Working with working dogs—a new program from Penn Vet shows you how

“When developing the program, we found that working dog handlers really wanted veterinarians to understand what their dogs do, and what’s involved in taking care of them,” said Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD.

She’s talking about the Working Dog Practitioner Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet), which certifies veterinarians to treat working dogs with specialized instruction through a blended program of online courses and hands-on learning. Instructors include specialty certified practicing veterinarians with real life experience, and subject matter experts in the working dog field.

Those experts includes Otto, a professor of Working Dog Sciences and Sports Medicine at Penn Vet and director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

Otto told NEWStat that treating a working dog is very different from treating a pet dog: “There are a lot of things that set them apart, but the most significant difference is the partnership between a working dog and their [human] handler. This a life-dependent partnership.” 

Not recognizing the significance of that relationship can seriously affect the quality of care veterinarians provide to working dogs, said Otto, who is also the chair of the 2021 AAHA Working, Assistance, and Therapy Dog Guidelines task force.

“They basically save each other’s lives,” Otto said. “Whether that working dog is a police dog, a search-and-rescue dog, or even a guide dog.”

Otto said understanding the nature of that relationship is key. “And in order to understand the relationship, you have to understand the language that they speak. You have to understand what the expectations are of that dog.”

Teaching those skills to veterinary professionals is the object of the Working Dog Practitioner Program. And it starts with understanding that the veterinarian, the dog, and the handler will be working as a team.

When working with a working dog, Otto said that veterinarians should expect that the handler is going to be there in the room with them. She acknowledges that for many veterinarians, this notion might prove “a little challenging,” as veterinarians are used to having more autonomy when treating their patients.

But she said veterinarians who want to work with working dogs need to get past that, because not having the handler in the room can lead to problems.

“If you’re dealing with a police dog and you don’t have the handler there, the dog is going to be on alert,” Otto said. That means you most likely won’t be able to handle the dog on your own. “You’re not even going to be able to do a physical exam.” 

The bigger problem is that a working dog who’s separated from their handler won’t show their normal behaviors. “There’s going to be an anxiety that’s transmitted through the separation,” Otto said, and it’s  true of all working dogs. “Part of it is that bond that’s been created because of the interdependence and the communication” between dog and handler.

Another advantage of having the handler in the room is that they know the dog so well that they can supply the veterinarian with important information they’d otherwise have no way of knowing: “A lot of times a handler may tell me something is ‘off’ with their dog, and I would never find that during a normal physical exam,” Otto said.

The handler will pick up on faint signs the veterinarian wouldn’t recognize such as a slight change in the dog's performance behavior. “When a dog comes in for subtle lameness, if it’s on alert, [or] if it’s tense, you’re not even going to see the problem.”

But the handler will.

Otto said that’s a key difference in the way you treat working dogs versus pet dogs: If a veterinarian notices a subtle lameness in a pet dog, they might advise the client to make sure the dog rests the affected limb, and it should be fine. With working dogs, “That doesn’t work so well. If we ignore a lameness in a working dog, it could actually impact their work and their performance. We’ve got to take into account the jobs these dogs do.”

Even taking time off to rest and recover can be an issue for working dogs.

Otto said typically, after a surgery or an illness, a working dog will need to take it easy for a couple of weeks. “What happens when these athletes rest for two weeks, is they get deconditioned, which can be a problem when they go back to work,” Otto said. “And if they’re suddenly told, ‘Okay, you can go from zero to 60 now,’ that can lead to injuries.”

It doesn’t even have to be the dog who’s been told to take time off work.

Otto and her team have worked with handlers who’ve been injured on the job—police officers in particular—who are laid up while they recover, which means both the officers and their dogs end up not working during the officer’s convalescence—sometimes for months.   

When the handler is finally cleared to go back to work, “half the time, the dogs are fat and out of shape,” says Otto. And that puts the handler’s life in danger as well as the dog’s.

That’s why,  in cases of a working dog who’s been off duty for an extended period, Penn Vet recommends implementing a fitness and conditioning program, a back-to-work type of rehabilitation. “People think about rehabilitation if they have, say, an orthopedic injury, but they don’t think about it as much if they just have this sort of general time off work,” she said. But working dogs do need it.

“These dogs are athletes,” Otto said. That’s why sports medicine is a such huge part of what Otto and her team do with working dogs, adding that the concept of working dog as athlete is a relatively new area in veterinary medicine. “Some I would consider amateur or semi-pro athletes [and] the work they do truly does impact people’s lives.” 

The Working Dog Practitioner certificate is 80 hours of education and Otto said they keep adding things to it. The first part is online—an introduction to all of the different kinds of work that dogs do, and some of the general principles of preventive care.  

“The part that I really like is what we call our core hands-on,” Otto said. “That’s where we bring people in to Penn Vet, we work with the dogs, and we really try and show them some of the nuances.” 

One of the important things the program promotes is the concept of low-stress handling. Otto remembers her time in the trenches in those pre-low-stress times: “I spent 25 years in the emergency room,” she recalls, and describes how her team would take an unruly patient and “pin” him down. “Well,” she added drily, “that doesn’t work so well with police dogs.”

When Penn Vet launched the program, it was geared solely towards veterinarians. “Then we realized that veterinary technicians are amazing and incredible and such a huge part of it that they needed to be included,” Otto said. “ So we opened up the initial 13 online modules to anybody who was interested. Those modules “aren’t as medically driven,” she added. “They’re more educational and designed to getting you that foundational information. 

To get the actual certificate, you need to be a veterinarian. “And only veterinarians and veterinary technicians can participate in the hands-on stuff.” 

Otto’s enthusiasm is infectious: “When we have veterinarians who have worked with the working dogs, and feel that they connect with them, it’s incredibly rewarding.”

For Otto, that rewarding feeling is why she first started working with search-and-rescue dogs back in 1993: “We just contribute in a way that has such an impact. 

“Your reach is felt in in their work,” she added, “So it’s a really rewarding thing to be part of.”

You can read more about how to work with working dogs in the 2021 AAHA Working, Assistance, and Therapy Dog Guidelines, the first ever comprehensive guidelines on caring for the dogs who care for us. 

Photo credit: © AlenaPaulus/E+ via Getty Images

NEWStat Advancements & research