Summer Centered: Harrison Lennertz ‘24 Helps Train Search and Rescue Dogs
The biology major and music minor is gaining hands-on experience working with animals by helping train search and rescue dogs at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.
This summer, Harrison Lennertz ‘24 is in the doghouse. Luckily, that’s exactly where the aspiring veterinarian wants to be: working with animals. The biology major and music minor is working at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Grays Ferry, Philadelphia, where he is training search-and-rescue dogs. His work is being supported by the Center for Career and Professional Advising’s Liberal Arts in the Workplace Fund.
Lennertz explained that the process of training dogs for critical search-and-rescue roles is careful work. He is responsible for supporting the dogs, the majority of whom are a year old or younger, as they learn to trace scents and have disciplined, professional mindsets that fit the gravity of their future positions. Those future positions involve helping to search sites of collapsed buildings and natural disasters for survivors.
“We're using positive reinforcement marker training, which means we ‘mark’ behaviors that we want to encourage,” he said. “Since we're trying to reinforce specific actions, we need to be very precise when we mark (often using a clicker or just saying ‘yes!’) to make sure the dog knows which behavior we want from them. If anyone's taken a psychology class, we're pretty much just doing some intensive operant conditioning.”
Lennertz praised the multifaceted nature of the position. In addition to the hands-on experience he has gained through training the dogs and assisting with their grooming and exercise, he has also been able to watch veterinarians in action, providing an exciting glimpse into his future career.
“Although my main responsibilities involve helping to train the dogs, we also have a team of veterinarians and current veterinary students, which has made for many great learning opportunities from watching their work with our dogs when they check on their health,” he said.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center is also a site of research being conducted on the abilities of dogs. Researchers are currently working to find the lowest concentration of UDC (universal detection compound, a marker used to test their sense of smell) that the dogs can detect, as well as to better understand how dogs move over rubble piles. This knowledge will help enhance training techniques and knowledge for dogs who are tasked with searching for survivors in disasters where structures have collapsed.
“This internship encourages getting involved with all the different opportunities that can be found within its walls, and I'm grateful to have the ability to engage in these different fields,” Lennertz said. He hopes to leave the internship with a fuller, more experienced-based understanding of dogs and of their behavior and attitudes.
Lennertz has found an inspiring professional role model in his team leader and mentor, Alena Heyer. She has been instructing Lennertz and his team, composed primarily of fellow college students, on how to handle and train the dogs successfully, and increase their engagement and retention of new, learned skills.
“She's a dog handler who has a lot of experience under her belt, and it shows in every movement you see her make with our dogs,” he said. “I hope to learn more from her about dog handling so I can further understand patterns of dog behavior and how to handle them in a more effective manner.” He concluded by saying that participating in this program has given him a greater appreciation for the work that search and rescue dogs do, as well as all the effort that has been put into training them.
"Summer Centered" is a series exploring our students' campus-supported summer work.