Eight new pups report for duty

More than half dozen 12-week-old black Labrador retrievers, called the U litter, are already deep into their training at the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Working Dog Center.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center trainer with puppy on the floor
Urban, a three-month-old black Labrador retriever, trains with Danielle Berger at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. Berger is leading the training for the U litter, composed of Urban and seven of her brothers and sisters, with assistance from interns including (left to right) Charlotte Kronick, Dominique Andrews, Trevor Vidas, and Tesa Stone.

More sure-footed and confident by the day, the U litter puppies of the Working Dog Center are not yet 3 months old, yet are already a month into their training to use their agile bodies and sensitive noses to serve society.

These eight pups, all black Labrador retrievers, also fit into a special category: They are WDC legacies, the first to be born to two “graduates” of the Center, mom Pinto and dad Boomer.

Since their arrival at the WDC, they’ve been gradually introduced to tasks that will guide them on to careers in search and rescue, disease detection, police work, and more. With help from several interns, lead puppy trainer Danielle Berger makes sure the labs, each named for victims of September 11, receive a balanced mix of training, socialization, and rest.

Earlier this month, Penn Today caught up with JUel, Ugo, Uli, Uman, Umar, Upton, Urban, and Uzza on a busy day of training, which, to an untrained eye, looks an awful lot like play—probably because, to the puppies, work and play are one and the same.

working dogs training
Though the U litter is graced with excellent pedigree—Pinto and Boomer both work in cadaver detection—they are still puppies with a lot to learn. “Play dates” with older dogs, such as Lucy, a Dutch shepherd, teach puppies like Ugo good social skills.  
U-litter puppy running at Working Dog Center seen through a round tunnel play structure.
Four U-litter puppies running through a tunnel and on mats at the Working Dog Center
A worker at the Working Dog Center holds a puppy who licks their face
One of the U-litter puppies at the Working Dog Center sits in a tunnel
The puppies get a mix of one-on-one training, group “puppy play dates,” and frequent snuggles, to ensure they’re skilled and well-socialized. When they’re not at the WDC, each puppy lives with a volunteer foster family.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center trainer with dog balancing on equipment
Cindy Otto, executive director of the WDC, works Casey, an older WDC dog, through training to improve strength, balance, and fitness. Otto drew inspiration to found the Center after caring for working dogs that responded to the 9-11 attacks. Each puppy that comes through the Center’s program is named for a 9-11 victim or working dog.
trainer in a box with a Penn Vet working dog
In a “runaway” drill, Drexel co-op intern Lauren Filipe hides in a crate, encouraging Urban to chase after her. The aim of the exercise is to elicit a bark from Urban, which will be her signal to her handler that she’s found the object of her search. Urban quickly obliged.
Trainer holds leash of Penn Vet Working Dog Center puppy at Pennovation Works campus
Located at Pennovation Works, across the Schuylkill River from Penn’s main campus, the WDC makes use of nearby buildings and open spaces to train the puppies and give them room to roam.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center trainer guides puppy across plank
Trainers erect various obstacles and challenges for the puppies to navigate, helping them improve their agility and also conquer any fears. “The genetics are shining through in these dogs,” says Berger, encouraging Uman to cross a narrow plank.