"How do you find a dog that doesn't want to be found?" Darren Wright asked. That's the dilemma he and his wife, Connie, faced when Katie, the scared little dog they were fostering, ran away at the end of December.
Avid dog lovers, the Wrights are fostering Katie through the Havanese Angel League Organization (HALO). Based in Huntley, Illinois, HALO is a registered non-profit dedicated to the survival and care of the Havanese breed.
In addition to fostering Katie, the Wrights have two other dogs, Zoe, an 8-year-old Havanese rescue, and Mia, a feisty little Havanese-mix who is about a year old.
The day Katie disappeared was already a sad day. The family's nearly 10-year-old Australian shepherd, Cooper, had died that morning. That afternoon the couple was walking in their neighborhood with their other dogs when leashes became tangled. In the process of untangling them, Katie broke free and sprinted away, her leash trailing behind. So began the amazing journey of bringing Katie back to her home in Summerfield.
Katie's background complicated and prolonged the journey. Having begun her life in the confines of a puppy mill, she spent three years being bred repeatedly with very little human contact and no socialization. When the puppy mill was shut down, she unfortunately ended up in an abusive home. Then, HALO stepped in and placed her in the Wrights' care.
Darren and Connie said when Katie came to them in July, she was broken.
"She was completely reclusive," Darren said. "She was like a shell. She looked like a dog but there was nothing inside."
"She hid in the corner, wouldn't make eye contact and wouldn't go outside," added Connie. "She wouldn't eat in front of us and wouldn't have anything to do with the other dogs, (with the exception of Cooper.)"
After Katie ran away in December, the Wrights, their son, daughter and neighbors spent the afternoon searching for her. Although they thought they had her a couple of times, Katie managed to escape deeper into the woods. As it grew dark, the search was suspended until the next morning.
In the meantime, Darren and Connie were putting together posters and flyers offering a $1,000 reward and posting them all over the area. Because Katie technically belonged to HALO, Connie contacted the organization. Not only did HALO offer suggestions, but they provided manpower and financial help.
Tracker Michelle Wilson, with Epic Animal Recovery in Asheville, came in to help with the search.
"We tracked all day for two days," Connie said. "The first day we picked up a good scent and found a place where Katie had been underneath a neighbor's shed."
They baited the area around the shed with rotisserie chicken and hot dog juice and put up a camera, but Katie didn't return to the spot.
There were also three volunteers from HALO who flew in from Detroit, Chicago and Rochester to help with the search.
While having boots on the ground was important, the Wrights knew that getting their message out was vital to bringing Katie home and social media provided the perfect avenue.
Within 24 hours after Katie went missing, Connie submitted a report to PawBoost, a free online service for lost pets, and posted it on Facebook and NextDoor. She also took advantage of a local Facebook page created specifically to help find another lost dog. That dog, Hetty, had been found within five days. By the middle of January, Katie had her own Facebook page named "Bring Katie Home."
The Wrights also reached out to people all over the area to get posts on their Facebook pages. Neighbors, friends, businesses, rescue organizations and community groups rallied to share information about Katie and help her find her way back home. The Wrights ran an ad in the Northwest Observer and created a post card that was directly mailed to the immediate area where Katie was believed to be.
"You would have been hard pressed to find anyone in the area who didn't know about Katie," Darren said.
Even with all the publicity, there were only two sightings, both just a few streets away. It was enough to bring the tracker back, but this time no scent was detected. The Wrights admit they had become discouraged, but still, they weren't ready to give up.
It was a Sunday afternoon and Katie had been missing for 22 days when Connie got a call from a man in the nearby Autumn Lake neighborhood.
"The gentleman said, 'I have your dog in my kitchen,'" Connie said.
Darren grabbed the car keys and the two were out the door.
"It was the longest three-minute drive I've ever made," Connie said. She and Darren were in shock that anyone would have been able to catch Katie, and didn't want to get their hopes too high that this was really their dog.
Disbelief turned to happiness when they found a terrified and almost unrecognizable Katie hunkered down in a carrier in Marcus and Jennifer Shelton's kitchen.
The Sheltons have three dogs of their own. Marcus heard his dogs barking and went outside to discover they had cornered Katie in a flower bed. He was able to catch her with a net and get her into the carrier.
"They didn't want the reward. They said to give the money to HALO," Connie said. "They told us the best reward was the fact that they were the family who got our dog back to us."
Happy to have Katie back home, the Wrights said there's been a lot of good to come from this experience.
"There's been a transformation in Katie," Connie said. "Now she doesn't want us out of her sight line. The silver lining is that this didn't make her worse. She's actually gotten substantially better."
The Wrights also got to see the good in people.
"It was overwhelming the number of people who were so helpful and accommodating," Darren said.
"At the end of the day, I was blown away by the generosity and concern of the community," Connie added.
In addition, they went through a process that they hope to develop and standardize so that other owners who lose their pets can benefit from what they learned from their experience.
Originally, the Wrights planned to work with Katie and help prepare her for her forever home. It appears those plans may not come to fruition.
"We've been through so much with her," Darren said. It seems Katie might be home for good.