It’s the pet owner’s worst nightmare: My skittish dog Lucy escaped from a boarding facility when I was across the country. I booked a flight home and embarked in a crash course in pet recovery. She was located three days after she was missing due to Missing Pet Partnership, over 20 volunteers recruited from my social networks, and many good Samaritans who called in with sightings.
I’m sharing all the details of my story so that it might help others in the same position, and at the bottom are tips for searching. Even if you don’t have a lost pet right now, this may happen to you or someone you know so I hope you can learn something from my experience and pass this information on to those that need it.
My 10-year-old American Eskimo mix, Lucy, is the love of my life (look at that face!) but isn’t the most well adjusted dog. She was my first dog and came to me as a one-year-old already troubled. Had I researched her breed (rookie mistake!) I would never have adopted her ― Eskies are not for the weak of heart or will and are not a good “first dog”!
She’s complicated, I like to say, but most would call her skittish and defensive. I’ve taken her to a half dozen training classes, but it hasn’t made a dent in her fearfulness. Most of the time her behavior is within normal parameters, but if pushed, she flips into fight or flight mode.
In March, her lifelong companion Desi passed away at the age of 14. Since then, I’d been taking her out and about more often so that she can see other dogs. Unfortunately, the last time I went to the dog park, she got into three separate skirmishes ― and one dog stalked and pounced on her. Never again!
I planned a week-long trip to Austin, and my old housemate Frank, whom Lucy loves, now works two jobs and wasn’t available. I asked a highly recommended boarding place in Redmond (they have an open farm-like environment instead of cages) if they thought it was a good idea to let her board there while I was gone. They reassured me that all of the dogs there were well socialized and not aggressive, and that if she were having problems that they could sequester her. If she was having a really bad time they could take her back home and do stop-ins.
I knew this would be difficult for her but really wanted to try to get her more social skills and get over some of her fears, and the boarder said without me there she wouldn’t be as defensive since I wouldn’t be there to defend. Reluctantly, I did it. To my friends that supported that decision, hey, it was a good idea on paper but:
Mistake #1: Don’t put your dog through something potentially traumatic when you are out of state.
I left for Austin on Friday and worried about her but got one report that she was “shy at first but warming up!” Then radio silence until Sunday when I got the worst call a pet owner can imagine: “There’s a situation with Lucy. We can’t find her.”
Mistake #2: I didn’t hop on a plane the moment she was reported missing. Instead, I trusted the boarders to look for her because they said they didn’t know if she’d run away or was still on the property and they didn’t want to ruin my trip.
Well, it had already been ruined, and I waited 24 heart-wrenching hours until I booked a ticket home. If they’d immediately used the techniques I eventually learned, we might have located her in 24 hours instead of 72.
Note: This post isn’t going to be about bashing the boarding business, which was very definitely at fault, because it’s not helpful to anyone else and wasn’t going to bring her back.
The problem with lost skittish dogs
If my lab Desi had gone missing, while tragic, it would not have been nearly as worrisome as losing Lucy. Desi really liked people and would have met up with someone nice who would have read her tags or scanned her microchip and she would likely have been returned quickly.
Lucy was wary of strangers and even some of my friends whom she’d met many times. If she was running scared there was no way someone could catch her without a trap. She’s wily. Maybe I could see her getting so hungry that she’d warm up to a stranger, but she would have to abandon all of her instincts which would be in overdrive.
Although they are absolutely necessary, no tag or microchip was likely to help her. This situation required a very intense search effort and educating people who might spot her about how to approach skittish dogs. While well meaning, trying to actively track them down and catch them, or even calling their names, can make the situation worse.
Missing Pet Partnership
Luckily, when I was still in Austin, a friend recommended contacting Missing Pet Partnership because they use tracking dogs and wow – they have a great organization. What I found most valuable was their wonderfully detailed 36-page document on pet recovery. As they stated at the beginning, while it seems difficult to imagine spending that much time reading when your beloved companion is missing, you really need to execute a focused, proven plan to successfully find your lost pet. Missing Pet Partnership provided very detailed instructions for making effective posters, which is by far the most valuable thing you can do in your search efforts. I absolutely believe this after having been through it. I spent hours driving around and looking for her in places she had been spotted in 12-24 hours earlier just because it seemed like the best thing to do. If I’d just done that, I wouldn’t have found her.
I waited to post on my social networks (Facebook and a large pet-related email distribution list at work) that Lucy was missing. The post had to be actionable and repostable because I knew it would get a lot of responses, therefore improving its popularity and visibility in people’s news feeds so I didn’t want to waste that attention. I needed to plan before I posted.
First I needed a communication method for people that expressed an active interest in volunteering and it had to be flexible enough to add people from a mobile phone, so a simple Hotmail thread fit the bill.
Then I created the poster designs based on Missing Pet Partnership’s recommendations. I was a designer already but the UX of posters for the road is unique! Then I put my summary/ad text on a webpage and included links to all of the signs in both doc and pdf, as well as good photos.
Then I posted to my social networks. The post was to the point and wasn’t overwhelmingly emotional or personal so people wouldn’t feel weird about sharing it with their friends. I clearly asked for people to repost and if they were in the area and could help, to email me on Hotmail. I opened up my Facebook permissions to “Public.” Then I changed my Facebook profile pic to a good picture of Lucy’s face because a lot of people were going to see it.
After a few hours’ worth of responses rolled in, I started an email thread with about 30 volunteers and listed specific jobs I needed done (calling shelters and vets, Craig’s List and other web listings, making posters, hanging posters) and then organized events and delegated tasks.
One of the things that didn’t work so well was that I kept receiving offers by email to help when it was too late or the timing was wrong to accept their help. I wish I’d at least gotten to let them know but I was too focused to figure that out and I was just using SMS to communicate with the ground troops who were immediately available. I didn’t make a conscious decision to do that, it just happened. The email thread became secondary, almost just a way for me to give updates and for people to share sighting information. I think these days I might have organized using a Facebook Group.
There were about 20 close friends and family constantly texting, calling, emailing and Facebooking me for updates so I cut off all communication with people not directly involved with the search, telling them, “No time to talk – check Facebook for latest.” While I valued the concern, I could not have functioned had I not cut off the extraneous communications – it was hard enough to keep my emotions in check while I tried to coordinate this large a project.
I got off the plane, got my car, and headed straight to the boarding facility. Frank had been there earlier in the day searching the property and surrounding area and couldn’t find her. I met a friend there, whom I really needed for moral support and to help search. We examined the property’s perimeter and saw only a few very difficult ways out. I really don’t have any idea how she escaped, but knowing she wasn’t there allowed us to confidently start searching outside of the property.
We searched for three hours in the vicinity and there was no sign of her, which was a good thing considering the coyotes and bears in that area. Based on subsequent sightings we were very far off track, but we just needed to do this.
It was extremely hard to give up and go home to sleep.
Tuesday: Volunteer day
Volunteers were crucial in this search. Some were close friends, some were people I knew online and had never met in person. One friend even came straight from an out-of-state flight to hang posters until late in the night before going home to unpack. On Tuesday I was able to leverage 40 hours of volunteer time making and hanging posters and searching. How would I ever have accomplished all of that myself? I also had two point people handling all calls to vets/shelters/rescues and all the online posts (Craig’s List is your friend – we got one sighting reported though there).
We had three volunteer events on Tuesday. The first was a poster making party at my house (we even had pizza – the only “real” food I’d eaten in days) where three volunteers brought materials and poster printouts and we spent two hours making 150 of the most awesomely effective posters ever. It was a strange feeling staying at home when I knew Lucy was out there somewhere but I had to resist losing focus.
The second event was for a second set of volunteers who paired up to hang posters (one driver, one hanger). We set out in three different directions and hung posters for several hours. I fielded and mapped sightings with my sidekick’s help.
The third event was a meet up point for more poster hanging and actual searching at the last known spot. Based on our subsequent sightings we weren’t that far off from where she’d been a few hours earlier. Close, but no cigar.
The run, mapped
I want to provide all of the sightings to demonstrate not only the path she took and distance she travelled, but that in less than 24 hours I received 30 calls and 9 confirmed sightings, all due to the kick ass posters.
I live in Rose Hill right there at the bottom left:
The run, timeline
All these sightings came in out of order so while making a valiant attempt at constructing a timeline, I’m sure this isn’t totally accurate.
Point of Escape/Sighting 1
Sunday 1pmish: Novelty Hill
The start of her journey.
While I was hanging the very first poster (right) someone flagged me down to give me a sighting. Wow. For the first time we knew Lucy had in fact escaped the boarding property, had not gotten eaten by bears or coyotes behind their property (she was going the opposite way – smart girl!), and had navigated over a large highway (Avondale Way) in just a few hours from her escape. Unfortunately, she was seen running in traffic which was worrisome, but at least we had a trail. And wow – she’d sure gone fast! She’d made it over halfway home in less than a few hours after escaping.
Unfortunately, in my haste I’d written all the details and sighter’s contact information on the back of a poster and mistakenly hung it somewhere. I wish I could contact that family because they were total dog people and had been very concerned. I hope they find out we found her.
Monday 4pm: turned east into a cul-de-sac on 102nd at 166th
Sighter Todd said an obviously spooked Lucy ran up a cul-de-sac and went behind a house into a wooded area. I searched and postered there but no one had seen her.
Monday 5pm: hanging out at a greenbelt near 116th and 166th
Sighter Mary Margaret said she seemed to be limping but not dangerously so (unlikely she’d been hit but was just tired).
Monday 5pm: 172nd Ave NE going north crossing 116th
Sighter Laurie gave us the most detailed lead we received on Tuesday and even took the time to meet with us in person to show us exactly where Lucy had been. Lucy was running north on 172nd down a specific sidewalk and crossed 116th. The specificity and recency meant the search dog could get involved. Laurie knew immediately that she was a runaway dog and searched for her for over an hour but couldn’t find her. More than one sighter told me this which is so amazing.
Sidekick Dottie and I started to see a pattern: for over 24 hours she came up against scary highways and seemed to be trapped in Education Hill. Closing in might be possible!
Tuesday 6pm: on jogging trail by Sunrise Elementary School
Oh no – she’d crossed busy 124th street. So much for our theory. Looks like she made the crossing at night.
Sighter Laurie said a jogger told her he “might” have seen Lucy just a few hours earlier. This is where we had a rendezvous point Tuesday night and fanned out to search on foot for several hours.
Tuesday at 7:30pm: running up 166th and turned onto 128th
Sighter Eric saw Lucy running up the middle of 166th blocking traffic. He was pretty annoyed that someone would let their dog run around loose until he realized she was totally spooked. He said he didn’t see the green tag on her but that she seemed to have a head too tiny for her fluffy body which is not something I’d heard before and made me chuckle.
This was a sighting that was recent enough to get a dog tracker to work it, and I spent hours combing the area Wednesday morning. Again, based on what I know now, she was well out of the area by then.
Wednesday 1am: A Woodinville Winery
Sighter Chris called to tell me he was patrolling the grounds of a winery in Woodinville and spotted what he thought was a coyote. Then he noticed Lucy’s green tag and realized it was a lost dog. He tried chasing her down but she ran away. He told his coworkers to keep an eye out for her but she was long gone. He found Lucy’s listing on Craig’s List because we hadn’t postered over there, found my number, and called me. So much for the theory that she was only travelling during the day!
Wednesday 1pm: 136th NE Pl and NE 132nd
Julie gets the prize for most devotion to the cause. She spotted Lucy running up the middle of the street (and Lucy had almost come to her but turned around, kicked up her feet and jetted) and thought, “That looks like the dog I just saw on posters.” Frustratingly, she didn’t own a cell phone. She drove to a poster and wrote down my number, actually flagged down a motorist who had a phone and called me. She had to give back the phone but stayed in an easily locatable spot and waited 15 minutes for me to show up (I don’t think I’d ever driven that fast). She waited another 20 minutes for the search dog to show up so she could give a specific details on the sighting. Though all the sightings helped us, this was the most crucial sighting that lead to her capture.
I’m going to buy Julie a cell phone
Jim from Missing Pet Partnership (now Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue) arrived on the scene with his search dog, Kelsy, who looked so much like Desi it was eerie. Kelsy took the scent from one of Lucy’s stinky dog beds that the boarder had retrieved from my house and rushed over. Kelsy started from the point that Julie specified and then went in the opposite direction that we knew Lucy had been travelling. She took us around about a block radius and wallowed in tall grass where Lucy likely played and then went nuts around a hollowed out space in a bush. Our theory is that she went backwards and the bush was where Lucy had spent the night. We tried putting Kelsy back on the trail and she led us down to a monstrous vacant house (a sign of the times) and ended up very interested in some coyote poop. The conditions were a little too hot and dry for Kelsy to get a good scent on Lucy but since the sighting had been so recent, we wanted to give it a try. Kelsy is usually more successful so I want to encourage others to try her out if appropriate.
I drove around the area in the direction Julie said Lucy had been travelling and I put up some posters but didn’t see her. I decided to leave because based on other sightings and the speed at which she’d been travelling, she could again be anywhere. I went down the hill towards Woodinville and hit some traffic when I received a call.
Wednesday 4:36pm: 136th NE Pl and NE 132nd
“I have your dog directly in my sight.” Oh my God!
I was a half mile away, having just left the area she currently was – I had likely been within 100 feet of her. She might have heard me softly calling but didn’t come. Sighter Bethany had seen a sign I’d just posted 5 minutes earlier, saw Lucy and immediately called me. I raced back while staying on the phone with Bethany (setting a personal land speed record), and talked her through exactly what she should (but mostly shouldn’t) do when capturing a skittish dog:
1. Keep your distance but don’t let her out of your sight
2. Don’t look like you are focusing on her, don’t even look at her
3. Don’t get out of the car so she can see you are a person
4. Don’t call her
5. Find a bag or wrapper that sounds like a treat bag to crinkle
6. If you aren’t in a car you can try lying on your back on the ground and they might be curious enough to investigate, especially if you are crinkling something
7. Note the time, her exact location, mood and health
I arrived on the scene and Jim was already there, in fact he called me when I was on the phone with Bethany. I hadn’t gone all the way down this driveway because there were big “No trespassing” signs but now that we knew she was down there we didn’t care. The home owner wasn’t too happy we were there but Bethany and Jim were already telling her the situation. I looked around and Jim was next to the house looking into the backyard. I was talking to Bethany and Jim motioned for us to be quiet. He silently waved me over and I moved towards his position.
There was Lucy in the backyard. She was dirty and wet and spooked. She had just seen Jim and was scurrying away, though not too fast, and she was headed towards the front area where the home owner and Bethany were talking. I pointed to the side of the house where Lucy was coming out and signaled for them to be quiet. Lucy appeared and she looked at them with trepidation and I just said her name in my normal baby voice that you use to talk to dogs and she came right to me.
I basically crouched over and held her so tight and started sobbing. Lucy was doing her earsplitting high pitched whine that she does when she sees me after she’s been stressed out but it was super loud. I could hear the home owner ask Jim and Bethany how long Lucy had been gone and I heard one of them say, “Three days,” and the home owner finally understood what was happening. I kind of came to and apologized for my embarrassing outburst but I know no one minded it – it was pretty honest.
Jim took some photos, including the one that’s been making the rounds.
He lent me a leash and I loaded stinky Lucy into the car. I talked to Jim for awhile afterwards and he gave me some advice about not letting her gorge herself on food and water. I texted and emailed the volunteers who had been helping and let the news fan out.
I couldn’t stop looking at her the entire way home.
The first thing Lucy did was drink a ton of water and ate an entire bowl of food (which is unusual for her to do all at once). She was very stinky but not as muddy as you might imagine (her fur seems to repel dirt). I gave her a bath – and me too! We were both pretty gross. I bundled her up in towels and she basically didn’t move for four hours.
Lucy was obviously very sore but didn’t seem to have any serious injuries or broken bones. The pads of her feet, however, had abrasions and ulcers. I called the emergency vet (my regular vet was closed) and they said that if they were particularly deep and in need of cleaning to bring her in but otherwise we should just let her sleep and not traumatize her by heading in there. I took her to my regular vet the next day and they said that she just needed antibiotics, a bit of tramadol, and periodic soaking in warm water with Epsom salt for 5-10 minutes.
She is understandably suffering some post-traumatic stress (so am I!). She is much more attached to me, was quite wary of the highway at the vet’s office, and was particularly shaky at the vet. I think her behavior will return to normal in the coming week or so. (Postscript: She seems to be almost totally back to normal four days later).
Final theories on her journey
It’s quite possible she knew where home was because after escaping she immediately made a beeline in that direction. This is statistically improbable and knowing Lucy, is pretty amazing. Even though she may be a bundle of neuroses, she is still a dog.
We also think she was traveling along the Olympic oil pipeline that eventually runs by my house and is a place we often go walking. She may have been trying to go home that way, and in fact, was found right on the pipeline. See this photo? The bright white dot in the bottom left quadrant is where she was found and that green strip on the left is the pipeline. She might have made it home in a few more days. Of course, that’s how the local bears travel too which is scary.
While most of her sightings were her running the the middle of the road, you can’t extrapolate a behavior pattern from that because more people are on roads which lead to them calling in the sightings. The most interesting sighting was at the winery at 1am – it’s so unlikely that a human would be out there to even see her at that time of night. Frank has given her a new nickname: The White Coyote.
I imagine this may not be true in all cases, but Lucy travelled the most the first day, and less the subsequent days. Her pads were raw and painful and she was sore from running, plus she got trapped in a neighborhood she couldn’t easily escape from so maybe that’s why she was there for over three hours.
Tips for Searchers
1. You need one leader in charge.
This is a full-time job. I happen to be skilled at design, marketing, social media, project management (organizing, prioritizing, resourcing, leading), and compartmentalizing emotions to function well in a crisis. For people that don’t have these skills it would be much harder to be successful, but it’s hard to delegate the “top job.”
Hopefully, you know a trusted friend who has intense passion and the ability to kick major ass at this stuff. I only know one person I’d trust with that (a dog lover and former EMT), and I put her in charge of all my online and phone activities and she enlisted volunteers to help her. I would resist putting all your trust in an organization that helps out people in this situation (there are many out there) because they just don’t have the same incentive you do and it’s hard to know who is reputable.
2. Resist searching all night.
The most heart wrenching thing I’ve ever done was lay comfortably in my warm bed while I knew Lucy was likely sleeping under a bush in the cold rain. The fact was, it was very improbable that I going to find her at night and I needed at least enough sleep to function.
3. One way to stop from spiraling into sadness is to imagine what your pet would want you to do.
It’s your responsibility to find them and there were a few times I pulled over to cry and then made myself stop and kept driving because Lucy needed me to. While it’s important to release some emotion, you can cry more later.
4. There are important online tools you need to use, but don’t get sucked into FindingRover or national companies that cost a lot of money ― you can use Craig’s List and Facebook effectively.
You may even have an active “Lost Dogs of [your location]” Facebook page like Austin does and it’s likely that community will be a big help.
5. Posters were by far the most effective tool in finding her.
She went missing Sunday afternoon, we started hanging posters Tuesday afternoon, and we located her Wednesday afternoon. So even with a 48 hour head start it only took 24 hours of the posters being up to locate her.
6. I’d recommend doing the poster hanging in response to the sightings once they start coming in.
We initially postered quite a bit in the total opposite direction of her first sighting. I wish I’d saved more for the second day of searching so that when I had those fresh leads I could have postered more in those areas. Luckily, I had saved a few and those were the ones that did the trick. One tactic you could use is to remove posters from areas you know she isn’t in and reuse them in better areas.
7. Double back the next day to check on old posters, especially in the rain.
Many of ours needed retaping or stapling.
8. Write down the name of each sighter and their phone number as well as the sighting information.
I didn’t write down some of the phone numbers because I figured I already had them in my phone, but trying to sort that out later is proving to be a mess and I really wanted to tell some of the callers that we found her.
9. Some callers want to talk for 10 minutes on the phone even though the sighting isn’t credible or was a lot older than the leads you are currently following.
Once a fresher lead went to voicemail while I tried to get someone who’d sighted her less recently off the phone. Afterwards I tried to be direct (bordering on rudely abrupt) about my priorities and say I was meeting up with a search dog and had to go just so I could keep the line free to talk to sighters in person.
Oh, and I got three calls recommending pet psychics. Just sayin.
10. After you find your pet, make sure you account for calling the vets/shelters and taking the online ads and posters down and save some volunteer resources for that.
You will have zero time to do this yourself in timely manner. One of my volunteers had a great idea to leave a few of the large posters up at key intersections and add new printouts that say “SHE’S BEEN FOUND! THANK YOU!” Wouldn’t that make your day to see that on your commute instead of a sad poster that flutters and fades after a month? I even received two calls thanking me for posting the found signs, and three calls from people who were relieved then they’d seen the Craigslist posting updated with the found photo.
Poster supplies needed
Don’t skimp. The life of your pet is at stake. This totaled $200, not counting printing costs.
1. Poster printouts – I’d recommend 150 the first day, 100 a day subsequent days, though if you are in a dense urban area, you may not need as many
2. Fluorescent poster board – I’d recommend 50 large, 100 for portrait posters (however you want to cut that up – I think it’s 1/4 a large so that’s 75 large sheets total). I know that seems like a lot and poster board is expensive but DON’T SKIMP ran out of poster board on the second day, but that could have been prevented by not wasting so many posters in questionable areas
3. Sheet protectors – these saved our butts because it rained the entire night after we hung the posters
4. Giant fat markers
5. Strong clear packing tape – 8 rolls
6. Duct tape – 8 rolls (at least one per hanging car)
7. Scissors – 8 pair (enough for poster party and at least one per hanging car)
8. Heavy duty staple gun (one per hanging car – wish I’d gotten more of those)
9. Heavy duty staple gun staples!
Things to take in your car
You are office camping! Be prepared!
It works well to put things in reusable canvas/vinyl grocery bags
One bag of office supplies
One bag of posters
One bag of food
One bag of clothes
A folder for map printouts or an actual map (I wished my iPad had 3g! My tiny
iPhone screen didn’t cut it)
Notebook and paper to take down sighting information
PHONE CHARGER (My mistake #3!)
Food that will keep (PBJ FTW!)
Enough water for a full day
Shoes, jacket, jeans in case you get too wet
Hat in case it rains
Light waterproof jacket
Gloves in case you go into brambles
Crinkly wrappers to entice a dog
I want to specially thank my hard core volunteers: Brandy, Jaree, Debbi, Jacki, Kim, Dottie, Nelly, Khiota, Frank, Penny, and Susan. Let me know if I’ve forgotten someone!
I also want to thank the people that called in sightings, several of whom searched for over an hour and even took time out to meet with me in person.
Chris, Jim, and all the good people at Missing Pet Partnership. Please donate to them – they really need donations to keep going.
And all the people who passed on the information online and showed their concern. I was overwhelmed with the outpouring of support and effort from both my friends and total strangers.
What a happy ending. As one of my friends wrote, “Well goddamn. The world isn’t so bad.”
This all happened in June 2009. Lucy got cancer and passed away in December 2014. Looking back, her escape and this search was a lot harder than her death. When she died, it was my choice, I was with her, and it was the best thing for her. When she was lost, I didn’t know where she was and it was the worst feeling I ever had. I hope I never have an experience as bad as this one. It was the worst thing I’ve ever been through (showing my privilege, but also my love of this dog).
I’m reposting this today on HuffPost, hoping it reaches a wider audience and helps even more people find their dogs. Don’t give up! About once every few months a friend asks me to post this story on one of their friend’s lost dog Facebook posts and the information helps them in their search.