Backstory: Max to the rescue

In Rhode Island, an energetic German shepherd named Maximus and his handler, an ex-Marine who has a deft touch with dogs, team up to become one of the nation's most effective K-9 units.

Ears back, shoulders forward, 4-year-old Maximus is trying to muscle his way to the front of a pack of 200 first responders on the downtown scene of a simulated disaster.

Other K-9 members of Task Force 1 may be distracted by all the emergency vehicles or even – no names named – fooling around, but not Maximus. He is 75 pounds of single-minded purpose. There's work to do, and he wants at it. His choke collar tightens as he pulls.

"Hold on," says his handler and housemate, Cpl. Matthew Zarrella of the Rhode Island State Police. A powerfully built ex-Marine, Corporal Zarrella seems as focused and intense as Max. He is the kind of man who can pull a 13-hour shift, a 70-hour week and get up on Monday and do it all again. Eagerly.

Zarrella's drive and love for K-9 work has helped make him one of the top trainers in the United States. In a post-9/11 environment, with law-enforcement agents and civilians seeking to certify dogs in search and rescue, the call for Zarrella's expertise has never been greater. His success stems, in large measure, from the rapport he establishes with his dogs.

"Matt Zarrella is the best there is," says James Rawley, another member of the K-9 unit. "He and Max are so tuned in to each other. Matt's able to read his dog before anyone else in the room even knows what's going on. And he's able to transfer that knowledge to other handlers and their dogs."

Sweating, Zarrella pulls on Max's leash to hold him back. The German shepherd looks around as if to say, "Let's do it," but Zarrella waits to hear details of the catastrophe: a blown-up minivan, collapsed buildings, dozens of casualties. The K-9 unit is divided into squads; Max and Zarrella will search city hall. They're up to the challenge. They got a good night's sleep, breakfasted on bowls of Back-to-Basics kibble and Blueberry Morning cereal, respectively, and were on scene by 7:30 a.m.

What's more, the pair has compiled an extensive record of "finds," including: Waveland, Miss., after hurricane Katrina; Vietnam, where Maximus located the remains of a missing American pilot; and nearby Westerly, R.I., where Max rescued a man lost in the woods.

Finally the door to city hall swings open. Max and Zarrella surge forward, along with another handler and her 6-month-old border collie, a rookie. Inside it's dark, especially in the labyrinthine basement. Zarrella switches on his headlamp, unsnaps Max's leash, and slips the choke over his head. "Search 'em out," he commands. The dog takes off, a scent machine with a nose 100 times more sensitive than a human's.

Through training, he's learned to seek only people in trouble – down, immobilized, or unconscious. He disappears into a tunnel, with Zarrella close behind. "Anybody here?" Zarrella's voice echoes. "Anybody need help?" Max loops back, continuously checking in.

Maximus finds his first victim in a fourth-floor office. A teenager with a bloodied face huddles against the wall. Max stands by him as Zarrella approaches. "Good boy!" he tells the dog. Even though the scene is simulated, to Max a find is a find. He accepts his reward – a treat – with eagerness. Zarrella strokes the dog's ears. Maximus's tongue hangs happily out of the side of his mouth.

***

Before Max, there were three other dogs: Hannibal, Gunner, and Panzer. Zarrella trained them, too, and with each accrued impressive finds. Now it's Zarrella and Max who are together 24/7, on the job or at home in Narragansett, R.I., where Max and another shepherd, Eva, share immaculate downstairs quarters. The tiled floor is free of hair, and there is no doggy smell. Their backyard play area includes a koi pond and lush grass.

Zarrella rescued Max from an animal shelter when he was 6 months old. "He was a handful, spinning around and barking. But I could tell he had excellent problem-solving ability," says Zarrella, who refers to himself as "Dad." In many ways Max does seem like a precocious toddler: strong-willed, energetic, and smart.

Zarrella began his training by teaching the dog to recognize the scent of chemical byproducts present in human decomposition. If Max succeeded in locating a scent-laden object (sometimes a gauze bandage), he received a treat or the opportunity to play with his favorite tennis ball. The searches gradually grew more difficult, from shallow gravel areas to larger ones with a complex array of smells. Max was taught to indicate he'd made a find by sitting quietly beside it. He proved to be a quick study.

Even though any dog can be trained for search and rescue, sturdy ones with stamina and focus tend to dominate. It's more a matter of temperament than of breed, although Zarrella says he's never trained a toy dog, and hunting breeds can be difficult to teach because of their inherent drive for game.

Max and Zarrella grew close during their trip to Vietnam in 2003. "We were searching the jungles, looking for remains day after day. That strengthened our bond," says Zarrella. They made dozens of searches; Zarrella later received a plaque for their contribution to the recovery of the body of a pilot shot down in 1965.

When he talks about his canine partners – and his own part in K-9 search and rescue – Zarrella grows as soft as he otherwise is tough. "I believe that God put me on Earth to work with animals and help my fellow human beings," he says.

His words characterize the K-9 community – no-nonsense, caring people who see it as perfectly plausible that a dog can be an instrument, a fool for a squeaky toy, and a hero, all at the same time. If the dogs are sometimes anthropomorphized, surely it's because of their close ties with their human partners. "Every canine handler ... should take one long look into the eyes of their canine partner," writes master trainer Jonni Joyce. "[W]hat they see is a mirror image of their own strengths and weaknesses, their own hopes and desires, their own needs and feelings."

The job is not without danger. In 1995, Zarrella traveled to Colombia with the Drug Enforcement Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation to search for a mass grave. One afternoon, while leaving the site with Hannibal and Panzer in an open-bed truck, a Jeep sped up behind them. Two Colombian marines guarding them brandished their weapons. The Jeep veered away. Zarrella learned it was an attempt on his life.

***

After city hall is cleared, Max and Zarrella reunite outside with the rest of the unit. Among the other dogs, Max lights up – eyes shining, tail in nonstop motion. His demeanor differs from that of the serious K-9 who minutes ago was sweeping a building for survivors. He sniffs and licks and prances. Zarrella, too, is relaxed. He smiles as the Providence police chief pulls up in his SUV to congratulate the unit on its efficiency.

Later, the team gathers in a nearby restaurant to discuss the exercise. "Everybody did great," Zarrella says. Indeed, a federal emergency evaluator cites their unit as the only one that showed "urgency."

Still, Zarrella is cautious. Every team is only as good as its next search. Outside in the parking lot, the dogs rest in their handlers' vehicles. Sprawled in his kennel, Max drowses, chin resting on paws. His work is done, for now.

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