Lala the Loot: A Dog Who Attracts Dog-Snatching

A small dog charms, people try to claim her.
By Michelle Huneven, July 2017

For a good part of my life—16 years —I had a dog named Lala. During our time together, she was stolen from me three times. Now, Lala was not any kind of pedigreed canine, but rather, a small mixed-breed, part Chihuahua, part Dachshund and part something else, possibly German Shepherd. She looked like a miniature German Shepherd—blonde with black tips—and weighed around 11 pounds. She was undeniably appealing—dark, expressive eyes and chronic joyousness—but she was not the kind of dog you could fence for money.

With people, Lala was the friendliest, most loving dog imaginable; I’ve never met another dog with so purely affectionate a nature. She, in turn, inspired affection and even goodness in the most unlikely and even unlikable human beings. Although when it came to other dogs, Lala was fearless and ferocious.

I used to say that her motto was two-fold: come from love and kill big dogs. If she’d had a different kind of owner (if, indeed, she’d stayed with her second captors) she might have become a bear dog, a fyce (as Faulkner calls them), one of those little yappy things who runs right up to bears, barking and nipping, but is too small and too close to the ground for the bear to reach underneath and eviscerate with a claw swipe. As it was, I once had to pry an Airedale’s teeth off her throat. Lala antagonized other dogs, especially those larger than herself.

Ah, but humans, Lala adored and trusted indiscriminately. Once, in a supermarket parking lot, she shot out of my car and ran across two aisles to greet a family of strangers as though they were her own long lost kin. She made human friends wherever we went.

I found her at a small sawmill in the Southern Sierra foothills where I routinely stopped to fill my trunk with scraps for my wood-burning stove. One day, a small puppy with an infected eye came up and licked my ankle. “Whose dog is this?” I asked the owner.

Yours,” he said. Then added, “Somebody left three puppies in the ditch. Please take her, or my wife will.”

I took her. And drove directly to the vet, who pulled a foxtail out of her eye, gave her puppy shots and said that she was around four months old. Maybe two weeks later, she was stolen from me for the first time.

I was living in the country, amoung the oak- and grass-covered foothills outside a small town I’ll call Mayville on the banks of the Chula River. (I’ve changed names to protect the guilty—and to protect myself from the guilty.) On Memorial Day, I drove into Mayville to see my friend Fanny. Her back yard was on the river. We spent the hot afternoon walking several hundred yards up the bank, then floating downstream in inner tubes. Fanny’s two dogs and Lala ran up and down along the bank with us. People were in their yards, barbecuing, and cooling off in the river. Lala made friends left and right, with families and retirees and an old hermit, and was an instant hit with a small pack of eight- to 10-year-old boys. The dogs were always there to greet us as we pulled ourselves out of the water. Then, at one point, Lala wasn’t with them.

Fanny and I spent the rest of the afternoon scouring Mayville, calling and whistling, to no avail. I came across the pack of boys who’d befriended Lala. They’d seen her, but couldn’t say exactly where, or when, or agree which way she’d gone. I gave up searching after dark, and had a very bad night.

The next morning, Fanny called from work; she was a teacher’s aide at the local school. One of the little boys, she said, had had an attack of conscience. He’d admitted that he and his friends had stolen Lala and put her in an outbuilding behind his house in Mayville. Fanny gave me the address, directions and the eight-year-old’s description of the place. I drove into town.

I found the address easily—a house on an acre of shady land with at least five outbuildings on the property. Nobody answered the door of the main house, so I walked around to the back. Three sheds were locked, and another was an old outhouse filled with gardening tools. The last building was a small substandard dwelling —Mayville was filled with uninsulated shacks and shanties that people once vacationed in—and I was heading toward it when a woman came out of the main house. She was slim and good-looking, with black hair in the big, sprayed style of a cocktail waitress. “What are you doing?” she said. Not friendly.

“I’m looking for my little blonde dog,” I said. “Your son said she’s here, in one of the back buildings.”

“No,” said the woman. “I told him to take the dog back to you yesterday, and he did. There’s no dog here.”

“I’d just like to look in there,” I said, pointing to the one unsearched building.

“I can’t let you in there,” said the woman. “It’s not mine. And there’s nothing in there, anyway. It’s empty. You won’t find anything.”

I wavered. It felt rude to insist. The woman seemed so certain, and so hard. She was not someone to mess with.

Then I heard something. Or thought I did. A yip. Or a hunch of a yip.

“Still,” I said, walking past the woman. “I’m going to look.”

I reached the door and turned the knob. The door opened. I did not see an empty house. Rather, I took one step inside a room crammed with electronic equipment—televisions, stereos, soundboards, stacks and stacks of them. There was only a narrow aisle through all the stuff. And suddenly, swerving around a pillar of speakers and running full tilt, there was Lala.

The boys, when tired of her, had simply put her in with all the other stolen goods.

Lala, wriggling with pleasure, let me kiss and pet her briefly, then ran outside, and took a good long pee on the lawn. (Now, that’s a good dog!)

“You have to go now,” said the woman.

I ignored her and, turning on a faucet, gave Lala water out of my hands (she was very thirsty). We left only after Lala drank her fill.

Mayville, as is obvious, was a quirky little town; there were near-luxury homes and small ranchos in the nearby hills. Modest, well-tended riverfront properties alternated with falling-down, paint-thirsty, more rustic constructions. The town itself was a few blocks long with few merchants and no prospects—no economic base, no industry. Locals logged, or commuted 12 miles to the next larger town to work. There were a couple of bars, some small grocery stores, a gas station, a post office, a struggling café, two struggling dinner houses, a decent hardware store.

Juvenile dognappers and stolen-goods-keepers were not, unfortunately, the town’s only or worst criminal element. Mayville had its own homegrown sociopath, who was in jail when I first moved there, but I heard all about him.

Wren Hickles was known for stealing; wrecking other people’s property; running cars off the road; and sudden, unprovoked, violent assaults. He was prodigious in his antics and there was hardly a family in Mayville who had not suffered at his hands. For a long time, nobody would press charges against him because they were too afraid of him. Finally, a man whom Wren had beaten savagely for no reason in broad daylight on Main Street had him arrested and convinced several reluctant witnesses to testify. Wren Hickles was sent to Soledad State Prison for three years.

As those years were coming to a close, a murmur rose in the town. His name came up more and more. The old stories took on new life. This wedding party ruined by drunken rampaging. That truck full of firewood forced off the mountain road. This house broken into, trashed. That bloody fistfight.

And then Wren Hickles was back. The news rippled through the small community. He applied for a job in the hardware store; the owner, a friend of mine, said Wren seemed friendlier and smarter than before, and also funny. “One thing, though,” said the owner. “He was leaning against that glass display of pocket knives while he was talking to me, and when he left, half the knives were gone as well.” My boyfriend at the time was a local. It was his brother who had succeeded in having Wren Hickles sent to jail. “If you see him,” my boyfriend said, “Don’t do anything to attract his notice.”

Not long after his return, I saw Wren Hickles for the first time. I’d stopped at the convenience store to pump gas and there was a lean snaggle-toothed guy, shirtless, his back tattooed with a clumsy lightning bolt and the word Mayville. A prison tattoo. He was smoking pot with another guy right by the pumps while, a few feet away, a woman wept in a car. A bad scene. I decided to get gas elsewhere.

I told my boyfriend that I’d finally laid eyes on the notorious parolee. “Stay below his radar,” my boyfriend said. “Or, believe me, you’ll regret it.”

Lala disappeared on a weekday. I was driving in to work, and I was a little late, and she chased me farther than usual, past the gate to my property and partway down the side road to the highway. I stopped the car and yelled at her and ordered her home. I wasn’t worried she’d get lost. We often walked this far together, and every morning, she and my Lab, Olive, went for long exploratory runs in the barely populated hills. But when I came home nine hours later, Olive was there and Lala was not. I drove around the neighborhood calling her, and the next morning, I contacted all the neighbors. Nobody had seen her.

I made handbills and hung them up on telephone posts and fence posts, in the Mayville post office, on the supermarket bulletin board. Days passed. A week. Nobody phoned. Then, one day, I came home late at night to a message on my answering machine. “I know where yer dog’s at,” said a man in a thick backwoods drawl. “An’ this is Lawrence …” No further message. No call-back number. Just a click.

Lawrence. I didn’t know any Lawrence. I asked around. There was a retired dentist named Lawrence “This didn’t sound like a dentist,” I said. I played the message for my boyfriend and watched his face darken. “I’ll handle it,” he said.

I begged him not to. I promised to talk to the deputy sheriff the next morning. I promised I wouldn’t approach Wren Hickles myself.

And promptly broke that promise. The next morning, I went into town to pick up my mail. I’d heard by then that Wren Hickles had a job at the Mobil station, so I drove on over. He was washing the office window. “Hi,” I said. “Are you Lawrence?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, turning. He put the squeegee in his bucket and offered me his hand.

We shook. “I’m Michelle,” I said. “I think you called me about my dog who’s lost.”

“I seen your sign in the post office,” he said. “The Greens got her—you know the Greens?”

Of course I did. The Greens were a big notorious mountain family, all men, except for the mother whose name was—I kid you not—Ophelia. The father, Robert, was a hunting guide; one son was a logger, another was a tree surgeon. The third was the runt of the family who was actually called Pipsqueak —he was trustworthy and a hard worker, the one people hired for chores around the house and yard. The youngest son was a beautiful hunk who soon moved south to star in pornographic movies.

“I was gonna call you again,” said Wren Hickles. “Nice little dog. You better get her quick, ’fore they get any more attached to her.”

I drove straight up the mountain road to the Greens’ house. I parked behind a row of pickups and flatbeds. As I got out of the car, the first living thing I saw was Lala.

She took one look at me and tucked her tail between her legs, as if she’d done something very wrong.

“Oh, Lala,” I said. “You’re okay, I’m not mad.” And shortly, she was there, licking my face.

With Lala in my arms, I knocked on the door. Only Ophelia was home. Her husband, Robert, she said, had found “Sunny” on the street where I lived. “She would’ve come home,” I said.

“I thought she was someone’s pet,” Ophelia said, vaguely. “We were going to put an ad in the paper.”

When?, I wondered.

Ophelia reached out and stroked Lala’s head. “She’s the first dog Robert’s let in the house in years.”

I took Lala home and she didn’t get stolen again for another 13 years. But I did have one more exchange with Wren Hickles. He pulled up next to me in his car at a highway stop and asked if I got my dog back. Not long afterward, less than a year after he’d been paroled, he fled the state. He’d carjacked a vehicle, locked its owner in the trunk and sent it off the side of a mountain; while the owner survived, Wren’s parole was definitely in violated. The last thing I heard, he was being extradited from Missouri.

Lala and I moved back to the city— first to Pasadena, where we lived for six years in a courtyard of Craftsmen cottages. We didn’t have a yard, so I walked Lala several times a day, and in sunny, mild weather, tied her to a faucet out front so she could lie in the sun and greet her many friends going up and down the courtyard walkway. If I didn’t put her out for a few days, it was not unusual for strangers to knock on the door and ask after her. Oh, Lala and her legion of friends.

From Pasadena, we moved to Atwater, an odd little suburb of Los Angeles near Griffith Park. We had a huge fenced-in yard, and Lala took her responsibility —guarding the property—seriously, at least when it came to other dogs. Every perambulating canine was announced, and many barked back. Except for this constant ferocity, Lala befriended the entire neighborhood— which is more than I can say for myself.

We were happy in Atwater except for one thing. One major thing. We had a crazy next-door neighbor, a woman who had repeatedly been charged with being a “neighborhood nuisance.” Therese was in her late 70s and surely mentally ill; she was filled with hatreds, resentments and frustrations—and that’s putting her pathology nicely. All of my neighbors warned me about her. She called the authorities about everything, real and imagined, any infringement, no matter how small. When people, forgetting something, pulled back in their driveways and ran into their house, she called parking enforcement if they blocked the sidewalk. If a car was parked in one spot over the 72-hour limit, or with a bumper in the red zone, or more than 18 inches from the curb, she called to have them ticketed.

She must have had a list of every petty authority and enforcer in Los Angeles County. She called the county agriculture inspector many times about my garden: when I mulched my roses with straw (she believed mice live in straw and therefore, the day I mulched, called and told the inspector I had an infestation of vermin). She called him when I made a compost heap (she thought it was garbage) and when I fertilized with steer manure (she said I’d strewn excrement on the premises). When I first moved in, she phoned my landlord every time I had a house guest or a visiting dog and told him I had a new roommate and/or a new pet. He didn’t care, and began hanging up on her. Everyone in the neighborhood avoided and ignored her as much as possible.

Except Lala. Lala was as happy to see old Therese as she was to see almost anybody. Also, despite my endless requests to the contrary, Therese constantly fed Lala table scraps. Lala was perhaps the only living creature who ever exhibited even the slightest pleasure at the sight of this bitter, vindictive old woman. (Therese’s own husband, a timid man, would sometimes raise his voice in unmistakable agony, “Therese, you are an evil, evil person,” an assessment with which we neighbors, wincing in sympathy, unanimously agreed.) Lala had more compassion and humanity—and a greater love of table scraps—than all of us combined.

One chilly Sunday afternoon, I was watching videos in bed with my boyfriend. We were watching the Prime Suspect miniseries, one episode after another. The only problem was, the phone kept ringing. And it was nobody good, nobody whom I wanted to talk to more than I wanted to watch Helen Mirren solve crimes. Finally, after someone called to ask how to make pot roast, my boyfriend said, “Don’t answer it anymore, okay?”

Lala was in and out of the house at her whim, sometimes joining us on the bed, sometimes patrolling the yard. The phone rang several times over a period of an hour. “God, you get a lot of calls on a Sunday,” said my boyfriend.

Then, someone was pounding on the door.

I jumped up, pulled on a robe and answered the door. It was Therese, with her weary, sagging face and hideously swollen legs. She was 80 by then and nearer the end of her life than we even hoped. My house sat deep in the lot; it must have been an enormous effort for her to walk all the way down my driveway. She’d been banging the door with her aluminum canes.

“A man stole Lala,” she said. “I’ve been trying to call you. He just opened the gate and stepped in and picked her up. He had white hair and a white moustache and a whole bouquet of white flowers. He probably stole those too,” she said.

My boyfriend and I went into action. Dressed. Grabbed cell phones. We were so steeped in Prime Suspect, it seemed as though we were setting off into our own crime drama episode.

In my truck, we drove up and down the streets, stopping and interrogating every person we encountered: “Have you seen a small blonde dog with a white-haired man?” We had asked maybe 10 people before we got the answer we wanted.

“I saw them,” said the man. “I asked him, ‘Where’d you get that dog?’ and he said he’d found her in the street.”

The man, he went on to say, hung out at the liquor store over on Fletcher, by the Foster’s Freeze. We drove off in hot pursuit.

We found our prime suspect sitting on a cinderblock wall at Foster’s. “Where’s my dog?” I asked him.

“Your dog? I haven’t seen your dog,” he said.

And then, in the long grass behind him, I saw a familiar black-tipped tail. When he saw me see her, he said, “I tried to call you and tell you I found her lost in the street.”

I was running across the parking lot, yelling Lala’s name. Lala jumped off the wall and into my arms. I was shaking with fear and loss and relief.

The dognapper asked my boyfriend for a reward.

My boyfriend said something suitably macho and dramatic—“If I ever catch you anywhere near our house, or that dog again, you’ll be sorry you ever saw that dog …”

And thus was Lala restored to me, again through the agency of a public enemy. We laughed about it— the high drama, the solving of a crime—but I was also keenly aware that it could have turned out very badly indeed.

I had almost 16 happy years with Lala. As with many dogs, she was a study in unconditional love, but in her case, it was unconditional love of the most extroverted and expressive variety. She could beguile and charm even the worst of human beings, and somehow make them behave admirably on her behalf. She forced me to see the faintest spark of goodness in people. She made it impossible to thoroughly despise some of the most feared and disliked citizens in my community, for she brought out the best in them, brought out whatever trace of affection and responsibility slumbered within them. An entire town feared and despised Wren Hickles, and for excellent reasons, but my interaction with him was only positive: he did me a great favor. And while I suffered living next door to horrible old Therese and was frankly relieved when she died, I cannot hate her unconditionally, for she did, when quite ill, make her long, slow way to my house to tell me Lala had been taken.

Ah, Lala. You were a better human than I—except when it came to other dogs.

Michelle Huneven, author of four novels, including Blame and Off Course, is a 2017 Guggenheim Fellow. She teaches creative writing at UCLA. She lives in Altadena, California with her husband, environmental lawyer Jim Potter; her aged terrier, Piper; her black cat, Mr. Pancks, and her chatty African Gray parrot, Helen.