Dr. Otto holds one of her puppy pupils, Sirius, at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

At the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, everyone is learning, including the students, veterinarians, volunteers — and puppies.

Bretagne, Kaiserin, Morgan, Papa Bear, Sirius, Socks and Thunder make up the class of 2013 at the center, which opened on Sept. 11 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

All of these pups, who have been donated by carefully selected breeders, are named for dogs who worked at the sites of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — and all of them will graduate with top-notch detection skills to sniff out everything from explosives to narcotics.

The privately funded center uses volunteers to assist in the training and socialization of the canine students, most of which are Labrador Retrievers, along with a Dutch Shepherd and a Golden Retriever.

Dr. Cynthia Otto, DVM, who has plenty of experience with detection dogs, oversees the Penn Vet's Working Dog Center. Dr. Otto has worked with the pups who helped search for survivors at Ground Zero. As an emergency and critical care veterinarian, she's also consulted with the military on the health of canines like Cairo, who took part in the daring Osama bin Laden mission in Pakistan with the Navy Seals.

As the center gets ready to celebrate its one-month anniversary this week, Vetstreet sat down with Dr. Otto to talk about the program and her star students.

Q. How does the Penn Vet Working Dog Center differ from other detection dog training programs?

A. Dr. Cynthia Otto: “Although many programs share parts of what we are doing, there are no programs that have the whole package. We are getting the pups at 8 weeks of age, and they live with foster families, so they come to our center from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, for foundation training. The early developmental exposure is critical, but even more critical is the data that we are collecting. We are looking at the program as a study to determine the best practices for raising, training and eventually breeding detection dogs.”

Q. What do you hope to learn while studying the dogs?

A. “We want to know the physical, behavioral, training, environmental and genetic aspects that contribute to a happy, healthy and successful detection dog. In addition, as a side benefit, we will be learning about how the interaction with these dogs benefits people!”

Q. How do you go about training a puppy?

A. “Our first step is to build play drive, so we set up an environment in which the puppy can have fun and chase a toy. We have them do that in all sorts of places, and on all sorts of surfaces, to build confidence. We gradually add in some obedience in a positive and fun way. As the dogs progress, the biggest goal is to get them to search for that toy they love so much. They will be coming to the center for approximately one year, but on any given day, a play or training session may last for minutes or up to an hour, depending on the pup.”

Q. How can you tell when a dog is best suited for certain kinds of work? 

A. “It varies based on physical and mental demands. Some types of detection work, like search and rescue, require a very independent and agile dog. Other types, like the USDA dogs at the airport, are best suited to quieter dogs who work well in a team. We will be learning about that matching process as we go forward, taking advantage of various screening programs that different organizations use to identify their dogs.”

Q. Where will the center's graduates end up working?

A. “We are training the dogs for all types of careers in detection. Based on need at the time, and the dog's personality and strengths, they will be purchased by or donated to organizations like the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) or search and rescue teams. The opportunities are really endless. Two of the female dogs who are most successful in explosives detection will serve in the University of Pennsylvania police force and be part of our breeding program.”

Q. What impact does detection work have on the health of dogs?

A. “The positive side is the mental and physical stimulation that makes a dog well-adjusted and maintains physical fitness. There are always risks, depending on the type of work, but we are trying to optimize the fitness and conditioning of the dogs to help minimize risk of injury. The dogs that responded to 9/11 were exposed to very hazardous environments, and as a whole they were not adversely affected.”

Q. They may be in training, but the puppies are just adorable. Do you get a chance to play with them too?

A. “Yes! This morning I arrived at 6:45 A.M. to be sure that I got to be part of the morning play session — it is the best way ever to start a workday!”