39: It Takes a Village

39: It Takes a Village

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog

It Takes a Village

We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.

~Herman Melville

When we drove our son to college in Virginia, we left our dog Dillon at a horse farm in Monroe, Connecticut, about fifty miles away from our place in Old Greenwich. She’d stayed at the farm before and it was doggie heaven—no leashes, no crates, just the freedom to roam and play. Her second morning there, however, Dillon pursued some critter into the woods and wound up in unfamiliar surroundings a very long way from home.

“Dogs are very here and now,” says Dr. Risë VanFleet a Pennsylvania-based child psychologist with a background in canine behavior. When a dog leaves its home something else has caught its attention. “What led the dog astray is a doggie kind of thing.”

The mommy kind of thing, of course, was to try and figure out how to get her back from four hundred miles away.

From a computer center in Front Royal, Virginia, I put together a flyer I could e-mail to the police and animal control officers, as well as family and friends back home. We asked everyone to forward the e-mail, hoping to generate interest beyond our own circle and increase the number of people on the lookout for our lost dog, a variation on the African adage that “It takes a village.”

Without realizing it, we’d stumbled on the method most likely to be successful, according to Dr. Linda Lord, a professor at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine who studies how people recover lost pets. “Lost dog signs were associated with recovery but they seemed to be more effective seven days or more after the animal went missing,” she said.

She was right. It was three days before we had our first sighting and the news was not good. A Shelton veterinarian had seen a Springer Spaniel get hit by two cars on a busy state road and then miraculously leap up and run into the woods.

We were heartened, however, that the calls continued. Dillon, apparently uninjured, was seen by a Shelton firefighter, a tree warden, a grandmother and some teenagers, but no one could get near her, and every call came days too late.

We returned to Connecticut and went straight to Shelton. Armed with a map of the area, we marked each spot where Dillon had been seen. A route seemed to be forming though she was not on a course that would have taken her home. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor of animal behavior and the author of The Well Adjusted Dog, explains dogs aren’t really like the Collie that crosses Great Britain to find his family in the 1943 movie, Lassie Come Home.

“While dogs have extraordinary terrain observation skills and an ability to map in their heads, a dog dropped a long distance from its home is not likely to find its way back.”

When the map suggested Dillon was headed south, I drove to Stratford to post flyers and hopefully shorten the lag between when people saw her and learned she was being sought.

The plan worked. My search was about to end with a stunning swiftness. Shopping at a store one half mile from her home, Peggy Gottfried saw the flyer. Dillon had been in her Stratford neighborhood that very morning. In fifteen minutes I was on her street where, across a wide expanse of yard, I saw Dillon.

I’d been warned a lost dog sometimes goes into “survival mode” failing to recognize its owner.

“Try to look at it from the dog’s point of view,” Dr. VanFleet said. “The dog is still out of its element and still trying to figure out what’s what, is the danger over?”

Dillon did not come to me right away so I sat down on the sidewalk and waited. Finally she got curious. She took a few hesitant steps and stopped, a few more and stopped again. Then her expression changed. She started to run with a slow motion, forward momentum that accentuated every flap of the ear and lolling of the tongue. Into my lap she flung herself, a whining, panting, writhing bundle of foul-smelling, burr-encrusted fur. I cried noisily as her ragged claws scratched my legs and her drool dribbled down my neck. Never have I wished so hard that an animal could talk.

While I can only imagine what our pampered house pet must have experienced during her two weeks in the wild, it’s no mystery according to Dr. Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals. “Dogs have a really strong sense of place and what happens to dogs is that they feel lost just like you and I would.”

In her analysis of how people find their lost pets, Dr. Lord noted, “Nothing takes the place of having a visual ID tag. A microchip is a good backup system.” No doubt she is correct. But in our case, no one could get near our dog, let alone read her collar.

Our challenge was mobilizing an army of eyes by sending out e-mails, posting signs and even plastering Dillon’s photo and our phone number on the family minivan. Dillon’s remarkable story has taught me that when it comes to happy endings, the tools can be both low and high tech, but ultimately, it takes a village.

~Christine Negroni

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