By Dr. Larry Gerson
Everyone who is old enough to remember the events of 9/11 can recall in great detail the morning of the terrorist attacks. As I walked into my office that day, a veterinary technician rushed in and told me something dreadful had happened to this country. We immediately turned to the various media for details. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Twin Towers, we watched brave heroes start rescue efforts. Firefighters, police and paramedics were soon joined by search and rescue dogs trained to find human survivors and casualties.
These canine heroes were cared for by a team of specially trained veterinarians and expert rescue dog handlers who learned a great deal from 9/11. Based on that experience and evolving research work at the University of Pennsylvania, a new generation of rescue dogs is being trained.
At the university’s School of Veterinary Medicine, veterinarian Cindy Otto is directing the training of puppies named after the original 9/11 rescue dogs. Three full-time staff members are working with expert dog trainers and a team of volunteers to prepare these dogs to respond to the injury and damage caused by terrorists or disasters and to identify explosives or drugs.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the university’s Working Dog Center. As I walked through, I saw a chocolate Labrador retriever puppy learning to tolerate bathing in case he one day has to be hosed down in a decontamination tent. Anyone who has tried to bathe a young puppy knows the human bather can often end up wetter than the puppy. This puppy, named Papa Bear, was offered a spoonful of peanut butter as a reward for remaining calm during his bath and the strategy worked with great success.
Next, I saw two 4-month-old yellow Labs getting treats for successfully climbing ramps, walking on elevated platforms and negotiating over a crate positioned as an obstacle. A fourth puppy was getting treats as an incentive for not barking at strangers.
I saw Kaiserin, a highly reactive Dutch shepherd who demonstrated a remarkable ability to find her rawhide toy under a box that was hung on a wall far above her reach. To be successful, she had to climb a sizable barrier. Most immature dogs would have lost concentration during such a complex task, but this young puppy was focused on her goal. Was it genetics or training?
Families who foster these puppies drop them off in the morning and pick them up at the end of the day after hours of intense training. If the puppies pass a complete health and behavior training protocol, they will graduate and move to a program involving advanced training with a professional handler.
As hard as it will be for the puppies’ foster owners to give them up, these dogs will go on to protect and save lives in an elite corp as professional search and rescue dogs. I cannot think of a better example of the human-animal bond. The goal of this academic training and research effort is to build and train the best dog possible for the job of protecting human life and national security.
Currently, the majority of dogs involved in detection and protection tasks are imported from Europe. Now, the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school will lead the way in identifying and training dogs that have a superior aptitude and physical constitution for working in these difficult and dangerous situations. The university’s veterinarians, staff and volunteers are working to identify optimal combinations of health, genetics, behavior, nutrition, training, fitness and conditioning. The requisite skills for the humans training such dogs are love, consistency in training, positive reinforcement and devotion to the dog.
For more information or to contribute to this independently funded program (they accept donations of quality puppies), go to www.PennVetWDC.org.
Dr. Larry Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic in Pittsburgh, PA. His biweekly column in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette is intended to educate pet owners.