Approximately 79.9 million families in the United States own pets according to the 2015-2016 census taken by the American Pet Products Association, or APPA. According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP), only 2% of cats and 15-20% of dogs are returned to their owners when they go missing. This is a strikingly low statistic and a harsh reality for many owners who never see a part of their family again.
Unfortunately, I lived through this reality early this year when my family and I welcomed a new member into our home, and two weeks later she was gone.
My mom had received a call from our longtime vet and friend, that she had a client who was looking to place a 3 year old female Shetland Sheepdog into a good home. This was exciting news as later in 2015, we had been grieving the loss of our 17 year old pride and joy.
After back and forth communication with the owner, we finally met the dog. She was beautiful. Smooth fur and sleek body. Young, agile, and full of potential. She needed a lot of work on her social skills, we decided to give her a chance and take her home to start a new life. She needed to be microchipped and spayed, but we decided to hold off until she became acclimated to our home.
It was a trying first 2 weeks coaxing her out of her cage and allowing her to be comfortable with us, but she was getting there slowly.
It was a Friday evening and my mother was ready to take her and our other 11 year old sheltie out for their daily walk, when it happened. In trying to maneuver the 2 leashes and hook them to their collars, she slipped between the smallest gap in my mother’s leg, and she bolted. Down the driveway, pausing for a moment, but then never looking back as she sprinted down the street.
It was dark as it was around 5pm during the winter months. My mother screaming her name frantically trying to chase her, but eventually losing the sight of her as she disappeared into the night. I was at work, but saw my mother’s post on Facebook about what happened and to have people keep a look out for her as they searched for hours into the night. I called her and she cried, “IT WAS AN ACCIDENT! It was like she was just waiting for an opportunity to escape from us! I don’t understand!”
The next two days were crucial. We alerted every nearby police station and animal shelter, posted alerts on town Facebook groups, spread the word through friends and family, and started to make posters to hang. We even had a psychic contact us.
We felt we did everything right. Days passed and word continued to spread like wildfire. The weather that week was the worst it had been all winter. Freezing temperatures, snow, and heavy winds and rain. It was heartbreaking to know a scared, defenseless, young dog was lost out there alone.
Hundreds of thoughts race through your mind. Where could she be? Could she really have gotten that far? Maybe she is so close, but we aren’t looking in the right places? Could someone have taken her already?
The outpouring help from our fellow townspeople was remarkable. Word spread so much that even rescue organizations and friends of friends from Pennsylvania and New York were hearing about her and reaching out. It was emotional and amazing at how people were willing to do so much for a dog that wasn’t theirs.
Over the weeks we received numerous “sightings” of people who felt they caught a glimpse of our little one. “She ran across this yard!” “We saw her on this road!” “I heard barking in this backyard!” It’s hard to differentiate which sighting’s to follow through with, so we had to follow through with all of them. What I mean is that someone saying they heard barking in the backyard may not have as much validity as someone saying they saw a small black and brown dog that “looked like lassie” sprint across their street. To not pursue each and every tip, could have been seen as almost negative upon us. That we didn’t care for her. That we were over it.
It’s exhausting and emotional. To get the call that someone has a lead or sighting, barely even put on shoes and race out the door, only to get to the location and either find nothing or it’s someone else’s dog. Someone else’s fortune where a dog can safely be returned to its owner. You think, “what if I had just gotten ready 5 seconds sooner or driven 5mph quicker, would we have caught her?” Of course there were also the negatives too. The comments why we didn’t have her on a leash, that we were irresponsible owners. That we weren’t doing enough.
Until you have had a pet escape, you can’t understand how quickly it all happens. In an instant. You have to just try and ignore them, but it is always itching in the back of your mind, are they alright?
As weeks passed, the calls of sightings dwindled and the sharing of her Facebook missing poster slowed down. It has been almost 4 months and she is still missing. You wrestle with your emotions of whether you should keep actively looking or slowly pull yourself away as the certainty sets in that there have been no recent or valid sightings.
If you stop, you feel guilty. You should never give up. It is a small dog in a big world, that can’t speak or signal for help.
They just hide, scared, and hoping someone just finds them before they become feral, and blend into the world as a stray. You hope if someone did “steal” her they are good people who will give her food and shelter. You wonder if someone did “steal” her why they don’t see the collar on her neck if it managed to stay on, and contact the previous owners.
We are a dog family. We are an animal family. The what if’s, the why’s. It never stops, until eventually you have to choose when to move on, stop beating yourself up, and face the fact she will never be a part of your family again.
But the imprint she has left in your life, even if for a brief time, that hole in your heart is never filled.