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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Commemorating the 11th Anniversary of 9/11: Penn Vet Working Dog Center Holds its Grand Opening

It’s been eleven years since the tragic events of 9/11, but my recollection of many aspects of its aftermath vividly stand out in my mind. In September 2001, I was living in Washington, D.C. and working at a veterinary hospital situated three miles from the Pentagon.

When the planes struck the Pentagon, toppled the World Trade Center, and crashed in Shanksville, PA, I was out of town and evaluating the job market for a potential move to California (my current and hopeful forever home).

Upon returning D.C., I was shocked to see the enormous hole ripped in the side of the Pentagon and to hear my coworkers’ recollections of the explosive sound the plane made upon impact. Over the next few weeks, my urban existence transitioned from a place of cultural and intellectual intrigue to a hostile police state.

The alarming presence of fully armed police guards constantly swarmed my Red Line Metro stop. Anthrax (Bacillus anthracis bacteria) filled envelopes were sent to the post office I frequented, resulting in me having to undergo nasal passage culture and a course of stomach cramp and diarrhea inducing Ciprofloxacin. Fortunately, I tested negative for Anthrax and discontinued taking the medication (although I keep the prescription bottle as a keepsake).

I didn’t directly suffer any personal loss in the 9/11 crisis, but D.C. life as I knew it was over. After enduring countless Code Red (Severe) Homeland Security Advisor System warnings to tape my windows shut, I heeded the strong urge to gracefully exit the Nation’s Capitol. Southern California better suits my personal and professional lifestyle preferences. I realize a terrorist attack could occur here in Los Angeles, but I feel safer and more at ease than I did in D.C.

I hope our country never endures another similar assault, but I’m comforted in learning of the steps being taken to better prepare our emergency response teams. My alma mater, the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, is undertaking the remarkable task of creating the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (PVWDC).

The PVWDC concept was masterminded by a veterinary idol of mine, Dr. Cindy Otto, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACVECC, who was part of the response team that scavenged the World Trade Center rubble for survivors. Otto started evaluating the behavior and health of Urban Search and Rescue canines shortly after the 9/11 attacks, which motivated her to found the PVWDC as a "space specifically designed for the study of search-and-rescue dogs, and the training of future working dogs."

This space will:

  • Serve as a consortium to unite programs that employ detection dogs to benefit society throughout the U.S. and around the world.
  • Collect and analyze genetic, behavioral and physical data, and integrate the latest scientific information in order to optimize the success and well-being of detection dogs.
  • Prepare for future demands and facilitate research by developing a detection dog breeding/training program that will implement, test, and disseminate the knowledge gained.

To best develop the next generation of search and rescue dogs, PVWDC puppies will have a normal home life with foster families and spend their days doing on-site training at the PVWDC. "It gives the puppies the best of both worlds," says Otto. "They get to live with families and learn how to adapt to that kind of lifestyle, which will be the way they will live when they’re working and living with their handlers."

In commemoration of 9/11, the PVWDC is having its grand opening on Tuesday, September 11th, at 10:30 a.m. RSVP by contacting Sarah Griffith at 215-989-2211 or e-mail [email protected].

I look forward to witnessing the outcome of the PVWDC’s efforts to promote the health and training of service dogs. Should their skills ever be needed, I’m sure these pooches will be up to the task of putting their best paw forward to help save human lives.


Dr. Cindy Otto


Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Image: Rex — SAR dog by SkyWideDesign / via Flickr

Comments  6

Leave Comment
  • Thank you!
    09/11/2012 12:50pm

    Congratulations and thank you for using your expertise to develop and open this much needed facility. As a dog owner, I am amazed by the training these working dogs go through. We are just trying to master basic obedience!
    In a time of crisis there is nothing more valuable than a well trained canine nose. It is just one of their many gifts to us humans. I feel more at ease in public places when a I see a handler and their dog making the rounds. I know our airports, subways and city streets are safer because of the hours of work by people like you. Thank you and God Bless America.

  • 09/19/2012 02:19am

    Thank you for your comments.
    I am continually inspired by Dr. Cindy Otto's efforts to help to better the health and wellness of our companion and working animals.
    She's truly a person on the front lines of the disasters and is an invaluable resource for both humans and animals suffering from the effects of man-made or natural disasters.
    Hopefully, her efforts to develop the pen is that working dog center will pay off in the betterment of mankind and 'animal-kind'.
    I hope to see you back again on my Daily Vet page.
    Thank you,
    Dr PM
    Twitter @PatrickMahaney

  • Detection Dogs
    09/11/2012 11:27pm

    It's difficult to imagine the emotions you must have had when you returned to DC from California. It's even harder to imagine what it felt like to actually see the hole in the Pentagon from the Red Line. No doubt just having to take Cipro after going to the Post Office was frightening (not to mention the nasty effects of Cipro).

    You only touched on the well-being of detection dogs, but hopefully this program is working on the aftermath to our canine friends, too. It's my understanding that rescue dogs get depressed when they aren't able to find anyone. Are there doggie psychologists? Also, as many people as are having heath problems from breathing the air at ground zero (I read just today that someone thinks it was due to asbestos in the buildings), are they doing anything regarding physical health after possible exposure to contamination?

    Rock on, Dr. Otto! The program can only be a benefits to humans and critters.

  • 09/19/2012 02:22am

    Thank you for your comments.
    Dr. Cindy Otto has been involved in a study on the impact that the 911 disaster had on the working dogs who were some of the first responders on the scene.
    I'm unsure as to if the dogs are being evaluated for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, but I imagine as Dr. Otto is incredibly thorough and passionate about her work, the emotional well-being of the dogs involved in her studies is being considered.
    Thank you.
    Dr PM

  • 09/15/2012 12:16am

    I think establishing such a place for the training and care of Search and Rescue dogs is a wonderful idea.

    However, how about using dogs from shelters instead of establishing a "breeding program"? There are MANY wonderful shelter dogs that would make great Search and Rescue dogs. Plus, it would be helping to reduce the pet overpopulation problem instead of adding to it.
    Plus, if people knew that a wonderful Search and Rescue dog came from a shelter, it would do a lot to enhance the value of the dogs we try so desperately to save because people would know that wonderful dogs come from shelters.
    Please start your program, but PLEASE do not breed while homeless dogs are dying every day in shelters!!!!!

  • 09/19/2012 02:26am

    Thank you for your comments.
    I agree with your statement that we need to further address the complicated issue that leads to dogs and cats being homeless or ending up in shelters (and potentially euthanized).
    For purposes of training as a search and rescue dog, I cannot speak for the Penn Vet Working Dog Center's complete strategy in terms of choosing dogs that are purebred from a breeder as compared to those that may currently be in shelters.
    This may be one instance that having exquisite consistency when it comes to breeding (for health purposes) and development is especially important for the overall benefit of the canine performance strategies involved in search and rescue.
    I hope to see you back again on my petMD page.
    Thank you,
    Dr PM
    Twitter @PatrickMahaney

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