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Dog whisperer turns rejects and strays into K-9 officers

A Rhode Island police officer has gone the extra step in finding a canine partner, adopting dogs from the pound and training them to make an impact around the world. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

The teen boy lay wedged between rocks on a Rhode Island hillside, injured and bleeding, as search parties scoured the woods around him. Police knew he was nearby, but after 24 hours without success they’d grown frustrated, and the boy’s parents had grown more worried, knowing time could be drawing short.

Then a big furry family dog, a 130-pound Swiss Alpine named Hannibal, came bounding over the ridge, and an arm shot out of the crack in the rocks to hug the dog.

“[The boy] put his arm around the dog’s neck,” recalled Matt Zarrella, Hannibal’s owner and trainer. “I climbed up and over and looked down, and he was in between the rocks.”

Hannibal had made his first rescue, and Zarrella had embarked on a storied two-decade career as a trainer of search and rescue dogs. After turning his own beloved pet Hannibal into Rhode Island’s first k-9 officer, Zarrella became the Rhode Island State Police’s own dog whisperer. Sgt. Zarrella trains dogs for his own force, but has also lent his animals and his expertise to the DEA, the Defense Department and the FBI.

Zarrella’s colleagues say the former Marine and lifelong dog lover has a supernatural connection with his animals, but Zarrella said he also feels a bond to the missing humans he’s trying to find, and to the families who are waiting for rescue or closure.

“It’s a connection you have with someone you don’t even know,” explained Zarrella. “Yet you’re both human beings, you both deserve respect, you deserve that opportunity to be found.”

Mary Healey Jamiel / RELIANCE

Sgt. Matt Zarrella of the Rhode Island State Police and his dog Hannibal.

Zarrella gets his K-9 helpers from shelters and pounds, saving some of them from euthanasia. Almost 10 years ago, he took Maximus, a German Shepherd rescued from the pound at six months old, and another dog to Vietnam to search for the body of a U.S. pilot shot down in 1965. The dogs didn’t disappoint, solving a 40-year-old mystery.

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

Zarrella’s dogs have also helped find a mass grave in Colombia for the DEA and, incredibly, locate a downed plane in 100 feet of water off of Block Island.

One of Zarrella’s newest recruits is a K-9 officer named Ruby. Ruby, a two-and-half-year-old Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix, was hours from being put down when Zarrella found her.

Mary Healey Jamiel / RELIANCE

Sgt. Zarrella trains dogs like Hannibal to do search and rescue.

“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,” said Zarella.

Zarrella has now caught the eye of a documentary filmmaker, whose 90-minute profile, titled “Reliance,” is in its final stages of production.

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

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