“The vision for this place is so much bigger than the physical facility you see right now,” Otto is saying. She’s sitting in a tidy, white-walled office that overlooks the puppies’ indoor training area. The open space resembles a kids’ gymnastics facility, down to the padded blue floors. Lined up against the back wall, seven sleepy puppies doze in their wire crates.
The facility is tucked inside a 23-acre complex at 3401 Grays Ferry Avenue, formerly owned by DuPont, that Penn purchased in 2010. [For more on that site, see this issue’s “From College Hall.”] When Otto heard that Penn had acquired the site, she immediately began making calls, telling University officials: “I need that space.” She eventually secured a piece of it—about 3,500 square feet inside a building that formerly housed the lab workers’ gym. The private space was something she’d been wanting for a long time; the center itself, even longer.
Otto began working with detection dogs in 1994 as a member of the Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Rather than working as a dog handler herself, she helped document everything they did through photos and write-ups. After the 9/11 attacks, Task Force 1 asked Otto to join them in New York as an on-site vet for their deployed dogs [“When the Search is Over,” Sept|Oct 2002]. “I knew what these dogs did, I knew how they trained, but I never saw so many of them working so hard at the same time until 9/11,” she says. “It was incredibly moving and inspiring.”
She began to think about how this difficult work might affect the dogs later on and quickly launched the first long-term study on working dogs’ health and behavior—a study that’s still active today, more than 11 years later. She says the findings have been remarkable: “The dogs have not had the problems that the humans have. That piece is huge. On average, these dogs are living until they’re 12 years old. These are big dogs. That’s good. It turns out there’s something really good and beneficial about the work these dogs are doing.”
In running a first-of-its-kind study, Otto became further embedded in the working-dog community. She imagined a center that would focus on the broader scientific study of detection dogs, and eventually founded one at the vet school in 2007. “It was a great concept,” she says, “but there was no money and no space.”
Around the same time, she became aware of a working-dog shortage in the United States.
“We’re going to need to answer this deficit of dogs,” she said at a foster-parent information session last summer. “There are at least a thousand needed every year just to fill the spots of dogs who are retiring.” Her imagination began spinning again, and she pictured not only studying the science behind working dogs, but also breeding and training them.
Now, with her dream fully realized, Otto walks around the center beaming. With the proper training and close observation, she says, these dogs’ noses could help them do any type of detection work. They could be placed in fire departments, local law-enforcement agencies, in the military, or with a city’s port authority or the Transportation Security Administration. They could sniff out endangered plants or species, help kids with allergies avoid peanuts, even identify cancer cells in lab samples.
“There’s no limit—no constraints,” she says, smiling again. “In my mind, understanding what I do about how dogs smell and their cognitive processes in recognizing odors, I don’t think there’s anything you couldn’t train these dogs to detect.”
At the end of this inaugural year, the first class of puppies will move on to more specific scent-training programs based on their individual strengths and temperament. “One of these dogs that didn’t want to go racing over rubble and stones could totally be successful in another detection realm,” Otto says.
Inside the center’s new building, there are nearly 8,000 square feet that haven’t been allotted to the working dog program—yet. Some of the space houses vet school resources; the rest is empty. “We need that space,” Otto says, gesturing, “and then we need that building over there and that building over there and that one, too.” She isn’t one to get sidetracked by challenges or even impossibilities. This is, after all, a woman who taught her cat more tricks than most dogs ever learn.
She’s picking up speed now, barreling toward an expansive future. “I want this center to be the whole picture—the education piece, the research piece, the social-interaction piece, the cognition, the veterinary medicine: every aspect of our interaction with dogs and people related to these dogs and their work.” Under the Penn Vet Working Dog umbrella, she talks about creating an education center, a training center, a medical center.
“I’m a big-picture person,” she adds. “That’s why it’s so fitting to be a University center. I really want this to be one of those shared centers we have on campus where people come in from all different disciplines. Social work, psychology, biological basis of behavior. They can all own a piece of this. There is such huge opportunity here.”
“Cindy is just one of those people who has the big view and the broad view,” Griffith says later. “There are lots of people who dream, but Cindy has the skill and the energy and the ability to get it done, which is an amazing combination. Something was going to capture her imagination. How lucky are we that it was this?”
Something happens before Otto and I speak again.A brutal storm named Sandy tears through the East Coast in late October, leaving millions without power and causing billions of dollars worth of damage. People go missing. Working dogs are called in to help.
Several days after the storm, a news outlet reports on detection-dog Marci and her handler Jason Geary. Deployed from New York Task Force 2, they search a seven-story apartment building in Long Beach, New York, for people in need of help. Marci finds two elderly women who couldn’t hear rescuers’ calls. They do hear Marci’s bark, and open the door to discover the nine-year-old yellow lab, tail wagging with joy at her find.
Just like the determined little Sirius, she has won this game of Search; only this time, the stakes are far higher than a game of tug.
Molly Petrilla C’06 writes frequently for the Gazette and oversees the magazine’s arts & culture blog.