Penn Vet Working Dog Center turns one, will graduate ‘rock star’ Socks

Socks. Credit: University of Pennsylvania Socks. Credit: University of Pennsylvania

Socks may have already been promoted to explosive detection school but today, she’ll graduate in a special ceremony from Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

“Socks is such a rock star,” said Cindy Otto, the center’s executive director, about the Labrador retriever. “She is so good.”

Otto and other staffers and volunteers have been working for the last year training more than a dozen dogs to sniff out bombs, explosive devices, even cancer. The center, funded entirely through donations, just reached its one-year anniversary.

Socks and the other canines are learning “foundation work,” Otto said. “We’re teaching them how to search—searching is what they live for.”

Using special training techniques involving toys, and even for Socks, black powder as gun powder, the dogs will eventually move onto fire departments, police departments or search and rescue efforts.

“It’s so natural for them,” Otto said. “We have been really excited by watching these dogs and how they work.”

It’s nature versus nurture, but after working with the dogs, Otto said both are equally important. The dogs — which also include springer spaniels and German shepherds — have hunting in their genes but also respond positively to the Monday through Friday training.

Socks rose through the program pretty quickly and will be joined today by her partner, Officer Julie Wesley of Penn Police. She and the other working dogs will do live search demonstrations after the graduation ceremony.

Socks with Office Julie Wesley. Credit: University of Pennsylvania Socks with Office Julie Wesley. Credit: University of Pennsylvania

The center has achieved more than Otto thought possible in the last year, which makes her even more excited for what the future holds.

“I think we’ve got a lot of opportunities not only raising the dogs but to be an education resource for other dog handlers,” Otto said. “So we can really address the unique features of the working dogs.”

The group has already done summer camps with junior high school students and may do breeding programs in the future.

“To know these dogs are going to save people’s lives is amazing,” Otto said. “They are going to make a difference all over the place.”

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