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Pat Kaynaroglu’s husband, Hakan, was in Turkey when the devastating Izmit earthquake struck in October 1999. More than 17,000 people died that day; many, trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings, couldn’t be found and rescued in time.

Though he frantically dug through the wreckage, Hakan couldn’t find his best friend until it was too late.

“He said to me, ‘If I’d had a search dog, I think my friend would still be alive,’” Kaynaroglu says. “A dog would have found his friend in minutes. I know how important the work is of these animals. It’s real work. It’s important work. They’re saving lives.”

Kaynaroglu has spent the last 20 years as a handler for search-and-rescue dogs, meaning she purchases, trains, and houses her own detection dogs, in addition to deploying with them. She’s raised three FEMA-approved canines and has helped in tornadoes, hurricanes, and missing-persons searches. Not long ago, her border collie Kody found a man with Alzheimer’s who had wandered off in the middle of the night. A human search team had already combed the same area without finding anything.

“We were out in the field, and Kody just took off,” Kaynaroglu recalls. “I heard, Bark, bark, bark, and when I ran over to him, he was circling around the man. It was November in New Jersey. The guy would have died out there if we hadn’t found him.

“My husband and I have both dedicated our lives to this work,” she adds. “What better place to be than a center that raises scent dogs?”

In the team Otto assembled late last summer, Kaynaroglu serves as a volunteer and outreach coordinator. Shortly before the center opened, she interviewed for the job and got it, then packed her car and drove east from Colorado. She started work within days of arriving in Pennsylvania. “For a dog lover and experienced handler,” she says, “this is a dream job.”

Otto’s experienced squad also includes training director Annemarie DeAngelo. The retired police major created the New Jersey State Police Canine Unit and served as the state police’s first narcotics-dog handler. She and her dog Buster were even awarded the National Detector Dog’s Case of the Year after helping uncover 1,200 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a tractor trailer. As DeAngelo herself puts it, “I’m getting paid to play with dogs again. It’s awesome!”

The puppies report to Working Dog School each weekday morning around 8 a.m. They stay until 6 or 7 at night, though a good chunk of that time is spent napping and relaxing. (They’re still babies, after all.) DeAngelo starts with the toughest work early in the day to deplete some of their puppy-in-the-morning energy: searches for people and toys; agility training; general exercise and fitness. Later on, they’ll have a practice vet visit or work on basic obedience commands, or maybe they’ll take a field trip on a public bus or train to practice self-control and staying calm amid chaos.

“The biggest concern I have with these puppies is fear,” Otto says. “The more things they’re exposed to while they’re young, the braver they’re going to be as adult dogs. Persistence and bravery are the two most important qualities in a detection dog.”

One morning in late October, DeAngelo takes the Dutch shepherd puppy Kaiserin outside for her daily search practice. An energetic assistant named Jonathan hides inside a nearby bush with one of the dogs’ prized leather tug toys.

When DeAngelo says “Search,” Kai races across the empty parking lot and up a flight of concrete stairs. Sensing Jonathan in the bush below—or maybe catching a whiff of the leather toy—she jumps straight off the stairs, into the bush and onto Jonathan. There’s no hesitation, no fear of falling.

A chorus of hoorays and good-jobs erupt from DeAngelo, Jonathan, and two volunteers. A guy named Mo calls it the “play of the week.” Praise abounds.

In fact, encouraging words fly through the Working Dog Center all day, ensuring that the dogs see their training as more play than work—or, better yet, that the two become indistinguishable. Did Thunder sit still while a volunteer attached his leash? Good boy, Thunder! Did Bretagne “stay” on command? Yay! Did Sirius retrieve a hidden plastic bottle? Nice! Good job! Hooray!

Between the puppies and the positivity, “it’s all so fun here,” Otto says. “Everything we do is based on the dogs having a good time and enjoying themselves. There’s no domination here; it’s about relationship building. That, to me, permeates this place. Some of the stories of our volunteers are heart-wrenching. There are people who come here and find a safe place. They find the ability to ‘be somebody’ with the dogs. It’s a healing place. You walk in and you just feel better.”

Mo began volunteering at the center the day after it opened. He’d been out of work on medical disability for five years by then, passing the days cooking, cleaning, and watching TV. He now rides his bike over from North Philly every morning before dawn, about five miles, and stays until the last dog has gone home for the day. He does “some of everything, really,” from bathing the dogs and cleaning up crate accidents to assisting on field trips and training exercises. He’s not paid for any of it.

“Instead of sitting at home, I just came here and gave my life to these dogs,” he says. “I love being here. That [jump] Kai did earlier? That just gave me 10 more hours of energy.”

When the center first put out a call for volunteers, the response was massive. Within a few weeks, more than 300 people had signed up. Kaynaroglu had to de-activate the online form. As of late October, 96 people had completed volunteer training. They come from all walks of life, Otto says, and range from 18-year-olds to retirees. Some are professional dog trainers; some are college kids who just miss their family pets. Based on experience and preference, they do everything from cuddling with the dogs to grooming them to helping input training and medical data.

“You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child?” DeAngelo muses at one point. “Let me tell you: it’s taking the city of Philadelphia to raise these puppies.”

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