Grays Ferry center hopes to identify working dogs earlier, train them better

    Working dogs can do everything from helping a blind person cross the street to detecting bombs at the airport.

    But sometimes, it is hard for even the experts to predict which puppies will be good on the job, and which would make better pets.

     Vets at a new research center opening Tuesday in Grays Ferry hope to learn more about what it takes for a dog to make it in the working world, and how to train them from a young age.

    Playing the odds

    Lorraine Busch has been fostering Seeing Eye puppies for more than a decade. Her most recent temporary charge is Delight, an 11-month-old yellow lab Busch received from the Seeing Eye when it was 7 weeks old. She will raise Delight until she is a little over a year old, then give her back to the Morristown, N.J.-based nonprofit that bred her for more formal training.

    Busch, a retired gym teacher, said house-breaking and teaching basic manners to future Seeing Eye dogs has filled the hole in her heart she felt when her mother died.

    Delight is the 10th puppy Busch has raised.

    “I have one in Canada, one in Vermont, one in Washington state, one in Chicago,” Busch counted off in the living room of her Northeast Philadelphia home.

    But two of the dogs she fostered haven’t made it into the program. One had hip problems, and another growled too much. Even with more than a decade of experience, Busch said she cannot predict which of her puppies will make it. She gives the example of the dog now serving as a guide dog in Vermont.

    “She would just sit and chew everybody’s shoelaces, and she made it,” Busch said. “So you know, there’s no rhyme or reason to if they make it or they don’t make it.”

    According to the Seeing Eye, each dog takes about $7,000 to $10,000 to breed and raise to about a year old, when it will start training. Only about two-thirds of the puppies born into the program, and 80 percent that enter the formal training program, will become guide dogs. That success rate is relatively high compared with those for other working dog programs, most of which also hold off any formal training until about a year old.

    Improving outcomes

    “It’s been estimated as low as 30 percent in some programs, and as high as 80 percent in other programs,” said Dr. Cynthia Otto, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

    “If you spend that first year and you’ve invested energy and time and money and they’re not going to be a working dog, then you’re a year behind,” Otto said. “And you a have a dog that now needs to be redirected.”

    That is one of the reasons Otto launched the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. It has existed as a virtual center since 2007, but is finally opening a physical location for training and research.

    On a recent afternoon, Otto was on the spongy training floor in the former gym in Grays Ferry that is now home to the center, playing tug-of-war with a golden retriever puppy name Bretange.

    Bret is one of seven dogs in the first class to arrive this week. Otto and collaborators will train them from an unusually young age, while at the same time exhaustively documenting health and behavioral indicators.

    They will also add their genetic information to a DNA bank they’ve started with samples from more than 500 detection dogs, the kind that sniff out drugs or explosives, to try to pinpoint ways to determine early on which dogs will make good workers.

    “Can we take the genetic information, and are there behavioral screening tests or things that we can do earlier and earlier, to really identify which dogs should go into working homes?” Otto said. “That’s going to be helpful for a number of reasons, because if a working-directed dog goes into a pet home, that dog’s going to be bored, it’s going to be frustrated, and it may end up in a shelter.”

    According to experts, the center is an example of a post-9/11 spike of interest and research into how working dogs’ genetics and environment affect their behavior, and an accompanying push to use modern science to improve breeding and training programs.

    The work at the center focuses on detection dogs, but Otto hopes her data will eventually help those who train and breed all working dogs.

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