Luna has a nose for . . . everything. Right now, the springer spaniel is learning to sniff out a troublesome grass fungus. But trained dogs like Luna are also in demand to identify security threats, detect hazardous materials, and assist disabled persons. Some nosey canines are even helping their human handlers fetch college degrees.
Professor Stephen Mackenzie has trained military and police dogs for 40 years. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mackenzie noticed an increased demand for dogs to sniff out explosives.
Demand for working dogs continues to grow. So Mackenzie developed a four-year “canine training and management” degree at the State University of New York at Cobleskill. More than a training certificate, the degree will include courses on dog health, nutrition, and genetics.
Cobleskill requires a 600-hour internship at a dog-related business such as Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the Search Dog Foundation, or the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.
Penn Vet trains dogs to prevent crime and acts of terrorism, perform search-and-rescue operations, and detect certain medical conditions. Jordan Gillespie majored in Zoo and Wildlife Biology at Bob Jones University. As part of her training, she interned at Penn Vet and is now a staff research assistant there.
Currently, Gillespie is working on a cancer detection project with dogs Osa and Bobbie. They are helping Penn Vet develop an “e- nose” to discover certain types of early-stage cancer. Gillespie also trains dog recruits Helen and Ivey. She’s teaching them to distinguish smells on a scent wheel.
Jessie Show chose Cobleskill mostly because of its new canine degree. Last semester, Show helped train Luna, whose owner researches a fungus that afflicts golf greens. Someday Show hopes to train service dogs to turn on light switches, warn of danger, and guide disabled persons through unfamiliar territory.
The specialized training of the Cobleskill program will instruct the next generation of handlers and trainers. Mackenzie realizes many people work with dogs without a college degree. But, he says, “If you want a balance of science mixed with hands-on experience, and if you’re going to go to college anyway, this is a really good option if you want to work with dogs.”
Gillespie has loved animals since childhood. She’s “also passionate about helping people.” She believes working with dogs allows her to do both. “There are many ways dogs can be used to help people that we don’t know about yet, and I hope to discover them.”