Connecticut group reunites owners with missing pets

NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) — If you’ve never had the unfortunate need for CT Dog Gone Recovery Volunteers’ services, there’s a decent chance that everything you thought you knew about recovering a lost dog is wrong.

You’re not supposed to call out to the dog. You’re not supposed to publicize sightings of the dog. And perhaps you didn’t realize a successful recovery might involve cellular cameras, kennel traps, liquid smoke, a remote-controlled drop net and frying bacon over a camp stove.

This was the case for Rita MacWilliam, a Lyme resident whose terrier mix, Possum, ran away just two hours after she got him at a rescue agency on July 13.

The dog saw an opening in her fence and scooted out. MacWilliam could hear him barking in the middle of the night, so she knew he was still around, but he would run away when approached.

Two days later, she reached out to Dog Gone Recovery and got help from volunteers Gary Roderick, Sharon Mlyniec and Carol Ferrucci. Roderick set up a camera and a trap, but Possum would not go in it.

Mlyniec lives in Brooklyn, Conn., but vacations in Old Lyme, and the day before her vacation, she offered to bring down her kennel. But the dog would only go partway in before backing out.

Meanwhile, MacWilliam sat in her car in the driveway holding a string attached to the gate, ready to pull the gate shut when the camera showed Possum in her yard. But that didn’t work either.

After a thunder and lightning storm, sightings of Possum were reported several miles away, so MacWilliam and volunteers put fliers up. Then Possum was back in the area, and a caretaker of the property next door called to say he thought the dog was sleeping under a lumber pile in his backyard.

The concern, Mlyniec said, was that the dog would run off if he heard footsteps on the gravel around the lumber pile. But when it was raining, the neighbor approached and grabbed the leash Possum was still wearing.

It was a full month after he went missing.

MacWilliam was excited but also questioned, “How do I go from here to earn this dog’s trust, since he was so skittish and so scared?” Now, he can walk with her without a leash on, but in the house, he still hides under the bed.

Dog Gone Recovery volunteer Patti Hawkins said the effort started on a much smaller scale in 2013, when the people who helped one dog that went missing in Farmington came together again to recover another missing dog.

It was a learn-as-you-go process, Hawkins said, but then Ferrucci took a class through Missing Animal Response Network. The founder of the organization is Kat Albrecht, a former police bloodhound handler and search-and-rescue manager. The resident of Vancouver Island, Canada, took strategies from lost person investigations and applied them to lost pet investigations, according to her website.

Dog Gone Recovery is a division of Dog Star Rescue, a 501(c)(3) in Connecticut. Donations go toward things like cameras, traps, food and Staples printing costs for flyers. Hawkins said there are eight “leads” in the state; each has cameras, traps and typically a team of local people. The only part of the state that doesn’t have a lead is Fairfield County.

Hawkins said when someone reaches out to Dog Gone Recovery, they’re first told to call their local animal control officer and surrounding towns. Then, the volunteers make a flyer with the date the dog went missing, location, description of the dog, picture, phone number for the owner and sometimes the admonition “Do not chase.”

The 11-by-17-inch posters get mounted on neon poster board and placed on telephone poles in a 3- to 5-mile radius of where the dog went missing.

Dog Gone Recovery puts the posters on its Facebook page, which has its ups and downs. The increased awareness social media brings can result in reunions, or it can result in too many people flocking to an area, further scaring away the dog.

For traps, volunteers put rotisserie chicken, hot dogs, sausages or steak in the back. They might also spray liquid smoke around the perimeter to create the scent of a barbecue.

Along with logistics, Hawkins said it’s really about giving owners encouragement, “because a lot of people think, ‘She’s been gone 24 hours; she’s probably dead,’ or, ‘She’s been gone 48 hours; we’ll never get her back.'”

But in the realm of dog searching, 48 hours is nothing. She said Dog Gone Recovery once successfully found a dog that had been missing for three months. Dogs are resourceful, hunting moles and other critters.

To avoid having a dog go missing in the first place, Hawkins suggests using a martingale collar, double-leashing the dog in case one slips, microchipping the dog, considering a GPS collar, and never letting the dog out alone, especially at night.

Like MacWilliam, Nancy Mello Miller had only had her dog home from the rescue for a few hours before she ran off. She and her family had brought Abbey, a 9-month-old black Lab who had only ever lived in a kennel, to their Mystic home on Dec. 30.

Abbey wasn’t eating or drinking or moving. Since Mello Miller had to physically carry the dog outside that evening, she didn’t think there was a flight risk.

But then Abbey darted.

Mello Miller went on Facebook Live, and people around the community were searching until the early morning hours. In the coming days, she took midnight walks with Domino, the dog she’s had since 2011, to lay down their scents. She let the police know she was looking in the woods at night, in case someone called the police on her.

“I remember New Year’s Eve, I was sobbing,” she said.

In her kitchen on Wednesday morning, as she recollected the sadness and lack of sleep, Mello Miller turned to where Abbey was perched on the couch and said in a higher-pitched, talking-to-a-dog voice, “I’m talking about you! I’m talking about you!”

Following a recommendation, Mello Miller had reached out to Dog Gone Recovery, which set up three traps — one on her property, one at nearby Bel-Aire Playground and one at a house for sale across Route 1, where Abbey had been spotted a few times — and cameras.

Hawkins was helping with this case, and seven days after Abbey went missing, she called Mello Miller to say her dog was successfully trapped across Route 1. Mello Miller ran out in her pajamas to the trap, where she knelt and talked to Abbey and sang “Hallelujah.”

“I was so grateful. I was just grateful,” she said.

The one upside of the ordeal for Mello Miller was that it brought out the best in people, and she met many of her neighbors. She said it was sad to think it took this kind of event to get people talking to one another.

“Something like CT Dog Gone Recovery, it doesn’t matter where you live, what your income is,” Mello Miller said, adding, “It’s unconditional, it’s emotional support, it’s getting us the support we could never afford.”

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