Inside Rider University’s Gee Hall, a group of dogs spent their morning running in and out of dorm rooms sniffing for heroin, cocaine and marijuana. Other dogs were performing a search and rescue mission, trying to find people up and down the hallway upstairs. In one of the suites, a golden labrador was sniffing for fire accelerants with Ewing native Annemarie DeAngelo.
DeAngelo is the training director at Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia that breeds, trains and conducts research on detection dogs. DeAngelo joined other Penn Vet officials and their 19 dogs on a field trip to Rider University on Jan. 19 in order to train the dogs outside the facility.
The Penn Vet Working Dog Center trains working dogs, and many of the dogs who practicied their skills in the dorm rooms will soon graduate from the center and find jobs in their field of choice. Some dogs will go work for police departments to help officers find drugs and people. Some will become diabetes detection dogs, alerting their owners when their blood sugar drops. Other dogs may even go work in labs to detect ovarian cancer in blood samples.
“There’s just a special bond between dogs and their people,” DeAngelo said. “Even now after doing this for 30-something years, they still amaze me with their capabilities and what they can do.”
DeAngelo, a retired New Jersey State Police major, spent her 31-years in law enforcement working with and training detection dogs before joining the team at Penn Vet Working Dog Center. She was the founder of the New Jersey State Police K-9 Unit as well as the first state police narcotic dog handler. During her career she worked with some of the best working dog trainers she could find, eventually becoming one of the most well-respected trainers in the greater Philadelphia, New Jersey area.
“She’s the best, her reputation is so strong because she was a major,” Robbinsville Police Det. Scott Kivet said. “She’s retired now, but the vanity is still here.”
Kivet worked with DeAngelo to train his K-9 partner, Quori, who recently graduated from the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. Kivet said Quori had his 26th drug seizure in late January, which is a direct reflection of the work and training they received from DeAngelo and the entire team at Penn Vet Working Dog Center.
“She always told me trust my dog, know my dog, so I listen to [his indications],” Kivet said.
Despite growing up with dogs and other pets, DeAngelo never imagined she would go down a career path that involved both police work and dog training. She first began training dogs at home in 1980, when her doberman—named Lucy, a play on the name Lucifer because the dog was so misbehaved—was tearing apart her home.
DeAngelo began working with Fred Fink, a military dog trainer and Ewing resident, to find ways to connect with Lucy to get to her behave. She was amazed at the relationship she could build with a dog and what could be accomplished through the training.
“I became obsessed with it, and I just wanted to do more and more,” she said.
As DeAngelo was working with Fink to train her dog at home, the State Police Department was borrowing dogs—either from the DEA or local police departments—for searches and patrols. After seeing the benefits of dog training firsthand, DeAngelo decided she wanted to bring a K-9 unit to the state police.
DeAngelo spent five years researching and putting together her K-9 proposal. While officers were generally supportive of her idea, she was still just a road trooper fresh from the academy and she often ran into dead ends. Her persistence, however, kept moving her forward.
DeAngelo wanted to be a state trooper since she was 16, years before women were allowed to join the state police.
“I saw a trooper on the side of I-95 and he was just so impressive, just so squared away, and I said that’s what I want to do,” she said.
She wrote a letter asking the state police how she could join, and she later went through the first and only female state police class in the nation. More than 1,600 women took the written test, 114 were accepted into the academy and just 30 women graduated, DeAngelo said.
She channeled that drive and determination into creating the K-9 unit, and in 1987 she launched the State Police Narcotic Detector Dog Program. Her dog, Buddy, became one of the first narcotic detector dogs in the state police.
“I thought, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do this.’ I’m going to work, I’m working a dog and I’m a police officer,” she said. “I combined my two loves, my two passions.”
The creation of the program also helped propel DeAngelo’s career, moving up from a road trooper to working in the narcotics department. Over time, the New Jersey State Police added more drug detection dogs to their force, and DeAngelo pushed to have more dual purpose dogs join the ranks as well.
She traveled to Atlantic City and Philadelphia to take training courses, always in search of the best way to build relationships with the dogs. Over the years, more narcotics dogs, patrol dogs, dual purpose dogs, and even explosive detection dogs joined the force.
DeAngelo handled single purpose narcotic dogs and dual purpose patrol and narcotic dogs, and she formed an incredible bond with them through their work together.
“You spend so much time with those dogs because they would work with you every day and they’re home with you every day,” she said. “You spend more time with the dog than you do with members of your own family.”
The nature of police work leads both an officer and their K-9 into potentially deadly situations, but DeAngelo said her dogs made her fearless. She once chased six fugitives without fear because she trusted her dog to be her guide.
DeAngelo’s relationship and trust in her K-9 yielded strong police work and even national recognition. Officers once pulled over a tractor trailer on the New Jersey Turnpike in Hamilton, but didn’t fully believe the driver was hiding any drugs. DeAngelo asked her K-9, Buster, to work his scent detection, and he indicated there was something inside. When the police unloaded pallets off the truck, they discovered 1,200 kilograms of cocaine.
“We never trained with that. Where do you get 1,200 kilos of coke to train with? But I trusted him,” she said. DeAngelo and Buster were awarded the National Detector Dog Case of the Year for their investigative work.
When DeAngelo retired from the state police in 2012, she started a small detection dog business, training dogs and doing narcotic work as a private citizen. A K-9 handler in Philadelphia trained with her, and offered her a job working in the city. She initially told him she didn’t want to drive into Philly every day, but changed her mind when she learned about the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.
The center is part of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Penn Vet Working Dog Center Executive Director Cindy Otto created the center after noticing a lack of consistency among the detection dogs who worked at Ground Zero during 9/11. One of the main goals of the center is to collect and share their research to help detection dogs work in a safe and effective manner.
DeAngelo’s wealth of knowledge from launching the State Police Canine Unit made her the perfect fit to join the training team.
“I learned more from being at this center than being around a lot of cops for a lot of years,” Law Enforcement Training Coordinator Robert Dougherty Jr. said. Dougherty came to the center after DeAngelo asked him to volunteer for a day, and just like DeAngelo he was hooked after his first visit.
“All the information we gather, all the research we do, the things we’re finding out, it’s great but it’s better if it’s shared,” DeAngelo said.
The center starts working with puppies at eight weeks of age, and each dog goes through foundation training to learn obedience, agility and other basic skills. As the puppies grow into dogs and develop their own personalities, officials at the center monitor which types of tasks they enjoy more than others so the dogs can “pick a major” and practice work for a specific field. Some dogs enjoy the challenge of being on uneven rubble and therefore become great search and rescue dogs. Other dogs may enjoy the challenge of sniffing for certain scents and go on to become patrol dogs.
‘It’s a great feeling… They never cease to amaze me.’
Dog training and handling has advanced significantly since DeAngelo first started back in the early 1980s.
“When I first came in it was a lot of compulsion training, a lot of dogs getting correction and you’d see them shut down,” she said. “For a dog to work they have to be happy, and they have to enjoy what they’re doing.”
Through using positive reinforcement, DeAngelo said you can notice a difference in a dog’s demeanor.
“Now you see the police dogs out in the field and they’re proud and happy,” she said. “It’s amazing just some of the techniques the trainers all over the world are doing and sharing.”
While the training methods have changed, DeAngelo’s pride and love for dogs hasn’t waned over the years. When a dog at the center completes their task—finds a person, a drug, a scent—they get a reward, and the love and pride Penn Vet officials have for the dogs is evident in those moments.
The dogs are rewarded with treats, toys, lots of “good boy” comments told to the dog in an enthusiastic tone—anything that gets the dog excited and ready to work again. As the dogs wag their tails and proudly following orders, the trainers seem to be just as excited as the dogs.
“We have a party, we have everybody standing around and clapping for the dog and the dog gets excited,” DeAngelo said. “It’s a great feeling. The cancer and the medical research, that could bring tears to your eyes. They never cease to amaze me.”