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Penn Vet Working Dog Center One-year anniversary celebration. Graduation ceremony Credit: Justin Cohen , Justin Cohen

The most enthusiastic Penn students just received their diplomas after only a year at school.

The Penn Vet Working Dog Center graduated its first group of puppies yesterday. The Center, a premier research and training facility that turns puppies into detection dogs, had its opening ceremony on last year on 9/11.

First up on the long list of speakers at the graduation was Joan Hendrick, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine. “I remember last year Thunder couldn’t walk up the middle aisle because he was too little and he had to be carried and now he’s a giant dog,” she said. “So many of our babies are growing up.”

Photos: Working Dog center first-year anniversary celebration

“We started with big ideas and small puppies,” said Founder of the Center Cynthia Otto.

“This was Dr. Otto’s vision,” said Training Director Annemarie DeAngelo in an interview. Otto performed research with 9/11 rescue dogs to see how they handled recovery after the rescue missions. With this in mind, the Center — whose puppies are all named after 9/11 rescue dogs —was founded to promote both the performance and health of all their canines.

Related: Penn studies working dogs from 9/11 searches

The Center has agility courses, a bark barrel field and a giant rubble pile collected with the help of a construction company to simulate real-world search and rescue situations.

“Their careers loom big and we come here to celebrate the opportunity that each of them has to save lives,” Otto said.

The puppies in the graduating cohort will go on to be part of a range of programs and activities. Thunder, a Labrador Retriever, will take part in further search and rescue training. Chocolate lab Papa Bear and golden retriever Bretagne will continue training elsewhere to become diabetic alert dogs. Most of the remaining graduating dogs will likely join local police and fire departments.

The yellow lab Socks, whom DeAngelo called “the star of the class,” will become the first dog in Penn’s Canine Unit. Socks and her new handler Officer Julie Wesley have already begun their 13-week “bomb-school” training at Canine Academy in Atlantic County.

Related: A day at the Working Dog Center

“We have a lot of dignitaries that come to the University,” said Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush. “It would be great to have our own dog to do a sweep to make sure it’s safe or in the event of a bomb threat that’s called in to be able to immediately ascertain the environment is safe.”

Related: Penn Vet opens new Working Dog Center

Each dog needs foster parents — who must go through a screening process and training of their own — to house the dogs when they’re not working in the Center. Craig Carnaroli, Penn’s Executive Vice President, fostered Socks during most of her time at the Center and now fosters one of the youngest puppies, a yellow lab named Gus.

Amie Thornton, Carnaroli’s wife, said that one time when she was playing with Socks, the ball went over the fence in their backyard. Thornton tried to go around and get the ball but when she came back, Socks was already there with the ball and trying to get back into the house.

“They’re sort of like the ducks on the pond,” Carnaroli said, referring to his dogs. “On the surface they look beautiful and calm but underneath their feet are paddling as quickly as possible.”

The ceremony was not just a farewell to the graduating class, but also a celebration of the progress that the Center has made in its first year, from its original seven dogs to the 16 they have now.

Through the help of volunteers, interns and fosters, the Center has had over 250 people working over 4,000 hours, according to Otto, and over 58 million people have heard about what they do. The number of trainers they have has doubled in size from last year, and as a totally donation-based organization the Center has received over $925,000 from over 200 donors.

“They really become adults and they’ve really grown into those footsteps — those pawsteps — that they were meant to fill. We now have new puppies that are growing into those steps as well,” Otto said. “The legacy continues.”

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