KINGSTON – July 22, 2022 – “SEARCHDOG,” a feature documentary by University of Rhode Island Professor Mary Healey Jamiel and Executive Producer Elaine Rogers, will have its Rhode Island broadcast premiere on Rhode Island PBS Friday, July 22, at 8 p.m. It will also be airing on Saturday, July 23, at 12 p.m. and 11 p.m.
“SEARCHDOG” follows now-retired State Police Sgt. Matthew Zarella as he trains fellow officers and their K-9 partners to conduct search & rescue missions.
“SEARCHDOG” tells the true story of Ruby, a border collie and Australian shepherd mix, rescued from the Rhode Island SPCA just hours before she was scheduled to be euthanized. Returned to the shelter five times due to her ‘aggressive’ behaviors, she became an excellent search dog thanks to Zarella. Her story, detailed in the documentary, became the basis for the Netflix film “Rescued by Ruby,” released earlier this year.
“It’s super cool and I’m super excited and honored that ‘SEARCHDOG’ will be on Rhode Island PBS so that Rhode Island audiences can know the real story of Ruby’s beginnings with Matt Zarella rescuing her, alongside Joe Warzycha from the Rhode Island SPCA,” said Healey Jamiel. “Often in Hollywood, the stories have to be more simply told, and I respect and appreciate that, but what I think Rhode Islanders will really appreciate is how much it took to rescue Ruby and how much effort that our local shelter and Matt Zarella put into her becoming a hero dog.”
The process of making the film took approximately five and a half years. Healey Jamiel first started work on “SEARCHDOG” in April 2010, and began filming that August, when she was called to her first search and rescue mission – a search for a little boy who went missing in Woonsocket, who was found safe and returned to his family thanks to the dogs. Healey Jamiel was on-call with the team for about four years.
The life of a search and rescue K-9 team is grueling, unpredictable and often traumatizing, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. When a dog locates a missing person or human remains, it brings relief and a sense of closure for their loved ones. The training is difficult and the handlers have to work hard to keep the dogs happy even when the work is devastating. Healey Jamiel took on the gargantuan task of putting that on film, cutting years of work into 84 minutes.
“It was a very good lesson for me,” she said. “I had to translate that story for the average viewer and give them a sense of the pressure, the stress, the commitment that these handlers feel along with their commitment to their dogs. It was a real challenge, but a satisfying one.”
The call for a mission could come at any time – days, nights, holidays, weekends, vacations – and Healey Jamiel had to be ready to drop what she was doing at a moment’s notice in order to go and join the team, camera in hand.
“Being on call was an interesting challenge. At first I felt like I was on Mars – in a different county, didn’t speak the language, with only the vaguest, most superficial notions of what the work was. But it was great.” she said. “My students were very understanding, as I was often called away from my classroom or away from a meeting or away from a family gathering. It gave me the real inside experience of these K-9 handlers, because they’re on call 24/7.”
Fresh off of working on “Holy Water-Gate,” a documentary that investigated the cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, she was looking to focus on something a little bit lighter for her next film. She was initially inspired by her own husky, who, while “not at all like an obedient search dog,” was quite smart.
“I wanted to be inspired,” she said, “dogs really are inspiring, and the people who work with them are really inspiring. They have an incredible commitment and patience, far more patience than I will ever have in my lifetime.”
While the work that the dogs and their handlers do is indeed inspiring, Jamiel Healey found assuming their work was not traumatic to be unrealistic. At the advice of fellow URI professor Lynne Derbyshire, Healey Jamiel sought therapy while working on the film.
“I was a little bit naive. If I had really thought about search and rescue and the reason for it, why these dogs do what they do – it’s because of serious and awful things,” she said. “I had to learn how to process seeing things that most civilians wouldn’t see, but that these officers see all the time. What I learned in this world was that the search and rescue folks, what they see in a week or a month, would scar most of us for a lifetime.”
Healey Jamiel developed good relationships with Zarella and his K-9 handler trainees. The process of training a search dog is a long one that requires time, dedication and, most of all, patience. The class that she filmed included three state troopers from Maine and their dogs, as well as Ruby and her handler, Trooper Daniel O’Neil.
In journalism and filmmaking, it’s important to set and keep boundaries between yourself and the people you’re covering. It’s a bit more difficult to do that with a dog, Healey Jamiel explained.
“Those boundaries are strong and they’re so important because that’s where trust happens, in honest professionalism,” she said, “but with these dogs I was a complete fool. They just love when you are being who you are, and I didn’t have any boundaries with them, so emotionally I got way too attached to them.”
Two of the dogs prominently featured in the film, Maximus (who Zarella took to Vietnam to search for the remains of missing soldiers) and Ruby, have sadly both passed away; Maximus in 2011 and Ruby very recently.
Although filming wrapped nearly seven years ago, Healey Jamiel has remained in touch with the officers she worked with. After Ruby passed away, she and Zarella’s family met for dinner to celebrate Ruby’s life. She also stays in touch with the Maine troopers.
Healey Jamiel had many of her URI Harrington School students work with her during filming and post-production, including on festival releases which garnered multiple awards and prestigious invitations around the country and led to the film’s release to Apple and Amazon in 2018. As both a filmmaker and a teacher, she wants people watching the film to understand the tremendous effort and personal risk that goes into search and rescue for K-9s and their handlers.
“The process of making this film has taught me how we each need to take some measure of personal responsibility for our own safety,” she said.
“It sounds a little preachy, but one simple thing you can do if you are going hiking, boating or camping, for example, is just be aware and take a little extra time to prepare. 20 minutes or 20 seconds of preparation– studying a map, preparing your sack, making sure you take everything you’ll need – can save your life and help you avoid putting others at risk if you become lost or missing.”
Mary Lind, a graduate student working for URI’s Department of Marketing and Communications, wrote this release.