Former Marine turns homeless dogs into K-9 officers

Former Marine and current Rhode Island State Police Officer Matt Zarrella has always had a way with dogs. In fact, Zarrella’s peers describe his canine connection as almost supernatural.

Two of Zarrella’s K-9 dogs solved a 40-year-old mystery in Vietnam, when they found the remains of a U.S. pilot who was shot down in 1965.

“Matt Zarrella is the best there is,” K-9 unit colleague James Rawley tells the Christian Science Monitor.

Perhaps that’s why over the past two decades, Officer Zarrella has become the go-to guy for training K-9 search and rescue dogs. In addition to being the State Police force’s “dog whisperer,” Zarrella also helped prepare rescue dogs to work with the DEA and the FBI.

While many law enforcement agencies spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to purchase their K-9 officers, Zarrella gets his pool of recruits from nearby animal shelters and rescue organizations, giving dogs who might otherwise have been euthanized a second chance and an important job.

His most recent trainee is 2 1/2-year-old Australian ShepherdBorder Collie mix Ruby. Ruby was mere hours away from being euthanized at the pound when Zarrella found her.

“I wanted to take a dog that didn’t have a shot, that I know physiologically can do the work. It’s just a matter of motivation,” Zarrella says of Ruby and his other K-9 recruits.

In addition to saving dogs, Zarrella is also motivated by his desire to help people — to rescue those who are missing and to provide closure to families.

“It’s a connection you have with someone you don’t even know,” Zarrella explains of the bond he shares with those missing persons. “Yet you’re both human beings, you both deserve respect, you deserve that opportunity to be found.”

Zarrella is constantly amazed at his dogs’ abilities. Years ago, he pulled a 6-month-old German Shepherd puppy named Maximus, or Max, from a local pound.

“He was a handful, spinning around and barking,” Zarrella remembers. “But I could tell he had excellent problem-solving ability.”

After putting Max through his training regiment, Zarrella brought Max and another dog to Vietnam, hoping to find the body of a U.S. pilot who’d been shot down in 1965. Astonishingly, his dogs were able to solve this 40-year-old mystery.

“Bone fragments the size of your fingernail,” Zarrella exclaimed. “Just an amazing accomplishment by the dogs.”

Zarrella’s dogs have also been responsible for helping the DEA locate a mass grave in Columbia and finding the wreckage of a downed plane in 100 feet of water of the coast of Block Island.

Dogs trained by Zarrella are always involved in unbelievable achievements. Zarrella even trained his own beloved family pet, 130-pound Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, Hannibal, to be Rhode Island’s first police K-9 dog. Hannibal is credited with saving the life of a teenage boy who’d gone missing. The boy was injured, and for more than 24 hours he’d clung to some rocks, desperately hoping for rescue.

“[The boy] put his arm around the dog’s neck,” Zarrella tells NBC News. “I climbed up and over and looked down, and he was in between the rocks.”

Zarrella says he feels so lucky to be able to work with such extraordinary animals.

“I believe that God put me on Earth to work with animals and help my fellow human beings,” he says.

Those who want to learn more about Matt Zarrella and his remarkable dogs are in luck; documentary filmmaker Mary Healey Jamiel says she is in the final stages of production on Reliance, a 90-minute documentary about Zarrella’s work.

“I feel like it’s the ultimate second-chance story,” Jamiel explains. “Here are these dogs that are discarded, and now they can save people.”

Sources: NBC News, Christian Science Monitor