South Charlotte

Companion dogs help ill children

On three acres in Waxhaw, Charlie Petrizzo, 47, raises companion dogs for children with chronic conditions, serious injuries and special needs including autism and Down syndrome.

Petrizzo and his wife, Sandy, began raising Labrador retrievers as companion dogs in 2005.

In January, they named their foundation Project 2 Heal and gained nonprofit status. Their two adopted daughters - Melissa, 15, and Kristen, 14 - also help care for the dogs.

Companion dogs can help heal the emotional hurt and isolation many children feel with illness or disability, according to Petrizzo. The dogs have a calming effect on children with autism, helping them focus, learn and communicate better, bond, improve skills such as eye contact and reduce anxiety, said Petrizzo.

"We got a call from a mother crying on the phone because her child who could never focus is now sitting down playing retrieve with the dog," he said. "We get beautiful letters from people about how the dogs have turned their kids' lives around. That makes it all worth while."

Petrizzo said he understands what it means to recover from massive brain trauma and paralysis, and he continues to live with chronic pain, physical limitations and disfiguring scars.

When he was 5, he was hit by a car; he was in a coma for several days and the left side of his body was paralyzed for about six months.

At 16, he struck a live electrical wire with an extension ladder while working a summer job. He spent months recovering from third-degree burns and still has sensitive scars on his scalp. Damaged muscles on the left side of his torso were removed, leaving the right side of his body to compensate for the instability.

He still has trouble sleeping, standing and sitting for long periods and is on medication for the pain caused by the missing muscles.

Petrizzo recalls having a dog as a child helped him with his emotional and physical recovery.

While some dogs are placed through sales, Petrizzo also donates several of the dogs he raises, and sometimes lends dogs to families with children with terminal illness.

"I want to hear from the parent that the most important reason the child needs a dog, outside all the other reasons, is that the child needs a friend," said Petrizzo.

Petrizzo raises Labradors, selecting them from top pedigrees with a history of healthy, intelligent dogs from the most responsible breeders.

"Labs are excellent with children, train easily and have a pleasing disposition," said Petrizzo.

Petrizzo starts training the puppies at 2 days old. He uses a process called early neurological stimulation for the first two weeks, to teach the puppies to be less reactive to unusual circumstances, so that they will be relaxed, well-behaved, self-confident dogs.

The training includes tickling the puppies' pads with a cotton swab, briefly placing them on a towel colder than their normal ambient temperature and holding them upright and gently rubbing them against human skin to get them used to different stimuli and smells.

Then Petrizzo teaches them basic commands, how to walk calmly on a loose leash and how to retrieve. Dogs typically are fully trained and ready for adoption between 1 and 2 years old.

If the dog is to become a service dog, used in public to perform at least three tasks to mitigate a disability, he enlists the assistance of a service dog training agency.

Service dogs can also accomplish specific life tasks such as opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off or retrieving clothing or medicine.

Petrizzo has been working with dogs since he was 18 years old. He is a certified dog trainer with an advanced diploma, resulting from five years of education in his field.

As helpful and independent as the dogs become, Petrizzo is quick to remind people about the responsibilities of proper dog ownership.

"There's a lot of technology out there that does what a service dog does, and the technology doesn't need to be fed, walked or brought to the vet," said Petrizzo. "These are still animals at the end of the day."