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Working Dog: F&M Student Trains Canines for Detection

Animals have been part of Patrick Robbins' life for as long as he can remember. They have provided an emotional anchor in a tumultuous life marked by the death of one parent and desertion by another.

"The only enjoyment in my life was having a dog around," said Robbins, a sophomore majoring in Biological Foundations of Behavior at Franklin & Marshall College. "My past fuels my passion with what I want to do with the rest of my life."

Robbins' mother was an alcoholic and died at 35. His father was frequently abusive and broke off contact when Robbins was 5. His paternal grandparents were there to fill the void. They became his legal guardians and gave him the love and support he needed to pursue his dream of attending veterinary school. While he studies at F&M, his grandparents also care for his two dogs, Sami, a Norwegian Elkhound, and Paddy, a Labradoodle, and his cat, Becky, a Tabby. All three were rescued from shelters.

  • Student Robbins at Working Dog Center
  • Last year, Franklin & Marshall College sophomore Patrick Robbins volunteered at Philadelphia's Penn Vet Working Dog Center. He has secured a full-time internship at the center for summer 2014. (Photo courtesy of Penn Vet Working Dog Center)

Last summer Robbins got a taste of his future career when he volunteered at Philadelphia's Penn Vet Working Dog Center, which is affiliated with the university's Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital, a teaching hospital. He already has secured a full-time internship at the center for the summer.

"He came and just fit in unbelievably," said Cindy Otto, professor of veterinarian medicine and executive director of the Working Dog Center, which opened in fall 2012. "He's a natural. I think he will be a great addition to the field."

At Penn Vet, Robbins helps train canines to detect explosives, conduct urban search and rescue missions, patrol with police officers, and detect ovarian cancer, a new field at the center.

The process for detecting cancer is similar to sniffing out bombs, Robbins said. A dog is brought into a room containing vials of blood taken from human subjects, one of which contains cancer cells. The animal will use its highly trained senses of smell to identify the cancerous blood sample.

"It's definitely a new frontier," Otto said.

A Chosen Path

Robbins was 13 when he decided to become a veterinarian. Confident in his academic path, he turned to his grandmother to help get him on his professional path. Throughout high school, she would direct him to various volunteer jobs at local pet clinics.

"She's really been the force behind my drive to become a veterinarian," Robbins said.

Robbins said he was drawn to F&M because it had a reputation as a strong pre-veterinary school and offered him access to a vivarium where he could study and care for small animals. After graduating from F&M, he hopes to attend the veterinarian program at University of Pennsylvania.

"My dream is Penn Vet," he said. "That's why I'm doing everything I can to establish a relationship with them."

  • Student Robbins at Working Dog Center
  • At Penn Vet, F&M's Robbins helps train canines to detect explosives, conduct urban search and rescue missions, patrol with police officers, and detect ovarian cancer, a new field at the center. (Photo courtesy of Penn Vet Working Dog Center) 

Part of Robbins' job at the Working Dog Center is determining which breed is best for which job. Training begins simply: with a toy and an obstacle course. The dog must navigate buildings, tunnels, and rubble to find Robbins -- and the toy he's holding -- in the maze. The search training has the added benefits of strengthening the dog and improving his or her agility.

"It gets exhausting very quickly," he said. "You get dirty, too, but it's exhilarating."

This summer, Robbins will work with up to 16 dogs a day. The center takes in dogs when they are eight weeks old. Their training begins immediately upon arriving at the center and can take between 12 and 18 months to complete.

"It pretty much starts with shaking a toy in front of them," Robbins said. "They want it, and you hide it."

Eventually, the toys are replaced by the scent of the thing the dogs are tasked with finding, such as the scent of bomb-making materials.

Learning at F&M

At the College Vivarium, Robbins established himself in his first semester as a volunteer caretaker, said Lillian Basom, the Vivarium's operations director and a 2008 graduate of F&M.

"He's the only first-year student that I've had that volunteered five days a week and still did well in school," Basom said. "He's very confident. He knows how to communicate with the animals, and because he knows how to communicate, they trust him."

Assistant Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Lonsdorf, who directs the research team that works with the Vivarium's capuchin monkeys, said Robbins works "amazingly" with animals.

"He's only a sophomore and he's one of our most valuable members on the research team," Lonsdorf said. "That usually happens when a student is a junior or senior."

The professor said in less than two years, Robbins has shown advanced skills in both animal research and managing the Vivarium's inhabitants.

"He has excelled at both even while doing them at the same time," Lonsdorf said. "It's a tribute not only to his skill, but to his dedication."

Robbins credits F&M's challenging academic program with preparing him for his internship and eventually, the rigors of veterinary school.

"The College is very intensive," he said. "It teaches you how to structure your course load and it teaches you how to handle the pressure. I'm grateful to F&M for the opportunities they have given me."