The University of Pennsylvania Police Department’s newest rookie is making history as she walks her beat in University City. Socks, an 18-month-old yellow Labrador, is the first K9 officer to join the university’s police force in its 42-year history.
An ordnance disposal canine, Socks will use her trained nose to sniff out potentially explosive materials inside suspicious packages left around campus.
"I’m 100 percent confident in her. I know if there’s something out there she will find it," said Socks’ partner Officer Julie Wesley, who has been training with the pup for the past few months. "This is all I ever wanted to do, so it’s very fulfilling for me."
Maureen Rush, Penn’s Vice President of Public Safety, says adding a K9 Unit to the 116 officer force grew out of a need to properly prepare for and cover visits to the university by VIPs.
"We have a ton of dignitaries that come to Penn, as you can imagine. Vice presidents, presidents and we have a lot of events like commencement. After 9/11, we started working very closely with ATF, the Philadelphia Bomb Squad…and planned these events around what could happen," she said speaking to fears about terrorism.
Rush says the department used to rely on other agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Philadelphia Police, Amtrak and SEPTA to help with K9 sweeps, but with Socks, the department has its own officer to contribute.
"She’ll be part of the team of K9 dogs that will sweep for dignitaries," she said.
Penn Police patrol a 2.5 square mile area in University City and parts of West Philadelphia – home to more than 40,000 students, employees and patients at both the university and its hospitals and research facilities. The area, which borders some of Philadelphia’s more troubled neighborhoods, is also not immune to violent crimes like robberies and shootings.
Top brass are looking to incorporate Socks, who is also trained to detect black powder, into assisting with a shooting investigation or in the search of a home or facility while executing a warrant.
"Recently fired weapons, shell casings, she can track for those based on her training," said Wesley. "But it needs to be pretty recently fired for her to detect that because it is such a small amount [of black powder.]"
While she just joined the force, Socks grew up at the university.
The Labrador was fostered by the one of the school’s administrators and was part of the inaugural class of dogs to be trained at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center -- a research and training facility run by the university’s veterinary school.
The center trains dogs from 8-weeks-old for careers in bomb detection, narcotics, search and rescue, diabetic alert and even ovarian cancer detection.
"We bring them in and we just teach them to search [at first]. We teach them to search for a person and we teach them to search for a toy and that toy can be transitioned over to explosives, narcotics, human remains, arson and they’re learning that this is the best game in the world," says Annemarie DeAngelo, the center’s K9 training director.
DeAngelo, who started New Jersey State Police’s K9 Unit and spent nearly 32 years as a trooper, says the center also collects research data during the training programs to learn which breeds are best for certain tasks.
"Some of the vet students will look into their genetics and look at their health and look at their workability," she said. "Have they had specific health tests, what are their working lines, do they do search and rescue, are they hunting dogs, are they police dogs and to see if that has been bred into them."
Once they’re ready for active duty, typically a year after the training begins, the canines are transferred to their new owners and put into service.
Socks may be the first K9 on the Penn Police force, but she won’t be the last. Officials say they plan to add at least one other dog to the unit in the future – once they work through the growing pains.
"It’s a learning experience for us," said Penn Police Capt. Gerry Leddy. "We’re learning about what resources we have to have here to continue training for Socks and Julie. So every day we’re learning a little something new about the K9 unit."