It was a nice warm Sunday afternoon on October 11, 2009. My wife was decorating the front porch for fall with hay bales, pumpkins, and all the trimmings. As is usual practice, our two Shelties, Madison and Ellie-Belle were "supervising" the job to make sure all was done correctly. They normally watch from the flower beds until they need some attention (or at least a belly rub). Ellie is a tri-color and is our greeter. Madison's a sable and much more reserved, staying in the background until she gets to know you. The two girls are a few months apart in age, Ellie being a bit older. Since we got them, Madison has been like Ellie's shadow, never more than a few steps away.

About halfway through the job, my wife noticed Madison wasn't at Ellie's side and called her name. When she didn't get a response, we immediately checked the house to make sure Madison hadn't let herself back in. We checked the neighbors, as they frequently give treats to our girls, but they hadn't seen Maddie. That's when the sense of panic started to set in. I grabbed my bicycle and quickly checked the surrounding blocks while our neighbors and my wife split up in cars looking for her. We searched for the next 2 hours until it got too dark to see.

I returned to the house and started printing flyers with Madison's picture and description. We started going door-to-door leaving flyers at houses, apartment complex mailbox areas, and any business that would let us post on their property. Later that night I posted Madison on as many web sites as I could find.

The weather took a turn for the worse, and we had four days of the worst October weather I could remember. Unusually cold with near-constant rain. Monday morning I got a call from some folks that live about 3 blocks from us. They saw one of the on-line postings and had seen Madison the night before, about an hour after she went missing. Within a couple of hours we had additional confirmed sightings, but all from the night before. They all indicated she'd crossed a very busy street into an adjacent neighborhood. After I printed more flyers, we began passing them out door-to-door based on the new information, but no one had seen her.

Over the next few days, I was contacted by a handful of breed rescue groups all offering help. We had no idea where Madison had gone, but we grateful for all those eyes out there looking. Finally, on Friday afternoon (5th day out) I had a flurry of phone calls from people seeing Madison repeatedly crossing one of the busiest streets in the area--at the 5:30pm rush hour! We'd called some friends and were all following the sightings, trying to get ahead of her. At one point our neighbor was within 10 feet of her but Madison didn't know her well enough and ran away. She disappeared into an industrial area and we lost track of her. Although disappointed, we were at least encouraged by the sightings, knowing that she was still alive and in good health.

For the next week or so, Madison would appear every 2-3 days, we'd get the calls, but were never able to get close enough to see her. Most of the sightings were at night when she would cross a street, and she was always reported to be running. In one case, a man driving a paper route spotted her at 4am and started following her. He didn't have a phone to call us, but followed her for several miles until he lost her less than 1/2 mile from our house! Two days later she was again sighted in the area, but then the sightings stopped and the trail was cold.

Information I'd read about lost dog behavior indicated that for her size, it would be unlikely that she'd travel more than about a mile from home. It doesn't sound like much area, but that mile radius includes residential, lots of shopping centers, and close to 200 acres of undeveloped green belt areas. We started methodically searching the areas, coordinating with the volunteers as best we could. We chased down a few leads well outside of the mile radius, but none were Madison. During this time we made up larger signs and began rotating them through different areas, but always keeping some near our home. The same article also indicated that Madison's personality type made her one of the hardest to recover. Dogs that are shy around people they don't know will tend to avoid contact when they can.

Finally on November 21 we caught a break. A man that lives less than a mile from us called and thought he knew Madison's locale. His house backs up to one of the undeveloped green belts. He said that on the previous Friday his wife had tossed some bread off their deck for the birds and noticed later that a small dog was eating some of it. On Saturday, he considered that it may be the lost dog he'd seen on the signs so he put some dog food on his deck. He didn't see any dogs, but Sunday morning the food was gone. Sunday evening, he put out some more food and left a light on so he could see his deck clearly. At about 8pm, a small brown sheltie showed up and began eating. He watched her for a few minutes and decided to take a photo. When he opened the door to get a clear picture, the dog bolted for the green belt and he quickly lost sight of it. After getting a clear look, he drove to a corned where we had a sign with a large picture of Madison. He said he was sure at that moment that this was her. He left the food out and Monday morning, it was gone, indicating a return visit later Sunday evening.

When he called me on the 21st, he said he'd keep putting food out and would call us if she returned. He called about 8pm Monday evening and explained that she had came back and he'd rigged a gate to his deck to close behind her, but it left a small gap and she escaped. However, she had returned within an hour and that was when he called us. We were there within minutes and he was waiting in his drive for us. We quietly went through his house to get a look, but just as we got to the back of his house, she had left the deck. I went out the front to try and go around and get behind her, but by the time I got to the back of the house she was already moving toward the wooded area at the back of the property. I called her name, but she ignored me and within seconds had disappeared in the undergrowth. We searched the area for an hour to no avail. On the positive side, my wife did get a very clear look out of the back of the house and it was definitely Madison! At least we knew she was still alive and moving well.

I talked to our vet the next morning about Madison ignoring our voices. He explained that after being out that long, it's hard to predict what a dogs' reaction will be, but that if she ignored us, she was likely running on instinct and may ignore us again. Since it looked like our options were limited, we decided to try a live-animal trap placed on the homeowner's deck. The next day, I checked one out from a local animal shelter and after getting a few good tips from the animal control officers, was ready to go. We placed some of Madison's bedding and toys in the trap along with a bowl of her favorite food & treats. Tuesday night we camped by the phone hoping for some good news, but no luck. The homeowner said Madison had briefly came on his deck (again at 8pm!), sniffed around the trap, but then left. He put some additional food out, which was gone the next morning. Wednesday evening, almost exactly at 8pm, we got the call we'd waited so long for. The homeowner said she was in the cage and resting on the pillow we'd left for her!!

We were there in minutes and when we walked out on his deck, Madison was on the pillow, but shaking slightly. Once she was able to sniff our hands, she got up and and her ears perked up a bit. She quickly went to the food bowl and ate all of what we'd left within a couple of minutes! On the advice of the animal control folks, we didn't immediately let her out of the cage. The animal control guys told me in many cases, a dog will be so nervous that if you open the cage to take them out, they'll immediately run again. The procedure they recommended was to move the cage (dog still inside) to a familiar confined area (like a garage or the dog's yard) and only then, release the dog. We followed their advice and even though it was a chilly evening, my wife and daughter rode in the back of my pickup with Madison for the short drive home.

We put the cage in our garage and brought our Ellie-Belle (and new pup Murphy) out to greet Madison. To our surprise, neither Ellie nor Madison seemed particularly excited, they just sniffed each other. When it was apparent that neither was aggressive, I opened the cage Madison walked out & began sniffing around for a few minutes, then walked in the house! We fixed her a large bowl of her favorite food, which she polished off in a matter of minutes. Shortly after that, she followed the others out the dog doors and began chasing around the back yard. It was such a joy seeing them together again! It didn't take long for Madison to get tired though and she came in for a nap. After her nap, we found a few ticks on her and lots of cockleburs in her coat. After some trimming & tick-pulls, we gave her a nice warm bath to clean her up a bit. While we were bathing her, I could feel her muscles relaxing and at one point let out a little sigh and almost fell asleep in the tub! We dried her off and she went to one of the spots where she'd always slept, and was off to dreamland! It was the evening before Thanksgiving, and for our family Christmas had just arrived!

The next day she ate a lot, slept a lot, and by the afternoon was pretty much behaving as she had before her long adventure had begun. I took her to the vet Friday after Thanksgiving for a checkup. She had lost about 30% of her body weight, but otherwise got a clean bill of health. No injuries or parasites (save for the few ticks--that Frontline is good stuff!). The doctor couldn't believe she'd been on her own for so long and still be in such good health.


It's been a week now and I'm happy to report that Madison's behavior is just as it was before she left. During her absence, we had adopted a Sheltie pup from a rescue to be a companion for Ellie. We'd talked about getting a third sheltie before Madison left and the story of how Murphy joined our family is quite a tale, but that's for another day. Madison, Ellie-Belle, and Murphy are all getting along just fine.

A few thoughts on the whole experience may help others. We've been amazed at the number of total strangers that offered help in the search. I was also surprised at the extortionists that called claiming to hold Madison for ransom. It was easy enough to confirm they were scams, but disappointing all the same.

There's lots of sources for what to do when you've lost a pet, but here's a list of what we did. Although the large real-estate type signs were ultimately what hooked us up with the right guy, without all of the other notices, we wouldn't have had the valuable information on her movements. By the time we got her back, we'd distributed about 800 flyers, had 8 real estate-sized signs in the area, had her posted on 9 web sites--Craig's List produced the most calls-- and had enlisted the cooperation of the local school principals, mail carriers, garbage collectors, UPS & FedEx drivers, and school bus drivers. Use a picture of your pet on all signs & flyers. It's far too easy for passers-by to ignore a written description, but a people can remember a photo after only a couple seconds exposure. If people are waiting for a traffic signal to turn green, you only have a few seconds to capture their attention and give them something they can remember. Madison's a very pretty girl and to divert the tendency for someone to just keep her, we did offer a very large reward, on the bet that someone could return her, buy their own dog, and still have money left. I don't like the idea of money as the sole motivation to get Madison back, but I did have good information from some folks that I knew were only looking because of the reward. I didn't necessarily care about their motivation at that point, I was just looking for a favorable outcome. I also went to the area shelters at least twice a week, although with budgets like they are these days, the staff told me they don't go looking for loose animals unless someone reports them as a threat.

The best advice I can give is to build a detection system using every means you have available--the more eyes you have out there looking, the better. Changing up the signs occasionally helps keep the information fresh in the public's mind. At the end of the day, I think the hand of God was also at work here. Madison had learned to live on her own in an area where no one would see her. It wasn't until she ventured out and the right person saw her that we had the opportunity to get her back. One last note--the large signs were simple-- a picture of Madison with "Have you seen me? (phone number)" After we got her back, I changed the text on the large signs to read "Madison's home!! Thanks to all who helped". I've had close to a hundred phone calls & emails from people who'd been looking that were glad to hear she was found. It's a nice way to keep us all motivated to help those furry kids find their families. In closing I can only say be persistent, be consistent, keep praying, and never give up!

Rex, OK