Army honors Penn Vet for commitment to working dogs

Cynthia Otto, an associate professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine and director of Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center, wasn’t expecting the special package that was delivered to her office on a Tuesday morning in February.

“It totally caught me by surprise,” she says. “Then I opened it and broke into tears.”

Inside she found an American flag and a certificate from the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps recognizing her and her colleagues for their dedication “to medicine, research and promotion of the health of working dogs.”

The declaration noted that the flag had been “proudly” flown in Afghanistan on Jan. 1, 2012, by U.S. troops “in support of missions utilizing military working dogs, in honor of you and your colleagues.”

Otto, who has treated and cared for working dogs for nearly two decades, says, “this was the most humbling and amazing honor one could imagine.”

Because of her extensive experience with working dogs and her expertise in critical care, Otto was invited to join an advisory group in 2010 with a focus on special operations military dogs. “We were tasked with coming up with the guidelines for how to address any kind of injury that dogs may encounter on the front lines,” she says.

Immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Otto was deployed to Ground Zero to provide veterinary care for the dogs enlisted to search the debris for human remains. Since then, she has also pursued research to determine whether those dogs suffered any long-term health effects.

Military working dogs can encounter circumstances that require specialized care, including unusually long bouts of work in harsh conditions, and even explosions. One of Otto’s current research projects focuses on how best to keep dogs hydrated, a particular challenge for canines working in the arid Middle East.

As for the special American flag, Otto says she plans to display it in the Working Dog Center, which will have offices opening in the fall.

“I can’t imagine a better place for it to go,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to the ongoing work I can do for these amazing dogs.”