Penn Vet Working Dog Center: Training hairy heroes

When rescue crews responded to Ground Zero in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, one of the most important components were detection dogs who used their noses to find survivors in the rubble.

The work of those dogs was inspiration for the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, which opened yesterday on the 11th anniversary of the tragedy.

The center is headed by Dr. Cynthia Otto, a veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania, who treated the detection dogs at Ground Zero and at Hurricane Katrina. The nonprofit center will train a small number of dogs for detection, but primarily focus on research to help those in the field determine the best training and breeding methods.

“Not every dog can do this work. Your average pet dog’s not going to do that work,” Otto said. “They have to have the mental capacity, the physical capacity and the drive to actually persist at that.”

The research could prove particularly helpful given the shortage of detection dogs bred domestically. Most working dogs, even those used by the military, are European-bred, according to Otto.

The center will not only observe the behavior of the dogs, but will also analyze their DNA.

After the dogs complete their yearlong training, they will be sold or donated to local or regional law enforcement agencies, Otto said.

The two finest dogs will work with the University of Pennsylvania Police Department as their only detection dogs.

David Kontny, an official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said his agency will be keeping an eye on the work taking place at the center.

“I think we need to look to see what academia is doing across the country and really solidify that and take the things that they learn from research and apply it across the country, whether it’s with Homeland Security or [other] agencies,” Kontny said following the opening ceremony.

Otto said her hope is that the center will not only benefit those training detection dogs, but also yield some lessons for the average pet-lover.

“The information that we gather here … that has relevance to all of the different working fields, as well as some things that will be important for pet dogs that will help people learn to have a better relationship with their dog,” she said.

Named after Ground Zero

All of the dogs at the center are donated from kennels or breeders. While their breeds vary, Otto said it is important that the dogs are no more than a few months old, so that the training can begin when they are impressionable, but not scared.

“We’re interested in the health and performance,” she said.

As a tribute to the dogs involved in the 9/11 search and rescue, each of the seven dogs in the first class has been named after a dog who worked at Ground Zero. The center, which is funded through charitable donations, has also matched the dogs with foster families who are Penn employees.

As a nonprofit, the center is also looking for volunteers. Those interested in volunteering should visit the website,

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