The search for temporary homes began months before the dogs arrived. Volunteer foster families would be charged with dropping the puppies off for school each morning and picking them up each night. They would provide loving homes during the dogs’ out-of-school hours and, perhaps above all else, they had to be prepared to say goodbye after a year, when the dogs would head off to their adult jobs.
“What we’re asking our fosters to do is extraordinary,” says Sarah Griffith, the center’s director of operations. She’s sitting at her desk, and over her right shoulder a dog-face clock ticks off the seconds with its wagging red tongue. “They respect what these animals are going to be asked to do as adults and they understand their role in cultivating that really beautifully. We’re all about the working aspect here, but when the puppies go home, it’s about socialization and just being a normal family pet.”
Of the seven foster families selected, almost all are Penn alumni. Joanna Ku D’07 and her husband Derek Conover D’08 WG’10, both dentists, always wanted a dog, but felt guilty leaving a puppy home alone all day. Not an issue with their foster puppy PApaBear, who spends his day training at the center.
“He has been a huge joy,” Ku says. “We take him hiking, we go to the beach; he’s gone swimming a few times. The biggest problem right now is walking him because he wants to eat everything!” Selected as the Class of 2013 class dog, Bear even went to Oktoberfest and Skimmerfest with his human classmates. (He reportedly abstained from both beer and bratwursts.)
Eileen Houseknecht Nu’86 had to make some lifestyle changes before her charge, Sirius, even arrived. “When I went to the foster meeting, they said you had to have the dog in a crate in the back seat of the car,” she recalls. “My heart sank. I thought, ‘I can’t transport him in my little convertible; what am I going to do?’”
She bought a used Honda Element with the manufacturer’s “dog-friendly” package—which includes an entry ramp and mounted fan to keep four-legged cargo cool—and has been driving Sirius around in it ever since. Her sporty convertible lives in the garage for now.
Houseknecht knows Sirius is one of the class’s top dogs, so to speak, and gushes over his achievements.
“The trainer tells me he’s able to focus sooner than a lot of other dogs she’s trained,” she says. “He really is good. He’s very focused, very driven, and he has tons of energy. He’s just tremendous.”
“They’re so proud,” Otto says of the puppies’ foster families. “They have these pangs of worry about what’s going to happen when they give up their dogs, but they’re so proud.”
“I try not to think too much about it,” Houseknecht says of that event. “I just want to enjoy my time with him. I know in the future I’m going to have so many happy memories, and I’m just going to appreciate being involved in such an important program.”
Penn Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli W’85 and his wife Amie Thornton C’84 WG’87 were among the first to submit their names in the foster-family lottery. (Some 70 people wanted the job, with only 14 slots available for seven full-time fosters and another seven backups.)
“We knew the deal going into it, and we know Socks will serve a higher purpose,” Carnaroli says. “She’s so well-suited for what she’s being trained for, but it’s still going to be difficult to say goodbye.”
The foster structure is another one of the center’s distinctive features. The Seeing Eye Puppy-Raising Program, for instance, places dogs in foster homes until they’re a year old; then they start school. Other programs put dogs in foster families but don’t send them to school five days a week. Puppies Behind Bars—in which service dogs are raised and trained by prison inmates—allows the pups little chance to see the outside world and experience typical home life during their formative years.
Both the foster and volunteer experiences offer still more material for the Working Dog Center team to collect and analyze.
“There’s a huge piece to study regarding the dogs’ impact on the people who come here,” Otto says. “We need to reach out to people in social work to help us explore that. I think we can learn a lot here about how humans and dogs benefit each other.”
“Dogs change people’s lives,” Kaynaroglu adds, “whether they’re saving them or just bonding with them.”