I first heard Cindy Otto speak in 2012 during an engaging and informative radio interview on NPR. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Otto at our SEARCHDOG premiere at the Annapolis Film Festival. It's an honor to spotlight the work she's doing, and the wonderful training and educational program she's created at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.
The Penn Vet Working Dog Center was established in 2007 as a national research and development organization dedicated to gathering scientific knowledge about the genetics, physical training, rearing, and conditioning of detection dogs. Dr. Otto is being awarded the AVMA (American Vet Med Association) Bustad Companion Animal Vet of the Year in July. This award is named for the late Leo K. Bustad, DVM, PhD, a former dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University and founder of the Delta Society (now Pet Partners), this award recognizes the outstanding work of veterinarians in preserving and protecting the human-animal bond. Congratulations! Currently, she is fostering one of the dogs at the Working Dog Center – a Malinois, Blitz, she says of Blitz: Blitz is definitely teaching me about the importance of impulse control J
Dr. Otto, can you please describe what inspired you to become a veterinarian? Was it an event, a moment, a situation?
I wanted to be a veterinarian since I was in 7th grade (and probably before that). I do clearly recall declaring my intent to my 7th grade teacher and planning my life around that goal. I chose to go to high school at the most rigorous academic program, I participated in science and research opportunities, I went to Ohio State on a track to veterinary school. I think the bigger question is when did I decide I wanted to work with small animals (all through vet school I was set on working with farm animals, mostly dairy cows), that probably came to me when I was standing in an unheated barn with a subzero wind chill factor – actually it was because I loved solving puzzles of why an animal was sick and what I could do to make it better. As a result I accepted an internship at the University of Pennsylvania where I fell in love with emergency medicine. I pursued my residency and PhD at the University of Georgia and that is where I was introduced to the concept of search dogs, although it wasn’t until I returned to Pennsylvania as a faculty member that I actually had the opportunity to start to work with search dogs.
What prompted you to begin the Penn Vet Working Dog Center?
This without a doubt is from my involvement with the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force PA-TF1. I joined the TF in 1993/4 when it was just being formed. My real purpose was to provide medical support of the dogs. I did not have a search dog, but I learned about the capability of these incredible dogs. My response with the TF to Ground Zero clinched it that we needed a resource to understand and care for these dogs with the best minds available. I worked with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania to develop a plan and after 10 years it finally became a reality.
What is the most important piece of advice to a dog handler (especially beginning handlers) that you could share?
Patience!! Sometimes you just have to shut your mouth and wait for the dog to figure things out, but you also need to set your dog up for success. And after that consistency.
Are there special needs of a working dog that are sometimes overlooked? Especially a SAR or HRD dog? For example, do you have specific recommendations for handlers about contamination risks during training's ? Routines they should follow after arduous searches or training sessions?
Yes – physical fitness beyond the task at hand. Most people will train the final goal, for example rubble search, but they don’t spend the time teaching the dog the basic skills to move safely and strongly. It is like asking a football player to just play football without ever going to the gym to get a balanced fitness program. Fitness and conditioning helps prevent injuries, adapt to heat and will help in recovery of any injuries. Dogs should have a warm up and flexibility routine, they should do regular core strength training and proprioception (body awareness) exercises and after a workout they should do a cool down
Who is your mentor and what is the most important lesson that they taught you about working with a dog?
In the world of dogs, my mentor is my own dog Dolce – after he failed his first obedience class, he taught me the importance of the bond between the dog and the handler. He also taught me how to teach dogs all sorts of valuable (and many silly) things (which I call behaviors but others might call tricks). One of the most inspiring teachers I had was Frankie Joiris – she introduced me to “tricks” that are the foundation for all behaviors and fitness exercises. I also was inspired by Kyra Sundance and her approach to teaching tricks.
What is your favorite quote about dogs?
Dogs are not our whole lives but they make our lives whole - Roger Caras
I also adapted the quote in my signature line to relate to dogs
Can you please send a link to your website and/or a recommend reading? Would you mind sending a photo of you and your dog?
Dr. Otto loves Alexandra Horowitz’s writing
“Inside of a Dog”
Being a Dog (this one is special since she talks about our program in it)
University of Pennsylvania
School of Veterinary Medicine
This is Dr. Otto’s email signature line:
"" A wise old owl sat on an oak;
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard;
Why aren't we like that wise old bird?
Dog training is the same
Dog shouters and dog whisperers may get results
But dog listeners make real magic