Two days until Christmas and Chandler Ray could not wait to get home.
A heavy rain did not deter the 23-year-old as he left his girlfriend’s place in Raleigh, North Carolina, to make the two-hour trip to see his family.
His drive had barely started when his vehicle hydroplaned on the wet road, flipped, and struck a tree. The crash totaled his car and critically injured Ray. As paramedics airlifted him to the hospital, they had no idea that a passenger was left behind.
Ray’s beloved Newfoundland, Rufus, had been riding in his favorite spot in the back seat and vanished from the crash scene.
“I rushed to Raleigh and frantically searched for Rufus while knowing I had to get to WakeMed to be with my son,” says his mother, Kathy Ray, of Washington, North Carolina.
It seemed impossible that there was no sign of a 150-pound black shaggy dog.
Ray suffered a spinal cord injury that resulted in paralysis from the waist down. When he regained consciousness, it was not his condition that concerned him.
“My son came to and learned that we had not found Rufus, and it wasn’t losing his legs that made him say he didn’t want to live … it was losing Rufus,” Ray’s mother says.
But then, a tiny glimmer of hope: Someone mentioned that they had seen a social media post about a Raleigh woman whose dog could find missing pets.
On Christmas Eve, Balynda Brown was driving to visit her mother for the holidays when her phone rang. “I turned the car around. I had to go help,” she says.
Just a month earlier, she and her Rat Terrier, Bravo, completed their studies in the Missing Animal Response Network (MARN), a program to train dogs to track missing pets. Hunting for Rufus would be their first real case.
“When I pulled up to the wreck site, I had no idea how anyone could have survived this. It looked like an airplane crash,” Brown says. “Everywhere you looked there were clothes, presents, wrapping paper, even up in the trees. I thought we were looking for a deceased dog.”
As soon as Bravo scented the wrecked vehicle, he went into work mode.
“Bravo went straight to the highway and started tracking down it, then crossed eight lanes of traffic to get across the highway, and that is where we eventually had our first sightings of Rufus,” Brown says. “Dogs lost in unfamiliar places almost always work their way back to the last place they saw their owner, and Rufus was trying to work his way back to the wreck site.” Concentrating in the area that Bravo indicated, Brown, Ray’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Speidel, and a team of friends and volunteers searched day and night and caught glimpses of the Newfie.
Brown coached them in calming signals because lost dogs are often so traumatized that they will stay away even from familiar people. Signals can include singing to your pet and sitting on the ground while pretending to eat treats.
“In the end, Elizabeth said she could hear Rufus circling her, then his circle getting smaller, and then bam! He pounced on her,” Brown says.
Rufus was taken to an emergency veterinary office where he was found to be unharmed, other than some bruising, and was reunited with Ray in the hospital.
Losing the Fear
The Rufus case was Bravo’s first job in late 2019. Since then, Brown and her terrier have helped more than 300 pets return home.
But Bravo did not start life as a great search-dog candidate.
Brown, who has been showing dogs since she was 6, bred his litter and liked the puppies so much that she kept two—Bravo and his brother, Buddha.
She hoped to earn Bravo’s conformation championship and compete in dock diving and other sports.
But Brown reevaluated his future after experiencing a change in his personality as a young adult.
The littermates were best buddies until they turned 3 years old and started having squabbles. Short skirmishes escalated until the two had serious fights, usually with Bravo on the losing end.
Bravo became more fearful and reactive not only of the dogs in his household, but all dogs and even people, Brown recalls.
“I started walking Bravo by himself, but when he would see a person or a dog coming from a different direction, even in the distance, he would bark like a maniac. He would even bite me. There was no one home when that happened,” she says.
“I was afraid, and I did a lot of crying, trying to figure out what to do with him. I thought I might have to put him down. I could not place him, as I could not trust him with dogs, adults, or kids.”
Looking for Work
Brown did not want to give up on Bravo and struggled for a solution.
“Our relationship was hampered and needed something to mend it,” she says. “I did not trust him. I always heard that dogs need a job, and I thought maybe that’s what Bravo needed.”
She spotted a news story about a couple who hired a pet detective to find their missing Labrador Retriever.
“I thought, ‘What is that?’ It was intriguing to me. I began researching and discovered Missing Animal Response Network.”
Former police officer Kat Albrecht-Thiessen created MARN 25 years ago after her mantrailing Bloodhound dug out of her fenced yard and disappeared. She asked a friend with a Golden Retriever, trained to track people, to help.
“We knew that her dog understood smell the pillowcase, find the missing person, but we didn’t know if she would understand, smell the stinky Bloodhound blanket and find the stinky dog! But she did! The Golden tracked down my Bloodhound in 20 minutes, and my life was changed forever. Since then, I’ve trained hundreds of people and many search dogs to find lost pets.”
Brown enrolled Bravo in a 10-week MARN course. She only wanted to help Bravo; she had no intention of tracking pets in the future. When the application asked if he liked other dogs and people, she fibbed, “Yes.”
Students submit their homework via video for instructors to review.
The training involves teaching a dog to follow a scent trail. A scent article might be a dog’s brush, bed, or leash—anything that smells like the missing pet. Then students enlist the help of friends who hide their pets for practice.
“From the very first class, I noticed a difference in Bravo. He seemed to stop looking for trouble and no longer got into fights at home. When he was working a trail, he seemed oblivious to everything around him and could easily pass by dogs and people.”
The instructors noticed something too—Bravo had a real talent for tracking. Brown received high marks on her homework with the exception of one critical requirement: Search dogs must love other dogs and be excited to find and meet them.
“At the end of a hide, I would just stop 15 feet from the dog and throw a ball the other way as his reward. Finally, at the end of the last class, I had to tell them that I was not continuing. I just started crying and told them that I had lied.”
Instead of expelling her, the instructors encouraged Brown to stay in the program. They saw tremendous potential in the team.
“We normally don’t accept reactive dogs into the program, but thankfully, Bravo was an exception. He proved to us that some reactive dogs are able to overcome their reactivity through continual training and exposure to people and other dogs,” Albrecht-Thiessen says. “I believe his excelling in this work was primarily a result of Balynda’s dedication to training him and to learning everything that she could learn about scent-discrimination trailing, lost-pet recovery work, and how to read her dog.”
Full-Time Pet Detectives
After another year of training, Bravo and Brown started their career with the case of the missing Newfoundland. With only social media posts and word-of-mouth, they soon had so many cases that Brown quit her full-time job as a gymnastics coach and opened Bravo K911.
They often work every day of the week. Their success stories have included finding cats and other animals as well as dogs.
While Bravo’s amazing nose is a big part of the team’s success, Brown plays a key role in helping owners develop an action plan, which includes designing and placing signs, canvasing neighborhoods, setting up feeding stations and cameras, and more.
“This gave Bravo and me a new start, and this job saved Bravo’s life and, in turn, he has saved so many lives,” Brown says.