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1st canine class graduates

| Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — A training center inspired by canine rescue work on 9/11 is graduating its first class of working dogs, some of whom will embark on search-and-rescue careers, while others will serve as canine assistants to people with medical conditions.

An excited yellow Labrador retriever named Socks was fitted with a mortarboard and tassel at the commencement ceremony on Tuesday at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center before going off to start her new job on the campus police force.

Socks is among seven dogs in the inaugural class at the center, which opened in Philadelphia on Sept. 11, 2012. Cindy Otto, a longtime emergency clinician at the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school, wanted to honor the animals that worked so hard after terrorists struck the United States in 2001.

“I spent 10 days at Ground Zero taking care of the working dogs there and recognized what an incredible gift those dogs are to our society and how important they are,” said Otto, now the center's director.

All 16 dogs being trained at the center are named for canines who served on 9/11. Donated by breeders, the pooches live in “foster homes” with volunteers who care for them while they're not learning how to sniff out explosives, drugs or missing people.

Six other dogs who graduated with Socks did not get mortarboards because they are still awaiting permanent placements. But the pooches demonstrated their search skills on a manufactured “rubble pile” and their agility on an obstacle course.

Officials said local police and fire departments have expressed significant interest in the remaining dogs, including a chocolate Lab named Thunder. The animals cost $10,000 each, with the money going to defray the costs of training.

“Thunder is definitely an urban search-and-rescue dog,” Otto said. “He is bold, he is strong, he has no fear on the rubble, and he will search like a machine, which is exactly what you want in a disaster setting.”

A more mellow golden retriever named Bretagne will likely become a diabetic alert dog, able to help detect when her owner's blood sugar is getting low.

And Socks, the first canine member of the Penn police, has already started attending advanced bomb detection school, said Maureen Rush, superintendent of the campus force.

“Socks is way ahead of the game because of the great work that's been done already through the Working Dog Center,” Rush said.

Meanwhile, the second class of working dogs is training hard. Three have already put their noses to work in an ovarian cancer detection study.

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