Chapter 3: Charlie
On Monday, March 15th, 2010, David and Rene received a call from their dog’s groomer in Burien, Washington, near Five Corners. Their beloved black Lab, Charlie, had somehow escaped. David and Rene searched the best they knew how, and put up fliers. They placed an ad on craigslist. Every day, I see ads on craigslist for missing dogs, and I think, Kelsy and I could really help this dog if only they would call us right away. I used to try calling people from these ads to offer assistance, but they were always confused about who I was and what I was trying to do. Most people had never heard of someone who follows the scent trails of missing dogs, and they were skeptical of my claims and my motives. Now, I rarely call someone who has placed an ad, even though I know I could help them. I wait for people to contact me, even if it is a day or two later and makes the search harder. When people seek out assistance with their lost pets, most people in the Seattle area eventually find their way to me, via my web site or through referral from previous people I’ve helped. While a handful of people have training and experience to offer help with missing dogs, I’m the only person in the Seattle area who does it full-time, as a career (as far as I know). On this particular Monday, I didn’t have any cases, so I called Rene and tried to explain who I am and what I do without sounding crazy. Also, I offered to search for free, since it is against craigslist rules to call up the author of an ad and sell them services. Rene had never heard of this type of service, but she was desperate for help, so she gave me the details and said I could search.
On Tuesday morning, before dawn, I drove to Rene and David’s home to get Charlie’s collar to use for a scent article. Usually, I like to have the owner of the dog come with me on the search, but Rene had to work and David had to stay home with their disabled son. I arrived at the groomer, and she explained how Charlie had gotten out a gate at the back of the business. I didn’t really see how Charlie, a seven year old dog not known to try to escape, could have gotten out, but I started Kelsy there. I kept Charlie’s collar in a plastic bag in my pocket as I brought Kelsy out of the car. I put her orange search vest on, and switched the leash from her collar to the D ring on her vest. This is my signal to Kelsy that she is working, when I attach the leash to her vest. I placed the open bag with the collar on the ground before Kesly, and instructed her, “Take the scent.” She took about ten seconds to sniff all around the collar, building a scent profile of this dog. Then she started on the trail, looping around the parking lot and through the lanes of the bank’s drive-through windows. Kelsy took me around behind the bowling alley, around the trash bins. Then she headed north.
The path Kelsy led me on toured the forgotten spaces of my home town, where garbage collected, where a homeless person or a wandering dog could avoid potential conflicts. Through parking lots and along roads, Kelsy worked with her head level, pulling on the leash moderately, her ear tips wiggling with each step in a signature pattern I call The Groove. When she hit some grass or landscaping, her nose would lower to the ground or shrubs to read the details of what transpired recently in the invisible world of animal smells. If Kelsy spent too much time investigating feces that obviously had nothing to do with the case at hand, I would move her along with a “Leave it” and a tug on the leash. When we came to 160th, a busier street where the morning rush hour thickened, Kelsy would have wandered right in front of the cars to follow the scent if I hadn’t stopped her. I gave her the “Wait” command and held tight to her leash until I saw a gap in the traffic flow where we could dash across. She led me down a residential road to a bridge over a creek, and then down to the creek where Charlie probably got a drink. I let Kelsy have a drink there, too, and she waded in the water to cool off a bit.
The scent trail led to a nursing home, then around through the landscaping. Normally, I stop when we hit private property and have the dog’s owner ask for permission for us to proceed. Since no owner was with me, since I couldn’t tell exactly where I should be asking, and since no one would have an expectation of privacy in these communal spaces, I let Kelsy continue on the scent trail. A woman from a second floor balcony asked what I was doing. She looked stern, as if demanding a pretty good reason why I trespassed through her garden. When I told her that Kelsy was searching for a missing dog, her face relaxed, and she told us to go right ahead, to search anywhere we like. As we wove through the shrubs on Charlie’s trail, a man came out of the building, telling us we could not be there. I told him that a resident had given us permission to search for the lost dog, and his attitude quickly changed. He asked how he could help. I gave him a flier from my pocket, and he offered to spread the word. He would tell everyone at his church about Charlie and get them to look out for this lost black Lab. The scent trail led us out of the nursing home grounds, further south.
We followed the scent for about three miles over two and a half hours until we hit a private residential property. This was definitely someone’s yard, but I couldn’t tell which house it belonged to. I switched Kelsy’s leash from her vest to her collar, to signal we should stop working for a bit. I knocked on a couple of doors to try to get permission, but no one answered. I told Kelsy she was a good girl, but we had to go home. I imagine she looks disappointed when we have to stop a search without finding our quarry. She definitely grumbled as we started walking back to the truck. Our search had taken us in a loop. If we had been able to continue, it seemed that Charlie was circling back to the point where he escaped, a common pattern with lost dogs. A light rain fell, and cars on 1st Avenue whipped by us at forty-five miles an hour. I kept Kelsy as far from the traffic as I could.
After a couple of blocks, Kelsy’s nose went up in the air, and she veered to the left, toward a thicket of blackberry vines. From the street, you couldn’t see anything but brambles. When I looked down in to the tangled vines, there was Charlie, taking a nap. I said his name softly, but stopped myself from saying it any more. I praised Kelsy for finding her dog. I got Kelsy’s cheese out of my pocket and unwrapped it for her. I gave her plenty of cheese, but I saved some to toss into the brambles for Charlie. He ignored it, and he wouldn’t follow the trail of cheese nibbles I created out of the thicket. I called Rene at work and told her that Kelsy found Charlie. She got permission to leave work for a short time, and she said she would be there in twenty minutes. As a calming gesture, I laid down on the asphalt on the shoulder of the road, about eight feet from the busy traffic. Kelsy lay against my side. I hoped Charlie would come out to visit us, but if he stayed put, that would be fine, too. The postal carrier came along the shoulder of the road with her truck and had to go around us to get to the next mailboxes. She asked, “Are you okay?” She probably didn’t encounter many people just lying on the shoulder of the road. I thought of trying to explain about the dog in the brambles and the three-hour search, but I just smiled and said, “We’re fine.”
In truth, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. A light rain fell down on my face, along with heavier drops that collected on the bare branches of the alder trees before falling. I lay on the cold asphalt with a smelly dog, there was another smelly dog in the brambles just off the road, and this was the pinnacle of success for me. I laughed at my life, thinking that my younger self never would have imagined that this would be a highlight, a great achievement. For twenty minutes, knowing Rene was on the way to get her Charlie, I just enjoyed that moment, lying on the pavement in the rain with my glorious Kelsy. She looked happy, too. I couldn’t tell you how, exactly, but I could see it in her eyes, the pleasure of success, of a challenge met and conquered, of cheese well and truly earned.
When Rene arrived at a non-descript patch of weeds beside the road, she asked where Charlie was. I pointed to the brambles, and she couldn’t see him. I led her closer. Charlie heard her voice, and he started crying. He came out and leaned against her legs, whining and crying, telling his mother of his ordeal. After Rene had a few minutes to listen to Charlie’s epic story, I lifted Charlie into the back of her car, and she took him home. Kelsy and I walked the last few blocks back to the truck, and headed home. I realized I had forgotten to return Charlie’s collar, so I called and made arrangements to return it. We got to meet Charlie on a better day, to return his collar, and, although I never asked for money, Rene and George made a donation to Missing Pet Partnership, to help us help others like them.
More lost pets could be found if people knew all of the ways they could try to find their pets. It was good that David and Rene placed a craigslist ad, but there were many other steps they could have taken if only they had known the options. Charlie was staying out of sight, and not one person we met during the search had seen him. He could have stayed in those brambles all day and no one would have known he was there. Sometimes, the nose of a search dog is the answer. Sometimes signs, fliers, ads, social media, checking the shelter, or just persisting in searching might be the answer. I would say that David and Rene had a strong bond with Charlie, but they just didn’t know all the options they had to try to find him.