Puppy-in-training bears local moniker


By Suzanne Montgomery
Opelika Observer

You’ll not find her wearing a red cape or falling to earth in a rocket propelled capsule, but she has the DNA of a hero.  Instead, the less than 5 pound little girl boasts a velvety furry coat and a cool black nose.  Oblivious to the adventures awaiting her, she is content to snuggle against her mother, Lilly, and sleep the day away.
She is however, sporting a big name for such a little one. The Labrador puppy, born Nov. 13 within the kennels of Auburn’s Canine Performance Science (CPS) facility, is named Opelika. Given the name by Canine Performance Science Volunteer Coordinator, Lela Lofton, “Opelika” was a litter of one and is destined for a life as a detector dog.
According to Lofton, each dog takes a letter in the alphabet and a sequenced number within the particular litter to indicate the birth order.
“With just one puppy in this litter, and the letter “O” in the birthing succession, it just seemed appropriate,” said Lofton. And so, not only did the little puppy get an important and distinguished  name, but an idea for naming other puppies after cities and states was born.
The select breeding that goes into these canines is an applied science of genetics and molecular genomics. Through breeding, teaching and outreach, Auburn University’s  Canine Performance Science is continually improving canines that will be working in a wide array of services to local communities and the world.
Detector dogs are utilized in uncovering explosives, biological substances and other threats to local or national security. Because detector dogs are hard to find,  they must be bred and selected for such characteristics as high motivation, attentiveness, trainability and a high drive for hunt and reward. The dogs also must be medically sound and able to work under many different environmental challenges while not being  frightened or distracted.
Even at this early stage, “Opelika” is undergoing a specific and highly organized training  program developed by CPS until she reaches 6 months old.  After her initial training and socialization, she will be placed with a carefully selected prison inmate and undergo a precise, monitored curriculum for detector dog training.
Then, at about 12 months of age, “Opelika” will be transferred to a company that partners with CPS to continue training and will ultimately place her with a specified handler for further training and deployment.  Alternatively, she may be selected to take part in the CPS detector dog research or breeding program.
At this moment, “Opelika” is just having fun and is unaware that she is going through a vigorous and highly developed critical training that will lay her foundation for her future as a hero detector dog.
“The training that Opelika will receive during her early life will encourage and enhance her genetic capabilities for a time when she is a working detector dog,” said Lofton. CPS volunteers – who come from the community at large, the university students and local elementary school children – take part in the development and training of the puppies in the CPS program. While training and development is taken very seriously and goes from the simple to the complex, little Opelika and the volunteers just call it fun.
“Our volunteers are such an important part of a puppy’s development,” said Lofton.  “The early months of socialization and specific training the dogs receive shape their future.”
“And we’re excited about the prospect of other communities wanting to adopt a puppy named for their town or county,” said Dr. Jim Floyd, director of Auburn’s Canine Performance Sciences. “Individual towns and cities could have a canine ambassador representing them through important life-saving work and can represent a community as their own town hero.”
Anyone who would like to learn more about Auburn University’s Canine Performance Sciences or would like to participate in their volunteer training program can contact Lofton by email at lml0033@auburn.edu or Floyd at jgf0003@auburn.edu.