Project 2 Heal matches stress-reducing puppies with veterans and kids

Charlie and Sandy Petrizzo match Labrador retriever puppies with children and adults who need service dogs. (Provided)

WAXHAW, N.C.—“Heal the world, one puppy at a time.” That’s the mission of Project 2 Heal, a nonprofit founded more than a decade ago by devout Catholic Charlie Petrizzo. The organization matches Labrador retriever puppies with children and adults who need service dogs. 

Petrizzo, who credits his love of animals with helping him overcome serious childhood injuries, knows firsthand the positive impact that a dog can have on someone who is struggling physically or mentally. He also believes that through Project 2 Heal’s work to connect veterans with service dogs, he and staff members are helping to live out the Church’s pro-life teachings. 

“We need to be pro-life in everything, so the statistics that show 22 veterans a day and 9,000 a year are taking their own lives is something we need to be concerned about,” Petrizzo said. 

“Studies have shown that having a service dog reduces symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, but it often takes three years for a veteran to get a dog. Our program cuts that time dramatically because we breed dogs that are meant for and trained for service dog work. I look at our story as a pro-life story,” he added. 

Project 2 Heal breeds its own Labrador retriever puppies from select pedigrees proven to be good service dog material. For the first eight to 12 weeks of their lives, the puppies are nurtured in temperament and trained in basic skills needed by service dogs. 

Petrizzo said Project 2 Heal currently sends puppies that have completed initial training to 25 organizations nationwide, which provide further training geared for veterans and children with special needs. About 75% of their puppies successfully become service dogs. 

Brandon Denton, a U.S. Air Force veteran, was recently hired as Project 2 Heal’s director of training. He specialized in training and working with military dogs during five deployments in the Middle East, and said Labrador retrievers are particularly suited for the mission because they love to do a job well. 

“For Labradors, the greatest thing in the world is making their owner happy,” Denton said “They love hearing the words ‘good job’ when they’ve done something right.” 

Denton and other trainers teach the puppies to be comfortable in a wide range of surroundings.

“We go to the airport, bus stations, the mall, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart, grocery stores — any place that a person might go during a regular day,” Denton said. “We don’t know the specific person this puppy will go to, so we try to train them to be able to adapt to any person’s daily lifestyle.”

Petrizzo said the organization recently purchased 54 acres in South Carolina to establish a retreat where veterans can live at no cost, work with the puppies, and hopefully end up with a service dog of their own. 

“Catholic social teaching teaches that private property is supposed to be used for public good, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Petrizzo said. “We’ve learned that trained service dogs can help save lives, and we want to create more awareness and build on the successes we’ve already had.”