From Rescuing Italian Earthquake Victims With Dogs To Now Training Them In Ireland

With Dogs

‘There was an earthquake twenty years ago in the south of Italy, you couldn’t reach the particular area anymore by road so we had to take a helicopter. I was a deployed with a dog and another earthquake came in. I was already not on steady ground, a house had collapsed, then I fell another twenty maybe thirty metres in just a few seconds. I was by myself and all I could do was hope that someone would see me.’ That experience changed Alex Petrilli’s life. He was twenty five and thought that he was invincible but in that moment he realised the cliché that life does go by so fast.

The Eurasian Plate and African Plate meet under Italy which leads to a lot of seismic and volcanic activity. Most of the incidents happen in central and southern Italy. ‘My main job with the dogs was to find missing people from earthquakes.  There could be three thousand people missing and at that stage you know it’s dead bodies that you will be finding.’

For people that have never experienced devastation on that scale it’s impossible to comprehend how grim and terrifying Petrilli’s task was. Just him and his dog in areas that had been annihilated,  ‘80% of time you are finding a dead body,  I enjoyed working with the dog but it’s terrible to find a body. The working dog doesn’t care what he is finding, it’s a game to him. He just cares about the reward of playing after he completes his task.’ Petrilli knew it was time for a change.

Petrilli is from Turin, he has a grin that is infectious. His physique is strong and self assured. When he speaks he leans over his espresso on the table, when he listens he sits back and observes intently. His words fall with ease but not in a hyper babble, it’s employed with a quiet authority.

When he was seventeen he was conscripted into the army, a practise that ended in 2000 in Italy. ‘I was already training dogs as an assistant trainer in a private school. For the year of military service they asked me to be a dog handler, I ended up staying there for ten years.’ He studied veterinary science for a while but he hated it, he wanted to work with the dog’s mind. ‘Vets don’t do one exam on animal behaviour so its very difficult for them to give advice.’

Love Of Dogs

‘My parents always had mastiffs as a young child I would ride around on them!’ Somewhat on topic, it is said that Venetian traders brought the first strain of mastiffs to the UK. The mastiff used to be his favourite breed but that has now been replaced by a golden retriever, he loves their energy, trustworthiness, friendliness and intelligence. These are qualities that Petrilli personifies himself however he would be too embarrassed to admit it.

When he was seven he used to spend his summers on his Grandad’s farm. Petrilli’s parents are from the south of Italy and for the school holidays they would send him to where they grew up, the rural Italian countryside. He would avidly watch as his Grandad used the dog to herd sheep. Unfortunately for Petrilli boredom fast grew over him due to the isolation, the nearest shop was ten miles away. He soon found friendship with his Grandad’s dog, they would roam the land for hours on end, he was his best friend and that bond cemented his future with dogs.

Enough Of Dogs

His original goal when he relocated to Ireland in the early 2000’s was for study. ‘I wanted to do my masters in animal behaviour and welfare, there was no course in it in Italy, there was some in the USA but I was twenty five and had no money. I had six months free to learn English in order to do my masters. It was between England and Ireland, I picked Ireland because I had spend three weeks living there when I was fifteen and this time around I never left!’ However Petrilli decided to shun his original plan of further study in animals and embraced company life instead. And so began a career that saw him work for Facebook, IBM and Sony Ericsson to name a few. He managed teams and developed sales strategies for foreign markets.

As a natural leader with a commanding presence, it was only natural that he excelled in that world, simultaneously he started up a not for profit dog training company called King of Paws, he continued to have this part of his life simmer along as he secured more senior company roles.

Several years later the dog world started to draw him back in. In 2013 he graduated from Queens University with a masters in animal behaviour and welfare. The King of Paws started to demand more of his time, it got to the point were he was doing seven day weeks and his wife said that something had to give. ‘It was a very difficult situation, I was working for Facebook and they  paid very well and really looked after you. My wife just wanted me to be happy but made it clear also that bills would still have to be paid! In the end I decided to commit to King of Paws. I’m glad I did, I wouldn’t go back.’

Dog Training

‘Training a dog is easy it’s training people that’s difficult!’ King of Paws is located on the grounds of the DSPCA in Rathfarmham. It has fifty five full-time employees, over two thousand volunteers and twenty-five dog trainers. They also hold dog training internships of six months to two years.

‘I only take trainers that are coming from a corporate world, the problem with trainers that come from a dog only world is that they are great with dogs but not people, the dogs are not paying the bills! You need people from marketing and sales backgrounds, they understand how people work, and how to get them motivated.’

He feels that there is a lot of people who just treat a dog like a commodity, they leave it at home all dog with few walks which leads to bad habits and depression in the dog. ‘In Europe most people live in apartments, they walk their dogs two to three times a day. My father is my inspiration, for forty years he always came home every lunch break to walk the dogs.’

Petrilli is a man that believes in statistics, he is constantly reading behavioural journals to learn more, he believes in facts. It for that reason that he gets very annoyed at some of the training concepts he sees on TV, ‘some trainer said that a dog is trying to take responsibility, another one said you should poke a dog to get it’s attention!’

He doesn’t believe in training the perfect pet, that’s more the remit of working dogs. His goal is to get the dog to obey you and not destroy your house. ‘Dogs don’t want to be a boss, they have the same intelligence of a one or three year old child. A kid doesn’t want to be the boss! A kid just wants to do what he wants to do! It’s the same with a dog, it’s down to education to teach him right from wrong.’

‘I select a lot of dogs here for the Gardai unit. Training to find those types of dogs is not easy.’ It consists of eighteen weeks of basic training and if they make it through that they go into twelve weeks of  advanced training, there they specialise and hopefully get a job. It’s not just humans that face the wrath of unemployment!

The Future

The next step for his business is to take his method global, the first market he will go after is the UK. He already gives sold out seminars and finds it an excellent way to educate dog owners.

It’s fascinating to listen to how Petrilli’s life has spun full circle. His love of dogs began whilst watching his Grandad’s dog herd sheep over the southern Italian fields. As he speaks you can hear the constant yapping of happy dogs playing outside, a fitting soundtrack to Petrilli’s journey to date.

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