Once unadoptable, dog in Rhode Island joins K9 unit, becomes a lifesaver

Before she was a year old, Ruby had been returned to the RISPCA four times. Now she’s up for a national award as a hero dog.

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Before she was a year old, Ruby had been returned to the RISPCA four times. She was unmanageable, aggressive toward children and other pets, and came within two hours of being destroyed.

Now she’s up for a national award as a hero dog.

Each time Ruby was returned to the East Providence shelter of the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, volunteer dog trainer Patricia Inman worked with her to make her more adoptable.

Inman, who runs Lazybones Dog Training in Chepachet, saw potential in Ruby despite her problem behaviors.

“She did not have an off switch,” Inman wrote in a Facebook message while declining an interview. “She was too much dog for most families.”

She also had some “dog aggression issues,” said Joe Warzycha, director of operations at the RISPCA.

“We had exhausted all options with her,” he said. “Pat Inman was a big advocate” for Ruby, a mix of Australian shepherd and border collie. As a professional dog trainer, Inman persuaded Warzycha that Ruby needed a job and “a handler who knew what he or she was doing.”

He decided to try something “outside our normal protocol.”

He asked his friend Matthew Zarrella, at the time a Rhode Island State Police trooper who was building the state police K9 unit, to evaluate her.

Zarrella spent four or five hours with her at the RISPCA, then took her home for two weeks, said Daniel O’Neil, who had been a state trooper at that point for seven years. It was his lifelong dream to become a K9 officer because he believes police dogs “can make a difference in this world.”

Zarrella called O’Neil. He said, “You made the K9 unit,” and “I have a dog for you.” He also described the dog as “high energy and completely disobedient,” O’Neil said.

0’Neil, now 37 and assigned to the North Kingstown state police barracks, lives in East Greenwich. He remembers Ruby as “just crazy. Just bouncing off the walls.”

The moment she entered his house, Ruby “went right into the living room and left me a present.”

The O’Neils had a toddler and were expecting their second child. They also had an older German shepherd/shar-pei mix. O’Neil introduced Ruby to the family and to her new status at the bottom of the pack.

For the next four months, O’Neil said, he didn’t let her out of his sight for a second. They were inseparable. She came along on his four- or five-mile runs. He brought her to work, even though she wasn’t yet a police dog. They bonded. “The dog has to really love you to work for you,” he said.

“As soon as she had a stable environment, she really came into her own,” O’Neil said.

“She made a miraculous transformation,” Warzycha said.

If O’Neil drops her leash, Ruby sits and stays. To keep her certification, she has to hold a stay for five minutes, and the pair logs 16 hours of training every two weeks. She wears a state police badge on her collar. The two visit schools as ambassadors for the state police and for shelter dogs. She greets strangers with wags and kisses.

O’Neil and Ruby earned certifications in search and rescue and in cadaver searches. She has led him to human remains 10 times and, in 20 missing-person searches, he said, she has found three people alive.

They appear in “Searchdog,” a documentary about Zarrella, on her first cadaver search from a boat. She picked up the scent, O’Neil said, and was pointing the way when another searcher found the body.

Last October, after the Glocester police had searched 24 hours for a missing teen, they asked for help, and the state police sent Ruby and O’Neil and another team. “We were a mile and a half into the woods when Ruby all of a sudden quickly darted,” O’Neil said. “Sure as anything, we came around the corner, and the young man had fallen and hit his head and was severely injured. She was sitting there licking his face. She was trying to revive him.”

O’Neil found the young man’s pulse and radioed for help. The young man spent two weeks in the hospital and has fully recovered, O’Neil said.

The teen’s mother, who believes that Ruby saved her son’s life, is Patricia Inman, the trainer who helped save Ruby’s life.

Ruby is one of nine candidates in the search and rescue category for the American Humane Hero Dog Awards. People can visit the website at herodogawards.org/dog/ruby/ and vote once a day in each of seven categories until 3 p.m. ET April 25.

Donita Naylor is a reporter for The Providence (R.I.) Journal.

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