CCPA Summer Series 2022: Penn Vet Working Dog Center

By Harrison Lennertz ’24

Funding Source: Liberal Arts in the Workplace Grant

Hi! I’m Harrison Lennertz (he/him), and this summer I had the pleasure of working at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (PVWDC) in Grays Ferry, Philadelphia, supporting their program of training search and rescue dogs.

When I found this internship, I was looking for opportunities with animals that would help me get those sweet, sweet animal experience hours needed to apply to veterinary school. The WDC’s summer internship was something that quickly popped up on my radar – a great opportunity to work with dogs right in Philly seemed like a no-brainer. I reached out to Ruth, their coordinator for all things outreach, and next thing I knew, I had my summer plans.

In my first couple weeks at the center, I had realized it wasn’t quite what I was expecting—being a biology major at Haverford, I was prepared to launch into the sciencey, analyzing research data part of the center and spend a good chunk of my day shadowing the veterinary team. Needless to say, this wasn’t what happened. I instead found myself working with the dogs in training, assisting my trainer, Alena, with getting these dogs in shape and trained to operate in high-pressure environments.

After a few more weeks at the center, I began to find my way. Myself and the other members of our team got our own “focus dogs,” which were dogs already in the program that we were going to spend our time centering our efforts on. I was assigned a Dutch Shepherd named Thea. Being this dog’s focus intern meant that I had to begin taking up the responsibilities of her training. I began conducting her exercises on my own, and I was handling her to and from her live search and scent detection activities.

As I worked with Thea, I became very comfortable working with her and the other dogs on our team. Being able to settle into a routine with the dogs helped me frame the progress that was being made each week. Thea was already pretty deep into the program (she turned one in July, and most of the dogs begin when they’re eight weeks old), so she had already learned most of the basic regimen. I helped her maintain what she already knew and helped my trainer teach her new activities. The progress felt much more visible with our younger dogs, such as teaching our new puppy, Kozi, how to search for scents and do her fit-to-work exercises.

What I’m about to say is really corny, but I noticed the most progress in my bond with the dogs. While working at the WDC, I found that I was more attentive when handling dogs than I had been before, and I became very adept at clicker training and using it to teach dogs desired behaviors. This kind of intensive work with these dogs truly brings you closer to them; after a couple months of training with Thea, I learned how to play with her in an exciting way and all about her little quirks. At the beginning of my internship, I had an encounter with one of the dogs on my team where they reacted to me. After a few sessions of trainer-mandated ball games with this dog, they began to warm up to me, and by August, they were jumping up on me to say hello.

Walking into this internship, I don’t think I understood what I was hoping to get out of it. When I saw that what I was doing in my first few weeks wasn’t exactly what I thought, I didn’t let that slow me down. I kept pushing, and before I knew it, I was excited to walk into the center every weekday. In my previous experiences working with animals, looking towards the prospect of vet school, most of what I was thinking about was how I can help animals. The WDC showed me a new way of thinking: how can I help animals help people?

My time at the Working Dog Center was something I didn’t know I needed to experience. It taught me a new way of working with dogs, and it gave me a new perspective for how I can work with animals. Knowing that I had a part in helping these incredible dogs realize the best versions of themselves and that these dogs will go on to make a positive contribution to various communities means the absolute world to me. My experience at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center has been invaluable to me, and I know I will carry what I learned this summer with me through all my future endeavors, my first of which will be teaching my dog at home to do figure 8’s between my legs.