What inspired the formation of the Working Dog Center (WDC)?
The WDC was originally founded in 2007 to address the research and education needs of the working dog community. The inspiration came from the experiences of founder and Director, Dr. Cindy Otto, working with FEMA Urban Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs, specifically those on Pennsylvania Task Force One. Caring for and monitoring SAR dogs through training and deployments (including hurricane Floyd and 9/11), Dr. Otto saw the importance of these dogs and the need for more knowledge to ensure their optimal health and performance. The vision expanded to include other working dogs including those in the military and police. Recognizing the national shortage of high quality detection dogs and the reliance on foreign suppliers, the WDC opened its Puppy Foundation Training Program (PFTP) on September 11, 2012 as a legacy to those dogs who served at the 9/11 disaster sites.
What breeds of dogs do you select for the WDC Puppy Foundation Training Program (PFTP)?
We select dogs not based on the breed but based on the health and performance history of their pedigree. We do have a majority of Labradors because there are many excellent kennels in the United States that are producing high drive dogs with certified healthy parents.
Why does the WDC not use shelter dogs?
We recognize that there are many dogs that need homes and some of those dogs need jobs. We also recognize that the type of work we are asking our dogs to do is highly specialized and the combination of top performance and health both have strong genetic influences. We are pleased to know and work with programs that screen dogs from shelters for various working roles, we also know how hard they have to look and how few dogs actually succeed in programs (current estimates suggest 1000 shelter dogs are screened for every one that is successful). There is a large demand for working dogs and not enough dogs available for all of the jobs. Currently the majority of working dogs in this country are imported from breeding programs in Europe. We believe that we can identify and select for better and healthier dogs with a breeding program in this country, similar to what is done with many of the service dog organizations. We also hope that the research we are doing in the genetics and training aspects will help other organizations be more successful in identifying those shelter dogs that will excel in working roles.
What are you training the WDC dogs to find?
Our program is a foundation program, which means we are teaching the dogs the basic skills necessary for a successful career in detection. We like to think of it as a liberal arts degree that will prepare them to go on to the advanced training that best suits their physical and behavioral strengths. Our dogs currently search for their favorite toy or for a concealed person (any hidden person). After completion of our foundational training, our dogs are prepared for careers in different detection disciplines including search & rescue, explosive, narcotics and medical detection.
How do your dogs search?
To ensure they will succeed in any detection program, our dogs learn to confidently search independently (off leash) as well as on leash. They use “air scenting” to identify the slightest trace of odor and follow it to the source.
How does the dog alert you when they find the source of the odor?
We typically start by teaching an active alert (e.g., scratch or bark) and may progress to a passive alert (sit or down). The final alert will be determined by what odor the dog is trained to detect. We also take advantage of a dog’s natural tendency to respond, so if a dog spontaneously offers a passive alert (sit) when they identify an odor, we will develop and reward that response.
When does training start?
Puppies start training from the day they join the program at 8 weeks. They spend at least 8 hours a day Monday through Friday in the WDC to learn the basics of search, agility, fitness, impulse control, obedience and drive. Our puppies also participate in age appropriate exercises, gradually developing the skills that they will need as working dogs.
How is your program supported?
Our program is entirely funded by private donations and grants.
What makes the WDC program unique?
Our program is the only detection dog training program that combines the rigors of intensive daily training (conducted at the WDC) with the socialization benefits of family living (dogs stay with their foster families in the evenings and on weekends).
Our dogs are placed in a detection field that best utilize their physical and behavioral traits and meet the national demand.
Our robust Volunteer Corps regularly interact with the dogs, providing invaluable socialization for the dogs and meaningful engagement for the volunteers.
As part of Penn Vet and the University of Pennsylvania, the WDC is bolstered by the world class talents of Penn clinicians, scientists and students.
Research and data collection are embedded in every phase of the training program, ensuring that the profession and all dogs will benefit from our work.