Raising working dogs, fostering safer worlds

People welcome puppies into their homes for a host of reasons: to rescue them from a harsh life in a shelter, to teach their children responsibility, or just to bask in their utter cuteness. But over the last year, families in the Philadelphia area have opened their homes and hearts to 16 special dogs for a most virtuous cause: to play a part in preparing the canines for careers in police work, search-and-rescue missions, and other life-saving positions.

From Monday to Friday, during the workday, these 16 puppies train hard at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (WDC), which serves to research, train, and support working dogs and their handlers. But in the evenings and on weekends, the puppies nap, eat, play, and snuggle in the homes of their foster families.

Cathy Von Elm, special projects coordinator in the Dean's Office in the School of Arts & Sciences, wanted to get involved as soon as she heard about the center. In February, she began fostering a then 2-month-old German shepherd named Ronnie.

“He makes me laugh every single day,” she says.

Having an energetic, focused puppy around has been a positive force for the other furry member of Von Elm’s family as well.

“I have a 10-year-old Cardigan Welsh corgi named Auggie,” Von Elm says. “Since Ronnie came, he’s more active, more interested. It’s revitalized him.”

Penn Vet picks up the tab for all of the puppies’ veterinary care, vaccinations, grooming, food, and crates. In return, foster families nurture the dogs at home for a year, promoting the obedience and socialization the dogs will eventually need when they “graduate” from the WDC, move in with their handlers, and begin their careers.

There are definite do’s and don’ts that are important to be aware of when raising the WDC puppies, which are bred for their drive. Von Elm laughingly recalls examples of Ronnie’s persistence, such as the time he waged a 10-minute battle for a ball with a border terrier, and his tendency to carry and bang his food bowl around the house.

She says caring for Ronnie makes her feel part of something larger.

“Since I agreed to take Ronnie, there were the storms in Oklahoma and there was the building collapse in Center City,” Von Elm says, disasters in which detection dogs played critical roles. “You hear about these things in the news, and sometimes you feel so helpless. But here is this dog I’m helping to raise. I have a really strong sense that he is going to be a lifesaver.”

The Working Dog Center is currently looking for more foster families who are willing and able to care for their detection-dogs-in-training for roughly a year.

For more information, visit the Working Dog Center’s training webpage.

Working Dog Adoption