Healing Charlotte Podcast: Charlie Petrizzo, Project 2 Heal

This episode features Charlie Petrizzo the Founder and CEO of Project 2 Heal. His organization is the only non-profit in the United States that focuses on expert animal husbandry and rearing of outstanding pedigree Labrador Retrievers to serve the service dog industry. Charlie’s path leading up to starting Project 2 Heal was marked by tragedy and triumph during his childhood. He suffered from two accidents in his childhood; one was when he was 4 years old and was struck by a car and suffered a traumatic brain injury and paralyzed on the left side of his body ~1 year, and electrocuted at age 16 that burned 70% of his body. Charlie understood the support dogs can provide as his childhood dog was by his side during his recovery as a teenager. As an adult, he moved to Charlotte for a job and shortly thereafter lost his father in law and mother. This gave him an opportunity to rethink his own life as he went through a depression, and came out on the other side with a call to serve others. Charlie and his wife Sandy started to narrow their focus on using dogs as healers. He read an article about service dog organizations that don’t have a breeding program will use dogs from the shelter and only about 1/12 dogs will make it to service work. From there Charlie found his calling. In 2006, Charlie and his wife Sandy decided that they would run a breeding program for Labrador Retrievers to donate to service dog organizations where they would train the dogs to give to military vets in need of support.

The most recent shift in the service dog industry is the decline in “puppy raisers.” These are volunteers who keep puppies in their home that are in line for service work from 12 weeks to 1 year old. They are a vital piece of raising a service animal. Before the pandemic, a majority of puppy raisers were in the prison population and on college campuses. These sources dried up during the pandemic. Charlie has decided to start his own puppy raising at Project 2 Heal by keeping the puppies and providing all of the necessary tasks in the first year before turning them over for the professional service dog training. He knows this will reduce costs and shorten the length of time to getting the dog to the vet. K9s for Warriors has a 4-year wait for dogs to get to their vets. Purdue University which is the leading researcher of the canine-human bond, found that Vets with a service dog vs Vets without a service dog had decreased episodes of hyper-vigilance, night tremors, outbursts of anger, and irrational outbursts, and lower waking levels of cortisol. All of these symptoms are contributing factors that lead to death by suicide.

“They{military vets} said yes to their country and they’re coming back now and it’s really hard for them to pay $30k for a service dog. So we have to find it in our non-profit work to get these dogs to these guys quicker so we don’t lose as many.”

Labs are used in this work because they were originally breed to be working dogs. They started in Canada helping retrieve nets and fishing gear out of the water, then to England as hunting dogs, and in America were used historically for bird and duck hunting.

“They{labrador retrievers} are as comfortable laying down at the feet of their owner as they are out working or retrieving in the field.”

Charlie and his team’s work at Project 2 Heal is to breed dogs that have the right demeanor and desire to work. They do hip, elbow, heart, and eye tests as well as 8 genetic test to make sure they are donating top notch dogs free from as many health issues as possible. Before the puppies are 12-weeks old, Project 2 Heal engages them in as many activities to prepare them for this work. Early Neurological Stimulation starts at 48 hours which helps jump start further brain development and creates a stronger cardiovascular and adrenal gland system as well as makes them less reactive to novel stimulus. Puppy Prodigy works starts at 3 weeks where they learn to move their bodies which gets them ready for obedience training. At 8-weeks old, puppies start positive reinforcement for obedience. During this time, the puppies also have a puppy experience room to visit which exposes them to different objects and sounds.

Service dogs for Psychiatric work take about 1.5 years of training before they are ready and Service dogs trained for mobility task work take a few months longer. Costs for training vary between $25k and $40k. Charlie’s work is to lower the costs and time of getting these dogs to vets who need them.

Outside of breeding dogs for service work, Project 2 Heal has several other programs. The school based program brings his dogs into Union County schools to help special needs, lower socioeconomic, and talent development students. The mental health program is for businesses to schedule time for the puppies to be on-site for employees to engage with them. The chaperone home program is for people who are willing to house a dog who may be used in the breeding program for up to 3x and then keep the dog after that. Their volunteer program is for anyone who would like to help out with puppy parties and taking the dogs to places and events.

“We think that we are called to serve others and this is our community and we are trying to build a community of dog lovers who want to use that love and understanding of their own relationship with a dog and who understand how it can help someone who is really hurting to join us in whatever way they can.”

Ways to support Project 2 Heal are through volunteering your time, talent, and/or treasure. Charlie wants to heal Charlotte as he loves it and wishes he was born here. You can watch “Charlie’s Scars”, a movie about his life and work. Contact Project 2 Heal through their website or call the office, 704-256-4056.