Training a new generation of detection dogs

Breeding, research also a focus for Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Ribbon cutting ceremony

Buskar, one of several search-and-rescue dogs brought by their handlers to the opening of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. (Photos courtesy of John Donges/UPenn School of Veterinary Medicine)

The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine officially opened its detection dog training center on the recent anniversary of Sept. 11. The Penn Vet Working Dog Center will breed and train search-and-rescue and other types of detection dogs while also researching the components necessary for these canines to succeed.

Bretagne, Kaiser, and Morgan—SAR dogs that responded with their handlers to the 9/11 terrorist attacks—attended the opening ceremony. The first class of seven puppies, each named in honor of dogs who served during 9/11, also made their debut and were introduced to their host families.

Dr. Cindy Otto, the nonprofit center’s creator and director, deployed during 9/11 with the Pennsylvania Federal Urban SAR team and during Hurricane Katrina with AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Team-2 to assess and treat the dogs searching for survivors. Prior to 9/11, the public and most veterinarians were not familiar with the responsibilities and capabilities of dogs trained in search and rescue, according to Dr. Otto, who says the center’s work is needed for a number of reasons, including the lack of detection dog breeding programs in the United States.

“The center will develop the research so that we can improve the quality, performance, and health of detection dogs, particularly those that originate in this country, since so many detection dogs are imported from Eastern Europe and those sources are being tapped out. It will also be a resource for educating handlers, scientists, and veterinarians on the special needs of these dogs,” Dr. Otto said.

Even before the Penn Vet center officially opened, Dr. Otto was holding conferences and seminars, studying the health of the SAR dogs deployed during 9/11, and collecting detection dog DNA. One of her goals is for the center to serve as a national consortium for detection dog programs worldwide, providing them with the latest findings to optimize the success and well-being of the dogs.

“Now we are preparing to meet future demands and facilitating additional research by opening our detection dog breeding and training program that will implement, test, and disseminate the knowledge gained,” she said.

In addition to the ongoing 9/11 dog study, Dr. Otto said the center is researching hydration in detection dogs and investigating the health, behavior, and fitness of the puppies being trained for detection work. Annemarie DeAngelo is the center’s training director. DeAngelo developed and implemented the canine program for the New Jersey State Police Department, where she worked for 31 years until her recent retirement.

The two top female dogs from the inaugural class suited for explosives detection will join the University of Pennsylvania Police Department. The rest will go to various organizations or stay on for advanced training.

Another area ripe for investigation, according to Dr. Otto, is the role of the human-animal bond and the impact the dogs have on volunteers at the center, particularly veterans, parolees from puppy prison programs, and homeless youth. “We are excited to be responsive to the needs of the community and try to design studies that have impact in both the short and long term for the dogs and handlers,” she explained.

Dr. Otto says the Penn Vet Working Dog Center will complement much of the work at the Canine Detection Research Institute at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the nation’s largest dedicated academic research program for canine detection. “Our program really focuses on the puppies and how early influences impact future success,” she said. “And because we are completely funded by private donations, we have the obligation and the opportunity to be an open resource, something that is not always possible with military-funded projects.”

To learn more about the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, visit