Doggone! A Tail With a Happy Ending!
By Paul Sarapas
LUNENBURG: “Oh where, oh where, has my little dog gone?
This is the story of a 15-day lost and then found a dog named Alita, a ten-month-old mixed breed who took off from her home near Hickory Hills Lake on June 19th and was finally captured and reunited with her owner on Tuesday, July 5th.
“She was a little miserable with porcupine quills in her nose and she was covered with ticks”, Marley Dixon tells me, “but when I found her, she came right over to the side of the crate and licked my face.” Marley is a volunteer for Missing Dogs Massachusetts (MDM), a non-profit organization that specializes in providing volunteers with training and the equipment needed to help find and trap lost dogs.
I asked, “Why do you need to trap them”? Marley answered, “Very often, once a dog becomes lost in the woods, they switch to survival mode and will take off if someone tries to catch them. Alita is really quick, and there’s no way that anyone could ever catch up with her once she takes off.”
My wife and I became involved with the search and rescue of Alita when one of our home security cameras picked up a little doggy in our yard around 11 PM on Sunday, June 26th. While it was unusual to see an unfamiliar dog in our yard, we didn’t think too much of it. Probably she just got loose from her house nearby and would return home after her little late-night sojourn.
A few days later on the afternoon of Thursday, June 30th, as we were driving up Elmwood Road nearing our neighborhood, we noticed a poster on a telephone pole marked ‘Lost Dog.’ “That's the dog we saw on camera the other night!” My wife exclaimed. So we stopped the car and grabbed a quick photo of the sign with the phone number and I called the minute we arrived home. I left a message and went about my business.
A couple of hours later, Marley called me, identified herself as a volunteer with MDM and told me that she was helping the dog’s owners get their dog back. We chatted for a bit as Marley explained why it was important for me to just call or text if and when Alita showed up around my yard again. “We’re just trying to track the various sightings and see where the best place will be to set a trap. I put the trap over by Page Street where she was last seen.”
In addition to requesting we keep an eye out, Marley asked if she could come over to have a look at my yard and the woods behind our home. She also asked me to put out some food and keep our cameras on to see if Alita might return. As it turns out, we never sighted her again, and several more days passed before she was eventually caught.
During that time Marley and I would check in every day or two. She sent me a few texts with photos that showed an interesting setup. There was a little kettle grill in the foreground with the dog crate behind it. The trap is essentially the same as a home dog crate, outfitted with a spring loaded plate that causes it to shut once the dog is inside and steps on the release. It’s rigged in a way similar to a Havahart trap that people sometimes use to trap groundhogs, squirrels and other nuisance or destructive animals. The bait is cooked bacon! The mini kettle grill used to cook the bacon is left for its scent and “liquid smoke” is mixed into a spray bottle and sprayed all around the area; another scent to hopefully lure the runaway to captivity. A live remote satellite camera which can be monitored 24/7 by a network of volunteers across the state is also placed on site.
Do the traps ever capture wild animals? “ I personally have not,” Marley answered, “but fellow volunteers have, it happens often and they have to go and they just release it,” which is why it’s important to watch the live satellite cameras.
Marley also mentioned that people might not always recognize a missing dog that’s been gone for 1 or 2 weeks from the photos on posters or circulating on social media. “The biggest thing is she was starving, and the seriousness of this case is that time was of the essence because she was looking emaciated,” (when she was seen on camera) “You could see her ribs now and you could see every bone in her spine. She lost a considerable amount of weight in the past two weeks. I'd have to say at least 10 pounds,” Marley continues. “If you see the before and after pictures, she looks like a different dog.”
When I called to interview Marley for this story, I asked for a descriptive timeline, from when Alita went missing to her capture. “We have the owners put out dirty clothes throughout their yard. We have them put the dog bed out and we have them put a bowl of food out and sometimes we spray the yard with liquid smoke, which is like magic for us.” Liquid smoke is a barbeque product found in any grocery store. This first phase sometimes works, but for a younger dog that just doesn’t know the lay of the land or is simply in flight mode, it sometimes doesn’t. “If they're not coming back then what you do is you put flyers around the neighborhood of where the dog went missing. You don't go big just yet. Then what happens as sightings pop up, we begin mapping the locations.” Volunteers use a ‘simple flier’. “We like the color to pop, to catch people's eyes and just have the number so people focus on calling rather than reading all the details.”
As sightings and calls reporting them continued, the radius began to broaden. At first, the sightings were in the vicinity of Hickory Hills, Townsend Harbor Road. Marley posted more signs that matched the general area of sightings.“Hemlock, Pine Acres, The Woodlands and Townsend Harbor is where I initially did the flyers. Then she went missing and off the radar for like four or five days.”
Oh where, oh where can she be?
“She [must have] had to go through the Cowdrey Nature Center because she ended up on The Lane.” This means that Alita had managed to safely cross Route 2A. “She popped up on The Lane…around the 26th or so…and when she popped up there, I inundated flyers there and on Elmwood, Flat Hill Road, that whole area.” Postings on social media and a notice in The Ledger also helped spread the word.
By the time we had seen a flier on Elmwood Road, Marley had made and put up 500 posters! After she and I spoke, I put a notice on my neighborhood’s Facebook Group and included the video, and as instructed by Marley, asked that people not scare the dog off by attempting to catch her. “Just ask people to call so I can note the location, and otherwise they should just ignore her.”
While we didn’t get any more sightings, others in my area did, and some of them were repeat sightings, which is a good sign that indicates the dog is settling into an area where she’s finding food, water and relative safety. However, in a town with acres and acres of open land, where there are dangerous animals such as Coyotes, or an encounter with a Porcupine can lead to serious infection which can become fatal, each passing day reduces the chances for survival. While food was being put out, it isn’t something that a lost dog may regularly find, or other animals may take it. So as the days and weeks went by, time became more and more critical. Still, as we continued to check in, and daily sightings continued, Marley was confident that she’d eventually capture Alita.
A big break came when the owners of Flat Hill Orchards notified Marley that she wouldn’t be able to access the orchard for 24 hours. She had set her trap there for a few days due to repeat sightings of Alita. “They called and said, ‘sorry but we have to spray and you won’t be able to come in, so on a hunch, I decided to move the cage to a family’s yard on Elmwood where there were repeat sightings.
In the wee hours on the morning of Tuesday, July 5th, Marley got an alert: Alita was in the trap!
Before we wrap up with our happy ending, we’ll share some tips and advice from Missing Dogs Massachusetts and from Marley. You’ll also find contact info at the end of this article. Here are a few basics if your dog goes missing:
Immediately contact local police and animal control
Place a familiar scent article (dog bed, clothing) in the area dog went missing
Leave a strong smelling bowl of wet food
Alert neighbors, check for missing dog groups on social media
Hang fliers around the location that the dog was lost (sample fliers and other tips on website)
Go to https:https://www.missingdogsmass.com/ to complete a missing dog form
If your dog has a microchip or Martingale collar with GPS, notify the microchip company (if your budget can’t afford geolocators chips or tags, you can use less expensive Apple Air tags that need to ping off of people’s wifi and have around a 5-8 mile range; these are available at Best Buy, Target or Walmart)
The MDM site also has a checklist on how to keep your dog safe and steps to prevent runaways.
So how did things end up? “We brought her to Central Animal Hospital in Leominster, the Vet I’ve been using for 20 years. She was sedated and as many porcupine quills as possible were removed. The ticks were removed. She was tested for Lyme, Heartworm, stomach parasites, all were negative. She was given a Rabies Shot, antibiotics and pain meds. Her nails were clipped and she was given a bath. Her owner will have to do a follow up soon and when we brought her back they had a very, very happy reunion. When I last checked in, they were enjoying a Lobster dinner together.”
If your dog goes missing, you can call Missing Dogs Massachusetts: 844-4 BEFOUND (3686) [voicemail only]. Visit their website at https://www.missingdogsmass.com/ to report a lost dog, download their free brochure, look at some heartwarming reunion videos and photos, make a donation or learn about how to be a volunteer.