heard it in the voice even before the words, "he ran away" were spoken. I knew something awful had happened. It was a telephone call from a trainer who I had sent my four-month old English springer spaniel pup, Bandit, to - just the day before.
"I’ll fly down." I said and at 6 AM the next morning, I was on an airplane.
What new puppy owner isn't full of hopes and dreams? Given the right environment, training and genetics, most field bred spaniel pups ought to realize their full capasity to become great hunters, hunt test or field competitors. The majority of pups take some time to bloom - you can't rush greatness. But Bandit was special in that he already was exhibiting so much possibility - more than I'd usually expect for such a young age - that I couldn't ignore it. I wanted to give him the best opportunity possible to reach his full potential. Winters can be harsh in northern Wisconsin, where we live, so I had sent him south to the trainer.
At just three months old, Bandit was retrieving dummies, dead or clip wing birds to hand like there was no tomorrow. And he had a good nose, too. Just the week before, I had been in the field with an older dog tossing the Armadillo Foam pheasant dummy. I put it into my game bag and switched to retrieving a pigeon. Somehow, it fell out without my noticing it and was lost in the field.
Later, I had Bandit out for a run - and he not only found the pheasant dummy, but retrieved it to me and wanted more. The dummy was as big as him, yet he carried it by the body - like a 'big dog'. It was easy to forget he was so young.
Running off was totally out of character for Bandit. He had always stayed well within gun range - never once bolting on our many walks. Calm, confident and level-headed described him well. He got along great with other dogs and loved every person he had ever met.
So what caused him to run off?
It didn’t make sense to me. Something had to spook him. But at this point, it really didn’t matter. All that mattered was my puppy was 'out there', somewhere, alone in the woods... lost. I had to find him because I knew that he was looking for me. And I would do whatever it took. Getting on a plane then driving 150 miles to get there was the easy part.
I arrived at the kennel by 3 PM and began searching right away. I wore my old waxed cotton hunting coat, blaze orange hat and brought along my buffalo horn whistle - things that Bandit was accustomed to identifying with me. I actually expected him to be hiding nearby and that he would come running to me as soon as he heard or saw me. It was soon evident that would not be the case.
Bandit was last seen about two-and-a-half hours after he ran away the day before near a gate, not far from the kennel, at about 10 AM - but he had ran away when approached. They had left his shipping crate with straw, a towel used when they bathed him and some food in the edge of the woods the night before, but nothing was disturbed. He had not been back.
The kennel was about a half-mile off the road, surrounded by hundreds of acres of thick woods and several ponds. Trails cut through the woods, but for the most part, they circled back to the kennel area. With the help of a kennel helper and a young boy, we searched abandoned buildings, under trailers, docks, inside sheds and neighboring properties. We searched every nook and cranny where a small pup might be hiding. We searched the woods, swampy areas, ponds and trails. I called and whistled... and cried.
Where was Bandit?
By 9 PM, there had been no sign of Bandit, except for a few footprints in the mud along the edge of the pond where he may have drank - which was near the cabin where I'd be staying. They had been in a dry spell and the leaves were falling from the trees, so finding footprints anywhere else was very unlikely.
The night was clear and very cold. Much colder than I expected this far south. I moved the crate near the cabin and left my training coat in it - hoping Bandit would find it. Not having slept since I received the phone call, I was exhausted. The realization that finding this pup was going to be far more difficult than I had anticipated left me feeling so helpless. I called my husband, Steve, and some good friends with 'spaniel sense' for advice. Figuring in all liklihood that Bandit was probably all curled up somewhere asleep, I slept for about 1-1/2 hours or so, then awoke, my mind jolted to the plight of my pup. I bundled up and went out in the dark to try and find him.
It was a cold, still night and sound traveled. I was hoping that he would hear me call or whistle and start making some noise - so I could zero in on him. I tried until about 12:30, but only succeeded in getting everyone else’s dog barking... just not Bandit.
On the next morning, I was up while it was still dark and the sky was filled with stars. I called, whistled, looked and listened every 30 steps along the paths near the cabin where I had stayed. Working my way through the woods, around a pond and towards the start of the trail - where the gate that he was seen two days prior was located, I heard the trainer call to me, very excited. I was on an earthen dam, not far from the gate, and ran in that direction. This was a doe hunting weekend and the trainer had talked to a hunter in a tree stand... who saw Bandit. The man said he got there just before sunrise and saw the little white and brown dog run down the lane. He indicated the direction.
"It struck me then that not only was it a matter of finding him in the vastness of the woods, but it was more importantly a factor of being in the right place at the right time - just to even catch a glimpse of him. A needle in the haystack, for sure."
We went to search. The trail went on through the woods for a distance of maybe 600', then turned to the left and eventually dissolved into what remained of an old wagon trail. It ended in a low area below the earthen dam I had just run over. No sign was found of Bandit, anywhere.
I continued to search the general area and the trainer went back to the kennel to get a clumber that happened to be in for training. The 17-month old female had her TD - ‘Tracking Dog’ - title. Giving Scarlet a whiff of the towel used when bathing Bandit on the night he arrived, the dog began to work. She picked up scent and meandered to the right among some downed trees, then back to the trail. Her speed and control was impressive. I had been under the impression that clumbers tend to work at a slower, more deliberate pace and were best suited to hunters over the age of seventy-five. Not Scarlet. When we had difficulty keeping up with her, Scarlet would stop on command and wait for us to catch up... something some field trial English springer spaniels won't do.
We went down the path a bit farther and veered to the left. Scarlet indicated a spot with a lot of scent where Bandit probably had laid that night or morning, at the point where two downed trees formed an "X". The scent trail wandered through the woods... right to the area we had just searched. It was the place where the old wagon trail dead ends at the earthen dam... and Scarlet followed it up onto the trail that I had run down earlier.
It hit me that had I not ran ahead and if only I had continued my slow search, I might have met up with Bandit. But how was I to know? Maybe he came up on the trail because he heard me, but I was already gone. It struck me then that not only was it a matter of finding him in the vastness of the woods, but it was more importantly a factor of being in the right place at the right time - just to even catch a glimpse of him. A needle in the haystack, for sure.
Bandit's trail was lost, but we decided our best chance of finding him was with tracking dogs. The trainer went to make some calls and I continued the search.
I wavered between hope and despair - with despair winning the struggle more often than not. I knew my chances of finding the pup were slim, at best. I kept catching myself looking at my feet and had to force myself to keep scanning the woods as I walked. I prayed that I would be in the right place at the right time and see Bandit.
I was searching down the lane where Bandit was spotted earlier when I found a woman and a young boy in the woods. They were neighbors who brought their terrier to try and search any culverts, holes or other such small hiding places where a little pup might be. We discussed where he had been seen and they agreed to search to woods on the north side of the lane as well as the ATV trails in the area. I was sure that Bandit wouldn't stray too far from trails nor go into the really thick wooded areas since he had never been in thick wooded cover before and trails were familiar to him. At home, we always walked back to our field on a two-track. I thanked them for their help and went to search the shoreline of the pond.
The trainer caught up with me near the cabin where I was staying. The owner of the clumber had a friend with a bloodhound that state police used to find missing people and whose pups were often bought by police departments. They would arrive at about 12:15 and we would meet at the gate. The trainer returned to the kennel and I began another slow search heading towards the gate area.
I had just made my last call-whistle-look-listen near the tree stand where the hunter who saw Bandit had been earlier and turned towards the gate. I remember thinking that no one else had arrived, yet... then I saw a glimpse of the butt and tail of a spaniel. I thought at first it was one of the trainer‘s dogs, but then realized it wasn’t. It struck me how the up lifted tail carriage was that of a confident pup - not tucked between his legs as I had expected to see. Bandit? I thought that surely I was hallucinating! I called his name, and he appeared between bushes. I moved towards him - and he ran away - back into the woods. Somehow, I got around the fence and I continued talking to him, trying my best to coax him back into the open. I whistled and he appeared maybe 20 yards down the drive.
I tossed his small Armadillo Foam ducky I had brought along and my orange hat - and he ran about half way back to me then stopped. I called and he turned around, disappearing into the woods to my right. This happened four or five times.
Despite being about a half-mile from the road, I worried that if I were not successful at enticing him in, he could end up off the property... in the road... and gone forever. I was really puzzled by his behavior then realized that he would only come towards me when I blew my whistle. Even though I could not see him, I started tooting the whistle. He appeared - and began coming in. I laid flat on my back, so as not to frighten him away and continued to softly "toot". When he was only about fifteen feet away, he stopped. I leaned up a little on my elbow so he could see that it really was me and he let out this cry I'd never heard anything like before. It was a haunting mix of anguish and joy. I sat up and he ran right into my arms, still crying. I wrapped them around him and could feel his tail wagging against my side.
Then he started to try to struggle free... yet the tail continued to wag. It was as though a survival instinct was telling him to flee. But I held on tight. Somehow, I managed to get a slip lead out of my pocket and secured on his neck then wrapped the end tightly around my hand as I held him snugly. I talked softly and slowly the panic left and a great sense of relief enveloped us as he began to calm down.
We just sat on the side of the drive for a few minutes with my arms wrapped around him, snuggling. A large SUV arrived and Cindy, the lady bringing the bloodhound, joined us. After a few more minutes, she gave us a ride to the house and the trainer came out to greet us.
The neighbor lady with the little boy and terrier came along about then. They, Cindy and her dog sat with us on the steps and helped to pick some ticks off Bandit. He responded to all of them just fine - no people or dog fear. He even gave the dogs kisses on their noses.
"I truly believe that he came back to me for a reason - and Bandit will be sticking around so we can find out what's in store for this special little springer."
I had told the trainer, earlier, that I felt if he was found, it was far too likely that Bandit would run off again - and so I'd be bringing him home with me... and I did.
I know that had I not traveled to search for Bandit, he would not have been found. Had the trainer and the lady with the bloodhound been there with me, he would not have shown himself. Had Cindy and the bloodhound arrived five minutes earlier, he would have run off. There were just far to many things that could have worked against us - and I KNOW it was only with God's help and the prayers of so many - that it worked out to have a happy ending. I feel so very blessed to have been able to get Bandit back. I believe the odds against finding a four month old puppy lost in a woods so far from home are astronomical. Surely far greater odds than winning any national title. I can't imagine a feeling of greater elation than I felt when I held the little liver and white pup in my arms.
I truly believe that he came back to me for a reason - and Bandit will be sticking around so we can find out what's in store for this special little springer. Finding Bandit was indeed nothing short of a miracle.
Lessen the Odds of Loosing a Dog
Of the few people who I've told what happened to Bandit, I am surprised by how many have had the same thing happen to them or someone they know. Perhaps we underestimate the effect of sending dogs to a strange home or unfamiliar trainer. It is unfortunate when they run away - and tragic if they are lost, injured or killed. Some simple precautions can be taken to lessen the chance of the dog running off and to ease it's transition to the new situation. The following suggestions can help:
- Open the shipping crate in a confined area.
- Have a collar ready and put it on the dog immediately.
- I prefer collars with metal buckles as they are more secure than those with plastic clip-type fasteners. Also, a metal ID tag, with your phone number engraved, riveted to the collar is recommended.
- When taking the dog outside of the confined area, always walk it on a leash for at least the first week - or longer, if necessary.
- Spend time bonding with the dog before taking the dog out without a leash.
- Do not kennel a pup or dog with an unfamiliar animal until it has adjusted to its new surroundings and the other dog.
What to do if You Loose a Dog
- Notify the owner or breeder as soon as possible.
- Contact and inform local authorities: police, animal shelter, vets, news media and neighbors.
- Make flyers with the dog's photo to post at locations within the community and hand out.
- Concentrate the search in the general area where the dog was last seen.
- If possible, get the owner or breeder there to help search.
- Use the same training whistle that is familiar to the pup or dog.
- A good tracking dog can be a valuable asset in the search - the sooner, the better.
- If the pup or dog is spotted, try to get it to come to you, rather than chase after it.
- Have a collar and lead with you.