Film festivals are abuzz with a new documentary that showcases second chances and justice when humans and canines unite.
Rhode Island State Police Sergeant Matt Zarrella found his calling when he combined his love of dogs with helping people. He stars in the 2016 debut of documentary "Searchdog." Although many would argue that Zarrella's dogs are the real stars of the film.
Director Mary Healey Jamiel spent over six years creating the documentary, four years filming and two in post-production. She attended the premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) on May 28, 2016, alongside a few of the human cast members, and one dignified K9.
The film opens with Zarrella and one of his search and rescue dogs on the beach looking for a potential suicide victim who is suspected to have drowned. The opening is a bit jarring when the viewer realizes that the work of Zarrella's canines don't always result in happy endings, but they do lead to long awaited closure, even in decades-long cold cases.
German Shepherd Max was one of Zarrella's first rescue dogs. Max traveled to Vietnam with his owner in 2005 to search for a pilot downed during the war back in 1966. Following his nose, Max located the pilot's buried remains, helping a family find overdue peace.
"Searchdog" tugs at dog lovers' heartstrings by following along with the human-canine journey in which Zarrella saves aggressive dogs on death row. Unfazed, he stares down growling canines and battles snarling hounds to the ground, exerting dominance. The end result is a submissive, obedient, trainable, lovable pup.
Ruby, a German and Australian Shepherd mix, was one such rescue case, and she happened to be in the audience during the SIFF viewing, wearing her police badge and announcing her presence with frequent barks whenever attendees clapped. Zarrella plucked Ruby from a shelter a mere two hours before her scheduled euthanasia. Deemed unadoptable, Ruby had been returned five times by owners due to severe dog aggression.
Throughout the film, Zarrella, due to retire, is in the process of handing off the reins, teaching K9 academy recruits how to train search and rescue dogs. Each officer was paired with an individual pup and had one to two years of intense training.
Dan O'Neil was Ruby's trainer, also in attendance at SIFF and fielding a post-preview Q&A along with Zarrella's mentor, Andy Rebman.
The training regime includes command obedience and proper behavioral responses when a human scent is picked up on. Dogs are trained to sniff in varying landscapes and weather conditions. Their noses even detect odors meters beneath the water's surface. The handler has to calculate the search area by accounting for the scent's drift based on current and wind.
Because the dogs work on urgent missing persons cases and also cold cases, they are trained to detect human odors in varying degrees of decay as well as live bodies. Their response upon discovering a body versus a clandestine grave varies.
When they find a corpse, the dogs visually recognize a human and bark, expecting a treat. For buried or mangled bodies, the dogs sit quietly at the site, waiting for a treat from their trainer. While the police team uses clicker training to teach the dogs the search and rescue hunt, for the dogs, it's just a game. They expect a treat as their reward for finding what they set out to find.
Zarrella and the other police officers are not immune to the emotional stress of the job. Constantly mobbed with media and frantic families, they know the importance of remaining calm so that the K9 unit can do its job. If the trainer is stressed then the dog becomes distracted, so unique is the bond between a police officer and his or her searchdog.