Soon, a four-legged officer will walk down Locust beside Penn students.
A 14-month-old yellow lab named Socks is the first dog to be a part of the Division of Public Safety’s Canine Unit. Socks and her handler, Officer Julie Wesley, will begin bomb detection training at K-9 Academy on Sept. 23 in Atlantic County, receiving 400 hours of training with some very dangerous explosive devices.
Socks will be put to use when dignitaries visit campus and in “one-off situation[s],” Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush said. Before Vice President Joe Biden spoke at commencement last year, there were five and a half hours of canine searches by a unit of bomb-sniffing dogs. If somebody calls in a bomb threat and it is decided that a dog is necessary, DPS no longer has to wait for a dog from the Philadelphia Police Department, who could be on the other side of the city.
“This is Penn. We draw important visitors and very often they require bomb [and] security sweeps. Having them in house makes all special events better and easier to deal with,” Captain Gerald Leddy, Captain of Staff and Administration, said.
Socks was one of seven puppies in the Penn Vet Working Dog Center’s first cohort, which will graduate next week. The Center — which trains puppies who graduate with specialties in unique tasks such as cancer detection and search and rescue missions — was started last year.
Socks was the star of her cohort at the Center. “She’s got a fabulous drive. She’s smart. She loves to work, or in her world, play, and she’s very focused,” training director Annemarie DeAngelo said.
Socks is the only dog at the Center who has been imprinted with “black powder,” or gunpowder. During a demonstration at the Working Dog Center, the trainer hid the black powder in one of dozens of hiding places in the room. Socks methodically sniffed through the room, walking back and forth while slowly zoning in on the scent. When she detected the black powder she sat down and looked back at the trainer for approval, who cheered and gave her a chew toy.
When the puppies first begin training at about eight weeks old, they conduct more basic tasks, such as playing with a leather tug toy or spotting one of the trainers who partially hides behind an object. The trainers then use treats and other reinforcements to condition the dogs to conduct more complex tasks, like sniffing for a hidden tug toy or trainer.
Beyond this training, the dogs must also learn basic agility, directional control — following instructions as to which direction to go — and obedience.
Before long, the puppies begin their human search training. The Center has created a giant pile of rubble with the help of a construction company to simulate a search and rescue situation. Once the trainer hides in one of the barrels located among the rubble, the dog is let off its leash and must find the trainer through scent. The dog must bark 10 times to signal that it has found the trainer, and then the trainer opens the barrel and gives the dog a chew toy as a reward.
“A search is a game,” DeAngelo said. “We teach them to associate whatever we want them to find with their toy so when they find their person or they find their explosive, at the end they’re finding their toy. Then they get played with and the whole thing is fun for them. They love it.”
Throughout the extensive training process, the Center’s workers begin to recognize the specialized tasks that each dog would be best at learning. “You can tell by their skills,” Cynthia Otto, the Center’s founder, said. “It’s how they alert and search — are they slow and methodical, or are they blasting through and trying to break down buildings to find the people trapped in them?”
Otto added that Socks has “been ready for months.”
“She is a very methodical searcher,” Otto said. “When she smells the odor she always sits, which is a really important thing for a bomb dog to do. She just lives to work.”
DPS and the Working Dog Center are co-owners of Socks. The two establishments hope that soon another female puppy at the Working Dog Center will be ready for a career in law enforcement and eventually join Socks as part of Penn’s Canine Unit.
With a second female dog, not only can DPS have twice as many hours with a dog on duty, but they can also breed one of the dogs without losing their Canine Unit entirely.
Wesley has already received some training at the Working Dog Center to learn basic commands and handling. When Wesley and Socks return from training, they will be certified as a team. Socks will live in her home at night and patrol with her during the day.
“What’s really unique about what Dr. Otto is doing is that the dogs are socialized,” said Rush. “If you take a look at Socks, she is as equally affectionate as she is a worker.”
“When she walks through the building you can literally see people’s faces light up,” Leddy said Leddy fosters a five-month-old German Wirehaired Pointer named Ditto, one of the Center’s other puppies. “She’s just one more ambassador for our department.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Captain Gerald Leddy is the Captain of Staff and Administration.Comments powered by Disqus
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