A decade of advancing working dogs for the greater good

Inspired by her experience caring for working dogs following 9/11 at Ground Zero, Penn Vet Working Dog Center Director Cynthia Otto’s initial vision has grown into a thriving organization with a mission to use science to improve the breeding, training, care, and effectiveness of working dogs.

close up of demo at working dog center anniversary event
Trainer Danielle Berger works with Jessie, an 8-month-old black Labrador retriever in training at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, demonstrating a series of exercises intended to improve agility and fitness. The Center celebrated its 10th anniversary on Sept. 11, and has graduated more than 130 dogs into lifesaving careers in search and rescue, law enforcement, and more.

In her remarks at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (WDC) last weekend, founder and executive director Cynthia Otto shared the stories of two of the dogs trained through the center—Thunder and Rookie—as examples of how sometimes, a path to success can be circuitous, protracted, or simply not obvious from the start.

Thunder, a chocolate Labrador retriever, was a sleepy seven-week-old puppy when the WDC marked its launch on Sept. 11, 2012. “Even after several months of training, he still hadn’t declared his major,” Otto said. But the training team didn’t give up on him, and at around a year of age, “he woke up.” Thunder became an urban search and rescue dog and, together with handler Spring Pittore, continues to deploy on lifesaving missions with FEMA’s New Jersey Task Force 1.

Along those same lines, Rookie, a German shepherd, was initially a “low-energy puppy” more interested in cuddles than training. Yet one day, “a switch flipped,” Otto recalled, and Rookie’s fierce side emerged, her potential as a law enforcement K9 becoming apparent. Today Rookie is what’s known as a dual-purpose K9, able to both restrain perpetrators and sniff out explosives in her work with Officer Jeff Seamans of the Lower Merion Police Department.

working dog center event in the pennovation center
cynthia otto speaks at the working dog center event
police demo at penn working dog center event
working dog demo in pennovation center parking lot
Nearly 300 people with ties to the Penn Vet Working Dog Center celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Pennovation Center. Founder and director Cynthia Otto (top right) offered reflections on the Center's past and her hopes for the future, and attendees were treated to meet-and-greets and training session demonstrations.

Like the career trajectories of these two dogs, the success of the WDC was not always a given. Developing such a center had been Otto’s dream since she cared for the working dogs deployed in a search for survivors at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks. It took another decade for it to become a reality, situated in its own space at Pennovation Works with seven wriggly puppies, a small staff, and a cadre of committed volunteers.

Fast forward 10 years and the WDC is thriving. To date, the Center has graduated 131 dogs into careers in search and rescue, law enforcement, medical detection, and more, with a 94% success rate in placing its puppies in “jobs.” Beyond the furry graduates and trainees, the Center has touched the lives of hundreds of people, too, from middle school students who have learned what it means to be a canine handler, to foster families who have opened their homes to puppies in training, to police departments who have received training or purchased dogs to augment their capacity, to scientists who have investigated a dog’s ability to perceive the smell of the most minute quantity of a target scent.

Representatives from each of these groups and more were among the nearly 300 people who gathered on a rainy Sunday afternoon in the Pennovation Center to celebrate the past 10 years of the Center, learn about its future initiatives, and marvel over the tremendous skill of the Center’s fit and intelligent dogs.

Growing momentum

In the wake of 9/11, Otto led a longitudinal study tracking the health and behavior of the dogs that deployed to that disaster. As an emergency and critical care veterinarian, she was driven to learn more about how best to prepare working dogs for their careers and care for them on the job and off. She couldn’t help but also remark at the charisma of the dogs themselves, bringing light into dark moments.

working dogs at ground zero on 9-11
Otto (back row) served at Ground Zero, caring for the search-and-rescue dogs that deployed there following the 9/11 attacks. The experience catalyzed a research project that laid the foundations and provided inspiration for the Center’s launch. (Image: Courtesy of Cynthia Otto)

“My 10 days with the team at Ground Zero reinforced the importance of these heroic canines and their impact of their presence on the morale of first responders,” said Otto at the anniversary celebration, sharing a photo of three firefighters petting working dog Logan during a moment of down time.

After Penn acquired the Pennovation Works property in 2010, she recognized the chance to bring her vision to life. Key staff members have bolstered the WDC’s work from its earliest days, including Training Director Annemarie DeAngelo and Training Manager Pat Kaynaroglu, later joined by WDC Associate Director Vicki Berkowitz and Law Enforcement Training Coordinator Bob Dougherty.

training dogs at the penn working dog center
Urban, only three months old at the time, trains with Berger, assisted by interns Charlotte Kronick, Dominique Andrews, Trevor Vidas, and Tesa Stone. Urban, now nearly three years old, has since graduated and serves as a search and rescue dog with FEMA’s New Jersey Task Force 1.

Begun in one room in an old gymnasium on the former DuPont lab property, the WDC has expanded to fill a building, growing its team of staff as well as students and volunteers to number in the hundreds. A slew of publications detail the findings Otto and colleagues have generated. The WDC has honed its focus on scent detection dogs, training most of the puppies that come through its doors for careers in search and rescue and law enforcement. Yet they’ve also embraced new opportunities in recent years, developing partnerships with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and Pennsylvania Game Commission, for example, to leverage dogs’ ability to sniff out the invasive spotted lanternfly and the devastating chronic wasting disease of deer, respectively.

“Cindy and the team have a holistic approach to training dogs, that considers the well-being of the dogs, their behavior, their physiology, their nutrition, their fitness,” says Andrew Hoffman, the Gilbert S. Kahn Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “They have produced rigorous science and shown they can work across different environments, with different partners. The sky is the limit for what they can achieve.”

Focus on the next 10 years

Otto spent time at the celebration looking forward, to the many goals that she and her ambitious staff have for the WDC.

“Our vision is to expand our physical, intellectual, and collaborative research,” Otto said.

Top among their priorities is to lean into training dogs for law enforcement careers. The Center aims to acquire a dedicated training space for this work, Otto said, “ideally in West Philadelphia, where we can partner with local leaders to be a positive impact for the community, including engaging youth at risk in positive programming.”

As their partnership with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Penn Vet’s Wildlife Futures Program continues, Otto noted, the WDC would also like to establish a training certification program with a focus on detecting environmental hazards and wildlife disease.

There are a lot of people who have walked through our door feeling lost and found themselves here, carved out a purpose for themselves. Cynthia Otto, Penn Vet Working Dog Center founder and executive director

Now with 10 years of research and experience behind them, the WDC plans to continue sharing that expertise. Whether that be through supporting other organizations interested in implementing similar working dog training programs, building an educational platform to facilitate sharing research findings, and offering outreach to veterinarians, scientists, and the entire working dog community, Otto and her colleagues want to ensure all have access to the most up-to-date and rigorous science to enhance the ability of working dogs to save lives.

Making dogs—and people—better

At the 10th anniversary event, a series of demos conducted in an increasingly steady rain put the dogs’ skills, and their trainers’ and handlers’ commitment, on full display. Rookie and her handler Seamans performed an “article search,” the K9 sniffing out the location of a fake gun planted in a field outside Pennovation Works. Eight-month-old black Lab Jessie worked with trainer Danielle Berger to show off the carefully thought-out warmups and fitness routines that keep WDC dogs in top shape. And trainers working with Dutch shepherd Kali, who is just three months old, demonstrated how the WDC evaluates puppies’ aptitude and drive by seeing how well she fixated on a toy despite distractions.

Spring Pittore, Pinto, Thunder, and Eileen Houseknecht
The anniversary celebration served as a reunion for the many handlers, foster families, volunteers, students, donors, and staff who have been involved with the Working Dog Center. Eileen Houseknecht (right), a former foster “parent” to a puppy, visits with search and rescue dogs Pinto and Thunder and their owners and handlers, Pat and Spring Pittore.

The dogs were—inevitably—the stars. But forging connections between people has been at the heart of the WDC since the beginning. Part of that includes welcoming students with interests that range from nutrition to video production to criminology. Kai Cummings, who attended the Sunday celebration, was a high school student when he walked in the WDC doors in January 2019. His first tasks involved assisting Berger, taking videos of the dogs, and doing administrative work. He returned the following January, becoming more immersed in training. Now a third-year student at Cabrini College, Cummins hopes to go into veterinary medicine and says the “foot in the door” at WDC was a major reason he’s excited about his path.

Sienna Robinson, a fourth-year student at Penn, traces back an even longer history with the Center. As a seventh grader in Philadelphia, she attended the WDC Canine Handler Academy, a summer program for middle schoolers interested in getting hands-on experience with working dogs. She was hooked, later serving as a counselor for the program and convincing her hesitant parents to serve as a foster family for two of the Center’s dogs, Pearl and Kinsey.

fostering dogs at the penn working dog center
Foster families, like Penn staffer Heather Calvert, shown with her former charge Ugo, are integral to the Center’s operations.

Robinson decided to attend Penn as an undergraduate and continued volunteering at the Center. Now a neuroscience major, she works in the kennel one day a week and hopes to attend veterinary school. “These dogs are so different from regular dogs,” she says. “It’s really cool to see them work.”

Pat and Spring Pittore, a married couple who both volunteer as K9 search and rescue handlers, have owned three WDC graduates. They attended the event with 8-year-old Pinto, who birthed two litters of puppies for the Center, and the late bloomer Thunder, now a 10-year-old with a fair amount of white fur in his muzzle. Pat Pittore noted that the Center has been “an incredible resource” for him, his wife, and the entire working dog community. “Normally it’s 1 in 100 dogs that can make it as a working dog,” added Spring Pittore. “To have the Center do the screening and get them most of the way there with training has been tremendous.”

Foster families are another linchpin of the Center’s operations, caring for dogs during the evenings and weekends when they’re not training, and providing the socialization that’s so essential to the WDC’s approach. The difficult part for many fosters is saying goodbye when it’s time for the dogs to enter their careers and join their handlers’ families.

Many foster “parents” were in attendance over the weekend, showing off photos and admiring their former charges. Eileen Houseknecht fostered a puppy from the Center’s first class, a yellow Labrador retriever named Sirius. He’s now a search and rescue dog in New Mexico, and Houseknecht stays in touch and occasionally sends gifts for Sirius to enjoy. “His handlers send me videos when he opens them,” Houseknecht said. “He has some gray in his fur now, but he still looks great.”

After a few hours catching up with old friends, volunteers, staff members, and others at the anniversary, Otto reflected on the significance of the WDC for the many people who are part of it. “There are a lot of people who have walked through our door feeling lost and found themselves here, carved out a purpose for themselves,” she said.

And with the WDC’s uncertain beginnings in the distant past, Otto now sees a legacy that will last far beyond the next decade.

“I’m so incredibly proud of what we’ve built,” she said. “I put in the infrastructure to put up this pole barn, and all these other people put in the floors, the walls, the décor, all the things that make it a home.”

new litter of penn working dogs
(Homepage image) Puppies at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, like these black Labs of the “U litter,” begin their formal training at the tender age of 8 weeks, an unusual feature of the program. Playtime is an important part of that preparation, building confidence and improving physical and social skills.