There is a long history of working dogs guarding the homestead and groups of domesticated food animals. However, Cindy Otto, DVM, PhD—the Executive Director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (WDC, pennvetwdc.org)—asserts that dogs can do so much more, particularly with their keen sense of smell, including locating bombs, finding trapped victims, and possibly even detecting ovarian tumors. There is a growing recognition of dogs as service animals, and events, such as 9/11 and the Oklahoma tornadoes, emphasize the need for detection dogs that work side by side with human rescuers. The Penn Vet WDC specializes in researching detection methods, training detection dogs, and educating the community and professionals. In this interview with Today’s Veterinary Practice, Dr. Otto expounds on the capabilities of service dogs and describes the current events happening at Penn Vet WDC.
What are service and working dogs capable of contributing to society?
Dogs still have so many valuable, and even unknown, contributions to share due to their ability to communicate and respond to people. There is an increasing interest in the use of dogs to assist with emotional disorders, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, and also provide emotional and therapeutic support to kids with autism. The WDC, a national research and development center founded in 2007, aims to further the research into what dogs are capable of—with an emphasis on their role in detection, how to train them, and how to care for them.
What makes the Penn Vet WDC unique?
Located in Philadelphia, the WDC provides its puppies with regular exposure to a busy urban setting, which replicates the environment that they will often be expected to perform within as full-fledged detection dogs. The WDC has three research priorities.
- Research: The WDC is a signature initiative of one of the nation’s leading schools of veterinary medicine and our activities are bolstered by the world-class talents of the entire Penn community—clinicians, scientists, and students. Research and data collection are embedded within every component of our Center and findings are used to continually refine and enhance our offerings while reaching out through public service and engagement.
- Training: The Puppy Foundation Training Program is based upon the rigorous requirements of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Canine Search and Rescue National Standards, and the core skills of search, agility, and obedience will prepare dogs for any detection-based career.
- Education: The Penn Vet Working Dog Conference (June 5–8, 2014, Philadelphia) is designed to bring together scientists, veterinarians, program managers, and handlers from around the world to share best practices and scientific data in the art and science of raising and training working dogs. In addition we have internships, educational outreach, and a new Working Dog Practitioner Certification program, which will launch at our June conference.
Our research feeds into training programs, such as those for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Search and Rescue dogs, constantly improving upon their high performance standards for training dogs and their handlers. This training is based on the difficulties faced after the Oklahoma City bombing and ongoing lessons learned from subsequent events, from natural disasters to terrorist attacks. Based on our work and research, positive reinforcement is consistently recognized as the foundation for good training programs. Using these training methods, we are working on a novel project to utilize dogs’ keen sense of smell to help develop a screening test for early ovarian cancer, which has the potential to save the lives of a significant amount of women. Dogs are already successfully used for seizure detection and diabetic monitoring; it is exciting to know that they may be able to sense medical diseases, particularly those that cause a change in scent.