On a crisp blue sky morning at the South Bank campus, Thunder sits quivering on the opposite end of a leash from his handler. Thunder is ready to roll.
The 14-month old chocolate Labrador Retriever is a member of the inaugural class of seven canines at the University of Pennsylvania’s Vet Working Dog Center program that trains and researches detection dogs. Sometimes referred to as “sniffer dogs,” they utilize their sense of smell to identify and uncover particular odors associated with explosives, drug stashes, or missing people in search-and-rescue operations.
Wearing a helmet, heavy clothing and thick canvas gloves, trainer Jonathan Bell has already scrambled over a mountain of broken pallets, concrete blocks and rubble to drop himself into one of several half-buried plastic barrels. Bell yanks a wooden lid tight over the opening.
Roughly 100 yards away Thunder’s leash is unclipped and the command “Find!” is given. Thunder tears across the scrap yard, scaling the mountain of rubble to launch a frenzied, yet methodical search. The Lab stops to sniff a barrel where Bell climbed in and out. Then he zeroes in on the one where Bell is hiding. Thunder barks loudly 25 times. Suddenly, Bell’s hand pops up through the lid into the sunlight presenting Thunder with a hefty rope, and a brisk game of tug-of-war commences. “Attaboy, Thunder, thank you for finding me,” Bell shouts in congratulations.
"Thunder is what you want in an urban search-and-rescue dog," observes Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD, Director of the Working Dog Center and Associate Professor of Critical Care at Penn Vet. "He is bold, he is strong, he has no fear on the rubble, and he will search like a machine, which is exactly what you want in a disaster setting."
Located just off Grey’s Ferry Avenue in Philadelphia, Penn’s facility is the brainchild of Otto. She helped care for the dogs that scoured Ground Zero, searching for survivors in the aftermath of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. To honor their legacy, each member of the center’s first class of puppies has been named for a 9/11 dog: Bretagne, Kaiserin, Morgan, Papa Bear, Sirius, Socks, and Thunder.
"I spent ten days at Ground Zero taking care of the working dogs there and recognized what an incredible gift those dogs are to our society and how important they are," says Dr. Otto, a longtime emergency clinician at Penn's veterinary school.
Donated by elite breeders across the country, the dogs spend evenings and weekends in foster homes with volunteers who care for them. Once the dogs finish the program they will enter the working world. Police and fire departments, urban search and rescue, airports and public transit systems in the region have expressed significant interest in acquiring dogs from Penn Vet program, though funding can be an obstacle. The canines cost $10,000 each, with the money going to defray the costs of training.
Socks, a yellow Labrador Retriever, has joined the UPenn police force as the first canine cadet who will detect explosives on campus in her new role. Ronnie, a German Shepard, and Kaiserin, a Dutch Shepherd, have been placed with SEPTA, Philly’s transit system. Thunder and Sirius are nearing placement in search and rescue. PApa Bear, another chocolate Lab, and Bretagne, a mellow Golden Retriever, will become diabetic alert dogs, able to help their owners determine if their blood sugar is getting low.
Smell is a dog’s primary sense. It is said to be a thousand times more sensitive than ours. Consider this: a dog has more than 220 million olfactory receptors in his nose versus only five million for humans. A dog’s nose is normally cool and wet. The secreted moisture captures dissolved molecules in the air and brings them in contact with specialized olfactory cells inside the dog’s nose for further identification and recognition.
Sniffing maximizes detection of odors. Not part of a dog’s normal breathing pattern, sniffing collects those odor molecules which are then transmitted as nerve impulses to the dog’s brain. This action allows a dog to process and recognize a specific scent.
Robust fitness is a key component to the Working Dog Center’s training program. The pups start the program at only eight weeks, training five days a week honing and developing their natural instincts to play with toys, desire food, chase and hunt. Building these drives creates a solid foundation on which a successful detection career is based.
Adjacent to the mountain of rubble is a half-acre “industrial strength” agility course. Trainer Donna Magness works with Thunder over jumps one meter high, up and down an “A” frame and then a climb up a ten-foot slick metal vertical ladder. The energized Lab crawls through a tunnel with corners and dead ends, onto a huge teeter-totter and finally across a suspension plank ten feet off the ground. Thunder negotiates all of the obstacles off leash alongside Magness who is moving at a moderate jog.
“A lot of it (agility course) is not the easiest thing for the dogs because they are not natural movements for them,” explains Magness, a Chadds Ford resident who works five days a week at the center.
“As the dogs get older and more physically skilled, they move up to more challenging pieces on the agility course. I don’t rush it, try and keep it safe so no one gets hurt. The dogs feed off your confidence and build their own.”
These canines are smart, agile and obedient. But it’s their high play drive that enables them to relentlessly look for a missing person in a search and rescue operation. How the handler reacts when the person is found is a key part. The dog has to think it is great fun to find someone. At disaster sites, the animals work off leash, operating with a degree of independence almost unknown even in the rarefied realm of elite working dogs.
They crank out 12-hour shifts for days on end, able to distinguish between the individual scents of hundreds of rescuers working at a disaster site and that of a single victim still trapped beneath tons of debris. A pair of dogs can do the work of dozens of people, able to quickly sniff around suburban homes and zip through apartment hallways with far greater accuracy than their slower human counterparts.
Trainer Annemarie DeAngelo calls Socks “the star of the inaugural Penn class.” She and her new handler Officer Julie Wesley completed their 13-week bomb school training last fall at the Canine Academy in Atlantic County, N. J. Socks trained in everything from crowd control to building, field and article searches, as well as tracking and handler protection.
"It takes a while to build that bond, but once it’s built, it’s indestructible,” relates DeAngelo, retired from the New Jersey State Police canine division and now working at Penn Vet.
“We have a lot of dignitaries that come to the University,” says Penn’s Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush. “We wanted our own dog to do a sweep to make sure it’s safe or in the event of a bomb threat that’s called in to be able to immediately ascertain that the environment is safe. Socks received the best training possible. We know that she will be an invaluable asset to our team.”
Some of these detection dogs might work until they’re eleven years old. Others, like police and military dogs who work in more strenuous environments, tend to retire much earlier.
Exciting new projects are also underway. Members of the second group of dogs to join the program-- Ohlin, a chocolate Labrador Retriever; McBaine, a Springer Spaniel; and Tsunami, a German Shepherd-- are in training to detect early-stage ovarian cancer in women.
“By utilizing the acute sense of smell in detection dogs in conjunction with chemical and nanotechnology methods,” Dr. Otto explains, “we hope to develop a new system of screening for ovarian cancer using analysis of odorants to facilitate early detection and help decrease future cancer deaths.”
As the Working Dog Center looks to the future, the legacy of the inaugural class will be carried forth by the next generation of puppies, including newcomers Pacy, Ditto, Jesse P, and Gus.
“We’re still nowhere near the limit of what we can achieve by combining this amazing sense of smell with the special bond between dogs and humans,” Dr. Otto observes. “For me, it’s a dream come true, but it’s only the beginning.”