Working Dog Center dog on ladder

They climb ladders, run through tunnels and play hide-and-seek in the snow. They also go for a dip in the pool and get a pilates workout.

Puppies learning to become search and rescue dogs will someday have very serious jobs. But when it comes to their training at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (WDC) in Philadelphia, it’s (almost) all fun and games.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center three dogs training on ladders

The dogs at the WDC are training to do a wide variety of detection jobs. Some will work in law enforcement, sniffing out explosives, fire accelerants and drugs; while others will participate in disaster recovery or have a medical focus, like detecting ovarian cancer or working as diabetic alert dogs. They learn through positive reinforcement and play — and fitness and obedience are keys to their success, too, says Dr. Cynthia Otto, a veterinarian who started the WDC and is the lead investigator in a long-term study on the health and behavior of detection dogs.

Dr. Otto was inspired to start the center after taking care of the dogs who searched for survivors and later for remains at Ground Zero after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As a tribute, the puppies are named for these canine heroes, as well as human rescuers and victims of 9/11.

Vetstreet talked with Dr. Otto to find out about the amazing ways the center trains puppies to do this vital search and rescue work.

Little Noses

Many of the dogs who’ve been trained at the WDC since it opened in 2012 were donated by breeders, and start classes when the puppies turn 8 weeks old — much earlier than most other working dog programs, which start at about a year old, Dr. Otto says. Recently, the center started breeding puppies, too.

By raising its own litters, the researchers there are able to study the impact of the dogs’ genetics — and follow their progress more closely from the outset.

When the puppies in its own litter were only three weeks old, the WDC team started introducing them to distinct scents in jars, including narcotics, arson and pepper. The researchers recorded the pups’ reactions to the smells. Dr. Otto said the idea of introducing the puppies to the scents wasn’t to figure out what they were interested in, but rather to stimulate the little guys’ neural pathways.

“The ones that we have that are our own litters, we do all sorts of environmental work with them from day one, basically, and we encourage the breeders to do the same sorts of things,” Dr. Otto says.

Getting the Basics

When the WDC trainees first start classes at 8 weeks old, they’re working on getting their “liberal arts degree,” explains Dr. Otto. “They get all of the foundational stuff for whatever it is that they might then show the most aptitude for. All of the dogs learn the basics of search, they all learn fitness, they all learn obedience, they all get exposed to different environmental stimuli. They all get the sort of basic curriculum.”

The adorable students live with volunteer foster families who drop them off for class each day at 9 a.m. and pick them up at 5 p.m.

As they grow up, they begin to show their trainers their natural strengths and abilities. Their curriculum is then tailored to fit that interest, Dr. Otto says. The puppies who go on to get their “master’s degree” in search and rescue often stand out in the crowd.

“Our search and rescue dogs are usually the ones who are a little bit more independent, they tend to be very confident — willing to just go anywhere, climb on anything, not have to constantly be looking back at the handler,” Dr. Otto said. They’ll need that attitude on the job.
“We tend to let the dogs tell us where they’re going to be most successful,” she said. “Some of them tell us when they’re 8 or 10 weeks old — we’re like ‘whoa, this one is so clearly going in that direction.’ And then, some change career paths, they change majors,” she says with a laugh.

Dog in a Box

Climbing in and out of boxes helps the dogs learn to be aware of their back ends.

The dogs’ training works in a progression, building upon what they’ve learned. The trainers keep it fun for the puppies. Some of the concepts they need to learn aren’t things you’ve likely given a lot of thought to — and neither has the dog. Case in point: how to maneuver their back ends.

“Dogs in general have really lousy backend awareness, so we have to build the concept that they have back feet and that they know what to do with their back feet and that they can control their back feet,” Dr. Otto says. “Most dogs have no clue. They just kind of ram forward and everything before them is in the world and everything behind them is just tagging along.”

One key to teaching the dogs how to control their individual legs is a game called “dog in a box.” The dogs are encouraged to explore a cardboard box, and to try climbing into it.

“A lot of dogs will climb in it with their front feet and then they get stuck. So it’s a matter of learning that they actually can pick up their back feet, one at a time and put them in the box. When they’re in the box it’s like, ‘let’s party!’ We have good fun with that,” Dr. Otto says.

Eventually they’ll work on obstacle courses and even learn to climb ladders. “When they’re walking on a ladder they have to step one foot then the other, then one foot then the other,” so knowing how to manipulate each individual foot is key.

The dogs also have to be nimble to work their way through wreckage at a disaster scene, so they’re introduced to many types of surfaces to walk on. “Our puppies will have puppy agility, which means that we put all kinds of silly things on the floor — maybe metal grates, we have a kids’ plastic slide, we have some wobbly things that they step on, and we just have them walk around on that and that’s just building confidence,” Dr. Otto says.

Hide and Seek

Naturally, the ultimate game for a search and rescue dog in training is hide-and-seek, or “puppy runaways.”

“You have a puppy and you have a toy that they think is really exciting, and one person is holding the puppy and another person has the toy,” Dr. Otto explains. “They show the puppy the toy and they get the dog excited like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my toy!’ They run and they sort of duck behind something super easy —like maybe a barrier of some sort or a desk — and the puppy gets to watch where the person went, so they run and chase the toy and try and find where they went, and when they do, woo hoo! It’s a big party and we play.”

Gradually this game gets harder for the pup. The person will hide in a place that’s not as obvious. “They start to learn that they have to use their nose, and they start to smell because they can’t see where the person went, and so that keeps building up and the environment gets more challenging,” Dr. Otto says. There are usually several people watching, so the dogs quickly learn that they have to find the specific person who’s the source of the reward — not just any person who’s hidden.

“We really don’t understand exactly how the dog figures all this out, but they do. It’s really cool,” Dr. Otto says. “It’s really important that they don’t know who is hidden because in a disaster situation, we don’t know who’s missing.”

Exercise and Obedience

One of the trainees learns to climb on tires at the center.

As you might imagine, all of this work means search and rescue dogs need to be in tip-top physical shape, too — and they require the obedience to work offleash in difficult locations.

The WDC prepares them for physical challenges and works to prevent injuries by helping them develop core strength like a gymnast.

“We do a lot of puppy pilates, core strength building exercises, flexibility, balance — we have a whole fitness program we call Fit to Work that we teach them, and all of our dogs have regular fitness sessions,” Dr. Otto says.

One of the fun parts for the dogs is swimming, which is another way for them to build their core strength. When they get a bit older, they work on stamina and endurance.

Obedience training is another important piece of the puzzle in the puppies’ liberal arts and masters degrees. The dogs need to be able to follow instructions and stop or turn on a dime for their safety.

Once they are 18 months old, they’re eligible to get their national certification.

Training Never Ends

So far, eight search and rescue dogs have graduated from the WDC, including some who are trained to find human remains.

A few of the dogs serve on multiple disaster response teams, at the national and local levels. One of the graduates worked at the scene of the May 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured hundreds. But the others — luckily, Dr. Otto points out — haven’t yet had the opportunity to be deployed to a major disaster.

While some dogs graduate from the WDC and start daily jobs working for the TSA or doing police work, for search and rescue dogs, their job is to continue to train — just in case.

“They train, and they train and they train and they train — they train 20 hours a week, every other weekend sometimes,” says Dr. Otto. “It’s really an intense commitment by these handlers, and a lot of these handlers, this is their volunteer time — they don’t get paid unless it’s a deployment. These are really dedicated and committed folks."

But as long as the training remains a big game, these dogs will continue to love every minute of it.

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