse control, socialization, play, fitness, and husbandry. Then, she would study their development during that crucial first year, gather evidence of what worked and what didn’t, and use that information to guide the development (and identification) of even better detection dogs.
Another unusual feature of the center is that, rather than being kenneled, the dogs live in foster homes. Such a system requires a great deal of organization; after several years of fund-raising and searching for a location, Otto hired three full-time employees to manage operations, direct the dogs’ training and coordinate the many volunteers who would be required. Then, she and her staff set about finding puppies whose pedigrees indicated that they had the drive and temperament to become exemplary detection dogs.
Ronnie, a black sable German Shepherd, is one of the dogs who spent his first year at the new Penn Vet Working Dog Center. As a puppy, he was fostered by Cathy Von Elm and lived with her and Auggie, Von Elm’s Cardigan Welsh Corgi, in their Center City Philadelphia home. Evenings and weekends were spent doing typical puppy things: playing with Auggie, tossing giant fleece bones in the air, filching ice from Von Elm’s glass, going to the country on weekends. Every weekday morning, however, on her way to work, Von Elm dropped Ronnie off at “school”—the Penn Vet center; in the evening, on her way home, she picked him up.
Ronnie came from breeder Julie Stade, whom Otto had met in 2012 at a national breeders’ conference, where Otto was giving a seminar. Stade, who’s based in Kansas and is known for her work with Doberman Pinschers, had recently made a foray into breeding German Shepherds and was awaiting her first litter. The parents came from impressive lines of Czech dogs, and Stade was interested in donating one of the puppies to the center.
Her timing was excellent: Otto was looking for just the right German Shepherd to add to her class of puppies. She wanted a namesake for another Ronnie—a Czech German Shepherd whose handler, David Lee, had been a longtime detection-work colleague before his retirement from the Philadelphia police force. (Lee had introduced Otto to Annemarie DeAngelo, a retired New Jersey State Trooper and founder of their canine program, who became the center’s director of training.)