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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.

By Cynthia AndersonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 2006


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.

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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.