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Book tours can be tiring, but there’s nothing like being inspired by the work of the people of The Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia.  I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon there–basically an exercise in intellectual and emotional rapture.

In general, here’s what they do:Our goal is to increase collaborative research, scientific assessment, and shared knowledge and application of the newest scientific findings and veterinary expertise to optimize the performance of detection dogs.

Here’s more from their website:

The dogs “prevent crime and acts of terrorism, working alongside military, police, TSA, and the Department of Defense to find explosives and narcotics. Rescue victims of accidents or disasters, using expert search-and-recovery skills. Detect medical conditions such as ovarian cancer and alert people with diabetes when their blood sugar is out of normal range.”

They collaborate “with top minds at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the Monell Chemical Senses Center, Department of Defense, and Customs and Border Protection, among others. Innovation in collecting and analyzing genetic, behavioral, and physical data, and integrating the latest scientific findings to optimize the success and well-being of detection dogs. Sharing knowledge broadly with the medical and working dog communities as well as animal-lovers of all ages.”

And what did you do today?  See why I was so inspired? I was so lucky to have spent the afternoon with the Center’s founder, Dr. Cindy Otto, the staff and some of their dogs in training. The Center graciously put on a demonstration for me and my colleague Meg Boscov that began with Duke, the pup you see here learning the basics of scent detection. At five months of age, he was already a star, learning quickly to locate the target scent (within the wooden box), and then alert by sitting down beside it. Here he is pushing his nose into the box with the scent, right before sitting down to alert. Lots of well-timed clicking for a job well done!

Next we got a tour of how some of the scents are stored and handled, and how dogs are taught early on to discriminate between “scent and no scent” or “right scent and wrong scent.”  Here’s what I call the “scent wheel” (I made that name up, apologies). The scent is carefully placed into one of the “boxes” attached to the wheel, and then the wheel is spun around in between each trial to avoid location being a cue. Alerting to the correct box gets a click and a treat. I was especially interested in learning about the dogs taught to detect ovarian cancer, not as a diagnostic tool, but as a way for researchers to capitalize on the superior noses of dogs to better understand the chemistry of cancer, and then use that knowledge to make earlier diagnoses.

Some of the dogs trained at the WDC are search and rescue dogs (it was her involvement with 9/11 search and rescue dogs that motivated to Dr. Otto to create a center that integrates applied training and research on behavior and scent detection). The facility has a large area dedicated to “rubble,” the kind of area from which us mortals would keep our dogs away from. Here’s your own search task–find the good dog Sunny in this mess of stuff. He’s looking to rescue a “survivor”.

And here’s what he gets when he finds the victim; nothing like playing tug with someone smushed inside a concrete box.

Here are some more photos: Sunny being prepped by one of the lead trainers to search the rubble, Dr. Cindy Otto in front of the abandoned building they use for training police dogs to find the bad guy, the Center’s bathroom with a dog crate in it (how could you not love that?), hanging cans to condition pups to love pushing through noisy stuff, discs that hold the scent, and Jerry, a police dog in training, capturing the perp after using his nose to find him hiding in a maze of empty rooms.






All in all, an amazing and inspiring afternoon. If you would like to read more about the Working Dog Center, Alexandra Horowitz has an entire chapter about it in her book, Being a Dog. She spent a week there and I love what she wrote about it. Speaking of books, if you’d like to learn more about scent detection dogs and you love good writing, settle down with Scent of the Missing by Susannah Charleson and What the Dog Knows by Cat Warren.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm. I’m back, that’s about all I have the energy to say. I’m bushed but grateful to all the people I met on book tour, and to all the support I got about my memoir. Maggie is still on leash restrictions, one more week until we go back to the physical therapist to see if she can have a bit more freedom. I’ve never had a dog who wanted to work sheep more than Maggie, and watching her look toward the barn, look at me, look toward the barn–over and over again, isn’t easy. Here’s hoping. But I have to sign off now, time to get the sheep sheared this afternoon. A lovely reminder that spring is really here!