She called on tracking experts, social media users, psychics, and an army of volunteers. Would it be enough to bring her dog home?
May 22, 2017, the day after my birthday, was the longest day I have ever lived. One minute, my Golden Retriever, Sam, was with me, then, in a heartbeat, he was gone.
We were on an uneventful walk near the local Arts Center in Manchester, Vermont, with my friend Ann, her dog Quin, and my two dogs, Charlie, a 10-year-old mixed-breed, and Sam, 7. The dogs were all off-leash, as they are every morning. It was a lovely walk with nothing out of the ordinary.
I always watch Sam because he has a nose that can get him in trouble. When he goes into “Sammy mode,” his stance becomes erect, his tail sticks straight out, and his near-perfect recall is forgotten. If I call him when I see the warning signs, we’re fine; if I wait too long, Sammy follows his nose.
As we were finishing our walk, I attached Sam to a 20-foot lead for the last 50 yards back to my car. Suddenly Charlie took off after something only he could hear. Before I had control of the lead, Sam bolted to follow Charlie, harness on and long leash attached.
Charlie and Quin came back quickly, but Sam didn’t. As the minutes passed, I had a sinking feeling that Sam was stuck somewhere by that long leash, maybe caught on a rock or tree. We backtracked and covered the woods in all directions around where he was last seen, but there was no sign of him.
A Force Was With Her
I called people in the area who might help. A dozen people came and searched, but still no Sammy. Charlie searched with me. I thought if Sam smelled or heard Charlie barking, we might find him. But we came up empty.
We made “missing dog” posters with Sam’s photo and important information (location last seen, contact numbers, etc.) and offered a reward for his safe return. Volunteers put the posters up along roads, in stores, at vets’ offices, grocery stores, and on message boards. They also called police, veterinarians, dog businesses, local shelters, animal controls, and schools. Some volunteers went house-to-house knocking on doors.
Social media exploded. Photos and information posted on my sites were shared by hundreds, all the way to Japan. We posted on the town’s marketplace page and the Chamber of Commerce page, among others.
My husband stayed at home as the central command to field calls and I was always available via cell phone.
We registered with FindToto.com, which allowed us to post on their national site. FindToto robo-called homes in the area where Sam was lost, alerting homeowners to keep their eyes open. This can be very useful in densely populated neighborhoods but is not as efficient in rural or sparsely populated locations.
Willing to try anything, I spoke with two animal psychics.
In my gut, I knew he was close by and stuck by the lead, but we put up flyers in a four- to five-mile radius just in case he ventured out of the local vicinity or someone picked him up.
I left one of Sam’s blankets at the spot where he had vanished. After a long search with my friend in an off-road truck, going where cars couldn’t go, I stayed that night in my car near where I last saw him.
Horrible thoughts kept popping into my mind. Did a predator get him? Was he found and taken by someone, never to be heard of again? Was he hurt? It was impossible to sleep, calm down, or do anything normal.
Twenty-four hours after Sam disappeared, I was a mess, but I had an army of people, many of whom I didn’t know, looking for him. People heard and they came. I was scared and weepy but buoyed by the incredible community support.
A New Direction
When Sam had been missing 25 hours, a call came from a woman who said she saw one of the posters and that she recalled spotting Sam less than an hour after he disappeared. He was crossing the main road with the long lead attached. That changed everything. We had assumed he would either be in the woods or head up the mountain where the smells of animals were strong. Never did we think he might go in the direction of the main road, which is also in the direction of our home. Searchers took off, following the new lead.
After 26 hours, I got the best call I’ve ever received on my cell phone. It was from Mie. Based on the tip from the woman, Mie and two friends from the Tracking Club of Vermont focused on the new area.
Around 10 a.m. they found Sammy.
As I had feared, he had been trapped by his long lead, which had gotten tangled in the underbrush. He was wet, cold, hungry, but not hurt. It was the best reunion ever.
In the following days, many people stopped by to meet him. Someone even made a cake with “Welcome home, Sammy” on it.
May 2020 will be the four-year anniversary of Sam’s adventure. He’s still a legend in this area, and I still have nightmares about it.
Since then, I have spent more time walking and playing with Sam without the other dogs. I returned to basic training exercises using high-value treats on recall games and have engaged in more fun play (like hide and seek and chase).
I might be overboard with my praise and hugs now, but I want Sam to think that I’m the best thing in his world.
One unexpected good thing came from this scary experience. I was overwhelmed by the people who rallied to help, even throughout the night, and blown away by the power of social media and the huge support network that rose up to help this one dog.
Along with saving Sammy, these people, many of them strangers, gave me a great gift. They restored my faith in humanity.
Tips for a Happy Reunion
Any dog can get lost. Here are some things we learned about how to bring them home:
- Trust your instincts. I knew in the pit of my stomach that Sammy was caught by the long lead, and probably not far from where he took off. I also knew that Sam would not bark for help or bark in response to someone calling him.
- Have a collar with your dog’s name and contact information easy to read.
- Sammy was microchipped already, but going forward he will also be wearing GPS technology. Make sure it works for your specific situation. I tried several collars that work off the cellular system but found that they aren’t useful in a rural area like mine with poor cell phone reception. GPS collars, which work on radio frequency, always work. I know exactly where Sam is.
- Take photos of your dog and have them available if you ever need them.