Lost Dogs and Their Finders

The art and heart of tracking canine runaways.
By Konnie LeMay, May 2018
Courtesy of John Lundquist

Courtesy of John Lundquist

Canoe co-pilot Lindsey with sister Jane.

Canoe co-pilot Lindsey with sister Jane.

John Lundquist got word that someone had spotted Lindsey, his Australian Shepherd mix who’d gone missing about a month earlier on a camping trip deep in Minnesota’s north woods, but the news wasn’t reassuring. She had been seen racing across a backcountry road, a wolf apparently in pursuit.

“I thought maybe that’s the end of the story,” Lundquist says.

But it wasn’t, because by then, the lost dog had found some powerful allies. The Retrievers, an all-volunteer team, came to the rescue. The team’s motto— “Come Back Home, Puppies; Stay Warm, Puppies”—is emblazoned on a patch they wear. Though the motto (the bedtime prayer of a team founder’s son) is whimsical, this Minnesota-based group’s mission is absolutely serious.

Since its official formation in 2014, the Retrievers has taken on almost 1,000 cases and had numerous successes. Devon Thomas Treadwell is the group’s director of marketing and one of its 40 volunteers; last year, she estimates, the group resolved about 75 percent of the cases it undertook. “That’s found, not all alive, but at least located,” she says bluntly. It also trains others in how to recapture skittish pooches and, perhaps more importantly, in how to not lose a dog in the first place. “We get people calling us from all over the country. We take all [of the calls], and we do what we can.”

Above: Retrievers promotion

The group’s name is a nod to its origins in Minnesota’s Retrieve a Golden of the Midwest (RAGOM). Like many rescue organizations, RAGOM knows that dogs in transit pose a high flight risk. As Thomas Treadwell points out, “New foster dogs, new adopted dogs, dogs going on vacation, dogs kept by relatives not at home, dogs in boarding: all are high-risk situations.”

To offset this risk, RAGOM developed a SWAT team for lost dogs, and a transportation protocol that calls for dogs to be crated or harnessed so they can’t slip out an open car door. En route potty breaks are discouraged. Also, when possible, volunteers are encouraged to drive into a garage and close the door before letting a rescue dog out of the vehicle.

My own experience reflects the perils of this transitional phase. Early on the morning after we adopted our German Shepherd mix, Rachel Beth, from a distant shelter, my husband opened the door to fetch something. One of the neighborhood deer was near the porch and, in a flash, Rachel was out the door and after the deer. By the time I joined the search, our new family member (with a new nickname, “Turbo” Rachel) was trotting back to our house as if to say, “Sorry, couldn’t catch the deer. What else is for breakfast?” It took another half hour to find my husband, who was still out in the woods shouting her name.

We were lucky. Besides being too easy going at the door, we committed another mistake frequently made with runaway dogs: we chased her, which would’ve been a bad error had she been frightened rather than just hunt-hungry.

“Trying to chase a dog, that’s really common,” Thomas Treadwell says. If a dog runs because she’s startled or anxious, chasing makes the situation even worse. “For a dog that runs in fear, the last thing you want to do is chase it.” A better idea, especially with a playful pooch, is to run the other way, calling the dog to chase you.

John Lundquist learned that the hard way. Though Lindsey was rescued from Georgia, she was no stranger to canoe vacations in the Minnesota woods. She even had her own bright-yellow lifejacket. “She had been on probably a halfdozen trips with me before, never on a leash,” Lundquist says. “She’s very personable.”

But in September 2017, when he paddled deep into the remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, he didn’t understand how afraid she’d become of thunderstorms. “We were completing a mile-long portage after a day trip. That’s when the storm hit,” he says. About a five-minute paddle from their mainland campsite, agitated by the booming and lightning flashes, Lindsey bolted. “The main thing I learned is how quickly dogs can switch into that fight-or-flight mode,” he says.

For two days, Lundquist searched the nearby woods, calling Lindsey’s name. “She probably heard me the whole time, but was too spooked.” On the morning of the day Lundquist had to leave for his Twin Cities home more than 300 miles away, Lindsey crept into camp, only to run when he approached her. “Now, I would have had a very different strategy,” he reflects. “I made it worse instead of better.”

He left with a heavy heart…and no Lindsey.

In Minnesota, runaway dogs are vulnerable to all the usual dangers, such as being hit by cars or picked up by well-meaning people (who keep them out of kindness) or illintentioned ones (who sell them). In rural Minnesota, farmers can legally shoot stray dogs if they appear to bother livestock. Runaways also may fall to predators like bears, wolves or cougars. (Thin ice is another seasonal threat— animals have no “sixth sense” about when ice is dangerous to cross.)

A mistake people often make with lost dogs, Thomas Treadwell says, is not seeking help fast enough, thinking the dogs will come back on their own. “I see this a lot. They might wait overnight before they call us.”

She urges people whose dogs run off to immediately post signs around the neighborhood with a contact number, and to get on social media. “It’s quite amazing how word can spread.” Often, the first contact for the Retrievers comes through its Facebook page. Those requesting help are directed to the organization’s website, where they fill out a form with relevant details.

Another lesson is how important it is for a dog to have identification; a collar with license, rabies-shot verification and contact-information tags can be a lifesaver. A microchip or other form of permanent ID also helps.

Courtsey of theretrievers.org

Lundquist posted Lindsey’s plight on social media, which quickly rallied people (the post got 8,000 hits) and alerted the locals around Ely, the town nearest to the Boundary Waters.

A couple of weeks after Lindsey ran off, she entered the campsite of a father and son who were taking a late-season canoeing trip. It was five miles and across open water from where she went missing. The two had their own dog along, which was a source of conflict, but Lindsey’s collar (she had slipped out of the yellow life jacket by then) made it obvious that she was not feral.

They captured her, brought her back to Ely and delivered her to a volunteer. Lundquist was set to drive up and get her the next day, but, taking advantage of a momentary lapse by her caretaker, Lindsey ran off again. After that, townsfolk kept a lookout for the Aussie mix —“I’m sure 90 percent of Ely knows about my dog,” Lundquist says—and reported a few sightings, including the one with the wolf in pursuit. At the Lundquist family’s request, the Retrievers had taken the case, mapping sightings to locate Lindsey’s new haunts. A volunteer from the Twin Cities drove up with one of the Retrievers’ major innovations, a live trap designed by a group founder specifically for dogs.

Above: This stray dog showed up in a small Minnesota town during a stretch of brutally cold, subzero weather. It took 20 minutes for her to work up the courage to enter the trap and trigger the gate shut.

A baited trap can be extremely helpful when a skittish dog resists capture (even by her family, as Lundquist can attest) but continues to frequent certain areas. The Retrievers have invented several styles of live traps, including a large enclosure called the Missy Trap. For Lindsey, they used their smaller Cash Trap, which was named for the first dog caught in it. All are triggered by the Raytripper, an electronic sensor beam/magnet system that drops the trap’s gate when the dog steps into its invisible infrared beam. The team has shared their designs through YouTube tutorials, and many other lost-dog groups (including one in Belgium) are using their innovations to help bring dogs home. “One of the most gratifying bits is being able to share these inventions to improve the recovery of lost dogs,” Thomas Treadwell says.

Above: Retriever Natalie Wicker holds two of the six puppies that a stray Pit Bull was caring for under an abandoned house. The mother was too skittish to be caught by hand, so she was trapped, then the puppies were retrieved

When a trap is used, it is monitored remotely with a cellular trail camera, and someone is always nearby so the dog can be recovered immediately. The group has found that liquid smoke makes one of the most enticing baits. Hot dogs, rotisserie chicken, bacon and pan grease all create a good scent trail, too (though it took a dab of fox scent to lure in Jasper, a tricky Beagle mix).

The report of Lindsey and the wolf pointed the Retrievers volunteer to the best trap location. The
group had been mapping Lindsey sightings, and the volunteer had been putting out food in several spots. After the wolf sighting, she removed all food placements except the one at the trap.

John Lundquist served as point person on the private Facebook page the group sets up for each rescue case. “They did all the work, amazing work,” Lundquist recalls, saying that he was particularly impressed by their organized, detailed tracking process. Happily, a few days after the wolf sighting, Lindsey was caught.

Lundquist and his three daughters drove to Ely, arriving in the evening. When Lindsey saw them, apparently oblivious to the anxiety she had caused, she gave them a few tail wags and then looked around for other things to do. There was ample evidence, though, of her hardships. “She lost about 10 pounds, a quarter of her weight,” Lundquist recalls. “She had tick-borne ailments and tapeworm.”

Today, Lindsey is enjoying metropolitan life far from the northern forests. “She’s fine and healthy, gaining the weight,” Lundquist says. “Most of the time, she’s sitting on someone’s lap on the couch.”

These days, thanks to the Retrievers, no one needs to pray “Come home, puppy” for Lindsey. As they have for many others, the group and its volunteers provided the answer to that prayer themselves.

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