The working dogs of tomorrow just got themselves a new playground.
The Penn Vet Working Dog Center — which trains dogs to one day become service animals in a wide variety of areas — partnered with Home Depot to build a new agility course last week aimed at teaching key physical skills to the dogs.
About 40 people came out to the build last Saturday on Penn’s South Bank campus, where the entire agility course was constructed in a single day. The new course consists of about 15 different devices where the volunteers and employees of the Working Dog Center can practice crucial skills that their future jobs will require.
“Agility is huge part of what these dogs do,” Director of Operations Sarah Griffith said.
The new course will replace a much smaller version of the course inside, according to Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator Pat Kaynaroglu.
All of the dogs at the center, who have names like Socks, Tsunami and McBain, will one day work in a service area, such as acting as bomb-sniffing dogs, drug-sniffing dogs or even urban search-and-rescue dogs in the event of another September 11-style attack.
One of the new pieces in the agility course deals directly with this. The “rubble pile” consists of a large pile of wooden pallets, donated by Home Depot, which dogs climb on as they try to find a volunteer hidden inside a barrel inside.
Also assisting in last Saturday’s build were Boy Scouts from Wayne, Pa.’s Troop 129, as well as several brothers from Drexel University’s chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha.
Local carpenter Paul Esposito acted as foreman for the project.
“It’s incredible what people got accomplished in such a small amount of time,” Esposito, who owns his own small business, Esposito Enterprises, said.
He also noted that the course needs to have the ability to get harder and more unpredictable. “We tried to make sure the course would be ever-changing. Train dogs to do something, and in two weeks, they will memorize it, so just like when they’re out in the real world, we have to make it unpredictable for them.”
Other parts of the agility course include a piece where dogs practice their crawling skills, and Working Dog Center employees can adjust the height to make it easier or harder.
The designers of the course aimed for it to be flexible. “We tried to make sure everything was adaptable” to each dog’s strengths and weaknesses, explained Kanyaroglu.
Another device functions as a horizontal ladder about a foot off the ground, where dogs have to practice moving their front and hind legs independently of one another.
“It’s not the easiest thing for the dogs because it’s just not a natural motion for them,” Kanyaroglu said.
“You never know what each day is going to bring,” College senior Sarah Schlein, who volunteers at the center, said.
As the dogs get older and more physically skilled, they move up to more challenging pieces on the agility course.
“Just like elementary schoolers and high schoolers do different things in gym class, so do the dogs here,” Kanyaroglu said.
The dogs get daily lessons as part of their “curriculum” in areas like fitness, added Kaynaroglu.
The oldest dogs in the center are currently about nine months old, said Griffith.
The Working Dog Center now has 13 dogs in its care since its opening last September across the Schuylkill River from Penn. The animals arrive at two months old and stay through until they are 12 to 16 months old, according to Kanyaroglu.
The move was part of Home Depot’s Team Depot initiative, which seeks to donate tools, supplies and volunteers hours across the country each year.
Krista Salera, the Team Depot captain for her store in Folsom, Pa., said working on the project last Saturday was the right thing to do. “The project fit the bill entirely, because it’s in our community and helps these dogs that are going to make such a big difference one day,” Salera said.
She also added that Home Depot is currently in an ongoing relationship with the Working Dog Center to give the center its unused wooden pallets that go into moving materials.