K-9 experience now in use at St. Joseph's Hospital

Fax vom Bramberg
Fax vom Bramberg

When a person spends nearly twenty years in the same line of work, they become accustomed to routines. Dave Gabrielli is no different. He had such a passion for his job as a K-9 officer that it never felt like work and every day, it was enjoyable. Over the years, he has learned to read his dog’s body language enabling him to build a solid relationship with all of his dogs, especially Fax. Though Fax was brought over from Europe, he was not trained like today’s K-9’s. He could do patrol but the explosives detection and scent work came later as he and Dave developed their skills. Fax was the ultimate proof in how an officer and a K-9 partner could bond and learn to work as a team. Though the process of how departments obtain K-9’s may have changed over the years, the importance of continuous training has not.

Dogs used to come from shelters or were donated to departments where the handler and K-9 would learn together from the beginning. They have now been replaced by European breeds…mostly Belgian malinois and German shepherds that are already cross-trained in specialties such as explosives detection, patrol, search and rescue or tracking when the departments receive them. That means their price tag is much higher…usually around $12,000. The handlers must then be brought up to speed to work with the dogs before becoming a team on the street. Gabrielli knows that if dogs aren’t continuously trained in what they have learned, they will fail to perform. Each individual handler must learn to read their dog’s body language, give commands and have the dog follow them without hesitation. A few minutes of play just does not cut it for training a highly energetic and intelligent species like a malinois or shepherd. Training is phased in starting for ten minutes a day but gradually works up to an hour and should always be documented. The bond that training creates is extraordinary and that dog will do anything it is asked. Their purpose is to work and they must work every day...even if it is just training.

Exposing a dog to situations that are outside of their comfort zone is imperative. Gabrielli explained that “Municipalities that have business such as train stations, airports, factories, convention centers and sports arenas may have elevators, escalators, sliding automatic doors, sirens, or even sprinklers inside which are often unfamiliar to a dog. The handler needs to expose their dog to these whenever possible. Should they ever come face to face with any of these conditions; the dog cannot become spooked by the crowds, noises, or smells or they will refuse orders. Exposure also means dogs must practice at night to ensure they have the correct response and that it becomes second nature.

Experienced handlers realize that nighttime brings on different sites, sounds, shadows and smells,” said Dave. “A dog’s sense of smell is more acute than humans, especially after a fresh rain.” In fact their sense of smell is so keen that Dave relates it to the odor of tomato sauce cooking: “We smell an aroma of tomato sauce but the dog will smell each individual component: the tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, onions, peppers and seasonings. Not training a dog, whether a K-9 or not, for various situations puts everyone at a disadvantage.”


As knowledgeable as he is in the field, Dave Gabrielli is no longer a working K-9 officer but that doesn’t mean his years of experience, knowledge and training are wasted. When his two shepherds, Princess and Ludwig, had their litter on April 2, 2011, he noticed that one particular pup’s personality was much different than that of Blitz and Fax. He was quieter and loved to be around people. Gabrielli determined that if he could train a dog as a police K-9, why couldn’t he use the same techniques and his experience to train a dog for a different purpose?

He found a local sponsor; affiliated with a national therapy dog organization in Cheyenne, Wyoming and started training his special pup, Leo. The local sponsor prepared and submitted evaluations of Dave and Leo to the national organization. Both needed to pass a skills and disposition evaluation but Leo also needed to be good around other dogs, children, infirmed individuals, medical equipment, carts, wheelchairs, walkers, gurneys, elevators, and much more. Although Dave is still active in law enforcement and has a desire to be a K-9 instructor, he says his training with Leo is less physical on him and allows him to channel his training and love for dogs while also helping people.

“Leo is very therapeutic with people and helps to reduce their phobias in hospital settings.” Equipped with a vest identifying him as “Leo Therapy K-9” and calling cards; the two visit residents of Berks Heim once per month and patients at St. Joseph’s Hospital two times per month for 1 to 1-1/2 hours maximum. Together, with the hospital’s permission, they visit patients in most wards to include Pediatrics, Emergency, Intensive Care, and the Cardiac Care Units unless the patient is in isolation or eating. “It’s a rewarding experience, especially when I enter the Pediatric Ward and the children’s eyes open wide at the site of a 105 pound dog walking toward them. Leo climbs gingerly up beside them and settles right down. He doesn’t touch their IV’s or disrupt medical devices. It’s incredible! I’ve had children even ask me if Leo could stay the night. It’s such a great feeling to see how happy people are to see Leo. He loves people and parents love to see their sick or injured child smile. Luckily, no one has ever used force against him or pushed him away. It’s just been great all around. Older patients tell me stories of the dogs they had while they are stoking his coat and rubbing his face. Leo’s visits seem to make all patients respond better to everyone in the room, even those with memory issues. It is just so remarkable and very humbling.”

Dave Gabrielli took the horrible circumstance of being sent off to war and turned it around to find his niche. There hasn’t been a day that goes by that he regrets accepting the Corps’ “new piece of equipment.” Had it not been for the circumstances presented to him forty years ago and the training he had with his K-9 partner, Sgt. Major; his life could have easily taken another turn. Instead, he nurtured his knowledge of dogs, sought out training and organizations to join and made it his career. He helped his fellow soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam, was called upon to help his country during the 9/11 attacks, spent his career protecting the residents of the City of Reading and now helps ease the stress of those that are injured, infirmed or suffering from dementia. One conversation with Dave Gabrielli reveals just how proud he was to work with canines. To see how he has rerouted his energy using the same techniques from a much more aggressive line of work to now ease the suffering and fears of others is a true credit to what a remarkable K-9 handler he is. This transformation has been a pleasure to watch and this writer has no doubt that he and Leo are bound to impact many lives over the years.