When class starts at the Pennovation Center in Grays Ferry, teacher Bridget Stewart gets right to business, guiding her student through a series of increasingly tougher tasks.
Like fitting his whole body into a cardboard box, leaping hurdles on a narrow plank, balancing atop a wobbling board, and resisting his urge to lick and bite every bystander.
“Good job!” Stewart sings, as she rewards her student with a morsel of meat.
This is puppy school. Stewart’s student is Sunny, a 10-week-old black Labrador in his second week of training at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.
If this was any other dog-training program, Sunny would be somewhere else, maybe napping or frolicking or chasing moths. Actually, in any other program, Sunny wouldn’t even exist.
That’s because unlike other dog-training programs, the Penn Vet Working Dog Center has gotten into breeding, theorizing that tracking canines even as early as conception offers valuable research opportunities that can help improve training and ensure a working dog’s later career success. Sunny was the 17th dog (of four litters) born in the center’s 2-year-old breeding program. And starting puppy training at 8 weeks — a month to more than a year earlier than other dog trainers typically begin — gives the center’s staff even more time to study what works and what doesn’t.
That’s what happens when academics run a dog-training school.
“It’s all about the research. It’s all about the science — understanding why these dogs are doing well, or understanding why they’re not doing well if they’re not,” said director Dr. Cindy Otto, who founded the center in 2007. “What is the best way we can keep enhancing these dogs’ progress and their success?”
Staffers document — on paper and video — everything the dogs do, from what reward they respond to (meat, cheese, ball, or tug toy) to what distraction lures them off task to what distance they were from their trainer during exercises. That academic influence arises even in how trainers talk: Puppies go to “class” for a “liberal-arts education,” where they get “graded” on their performance, eventually “major” in specialties (including police work like search-and-rescue or drug, explosives, or cadaver detection, or medical work like cancer or diabetes detection) and “declare their careers.”
Otto and her staff launched their breeding program after deciding genetics could impact a working dog’s success as much as its environment and training.
“We’re really looking for an innate ability,” Otto said. “We really want to optimize the genetics and the environment so the dogs that come out of the program are successful.”
The goal of all that research? Otto aims to improve the whole industry.
“We really like to think of ourselves as that research core that people can come to and ask us questions. Or if there are questions that aren’t being answered for the end user, they can come to us and ask us to help them solve problems, like ‘How do we keep these dogs working in hot environments?’ ‘What is the best way to look at our genetic approach?’ ‘Are we looking for specific traits in these dogs?'” Otto said. “Our research goals are pretty expansive, and they grow every week.”
Research already has shown Otto and her staff that early training — with a playful rather than coercive approach — is key.
“We like to think of it as early childhood development,” she said. “Kids learn languages so much faster than adults because their brains are plastic. They can just develop these connections and understand things, and then those become part of their brain structure. We feel the same way with these dogs. They learn to search as babies, and it becomes just part of what they do. So if they’re in doubt, what do they do? They search. You couldn’t ask for a better default behavior in a dog that you want to search. We’re introducing this as the most fun game ever, and it just becomes part of who they are.”
Terrorism concerns have driven up demand for working dogs across the United States, according to experts — including Otto — who testified at a Congressional hearing in March about canines used for homeland security.
Eastern Europe, which has a long history of breeding dogs for police and detection work, has long been the go-to source for authorities here shopping for working dogs. (American breeders typically breed dogs for pets and for show.) That has driven up their price: Working dogs now typically cost $7,000 to $10,000 each.
That makes breeding dogs domestically a priority, those at the Congressional hearing agreed.
At Penn, breeding and training dogs is a money-losing proposition. Otto estimates it costs about $36,000 a year to train one dog.
But profit is not the point, Otto said. “We’re in it to learn.”