Darla: Lost and Found

This story comes from Sam Connelly, of Pure Gold Pet Trackers. It involves three Golden Retrievers (two belonging to Sam), and their adventure rescuing a third at Lake Linganore in May 2006. You can learn more about lost pet tracking at Kat Albrecht and Pet Hunters International and also International K-9 Search & Rescue Services for Missing People and Pets.

Phil and Sandy Heimlich had driven three hours down to New Market, Maryland from their home outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their daughter, Debbie, had recently delivered their new grandchild and they were going to put serious grandparent fingerprints on her.

Rather than board their new Golden Retriever, 2-year-old Daisy, since they had only had her for three weeks, they opted to take her along on the road trip. Daisy was just getting used to being a house pet after being purchased on a co-ownership contract from Judy Breuer of Copperlee Kennels. She was also adjusting to a new name, as she had been called “Darla” for her first two years. The extended car ride had made her very queasy, (two hours into a three hour trip is a terrible time to find out your new dog gets carsick).

After they arrived at their daughter’s home on a scenic hill above Lake Linganore, in New Market, Maryland, they settled in and then Sandy took Daisy out in the yard for a bit of a stretch and a potty break. While she was walking up the driveway she let out the flexi-leash and Daisy moved out ahead of her to sniff around the recently emptied trash cans. As she moved around to the far side of the cans the leash tipped one of them over and it crashed to the pavement making a terrible noise and spooking the already nervous dog. Daisy bolted away from Sandy yanking the handle of the retractable leash out of her hand. The panicked Golden disappeared down the tree-covered hillside at a dead run.

Phil and was inside holding the baby when he heard his wife screaming in the front yard. He quickly passed the baby to his daughter and ran outside. Sandy yelled, “She ran off that way,” pointing down the hill. Phil ran after her but to no avail, Daisy had vanished into the wilderness area surrounding the lakeside development. Phil and Debbie left Sandy with the baby and drove around the area in their cars hoping to spot the frightened dog, keeping in touch by cell phone. By dark they were frantic imagining all kinds of horrors that might befall their inexperienced kennel dog in the wilderness.

They looked for her for the whole weekend, called the area vets, called the Animal Control and the Frederick County Humane Society. No one had picked up a female Golden since she was lost on Friday. They were worried sick about her since she was in a strange place and dragging an extension leash along behind her (probably adding to her terror) that could get tangled in the dense underbrush and either choke her or even drown her if it happened in the water. There were terrible thunderstorms too that weekend and their hearts ached for the terrified Golden alone in the storm.

They put up posters at the community mailboxes and anywhere the locals would shop or congregate (the community association prohibited posting signs on the streets in the neighborhood). When they called the Humane Society again on Monday the person there suggested that they call around to the neighboring counties as well since a dog can cover five – ten miles a day. So they called all of the Animal Control and Humane Societies in the five counties nearby. The last one they called was Howard County who gave them some encouraging news. They told Phil about a local lost pet tracker named Laura Totis of LJT Training and recommended that they call her.

When Laura got the call she was at her “day job” managing a boarding kennel and doggie daycare in Hampstead, MD. She told Phil that she could not come until the following evening but that there was another team in the area that might be able to come earlier than that. She referred him to Sam Connelly of Pure Gold Pet Trackers up in Baltimore. Sam also was at her “day job” managing a veterinary equipment company. She, however, worked the late shift and agreed to drive out to New Market first thing in the morning to look for Daisy with her two Golden Retrievers, Brando and Salsa.

Sam and Laura had met while members of Mid-Atlantic D.O.G.S. Search and Rescue several years before. Sam’s male Golden was originally training for man trailing and her female was working on both, wilderness air scent and cross-training on cadaver when Sam had to retire from Search and Rescue for medical reasons. Not wanting to waste all of the work she had done with these two talented dogs, and knowing that they would drive her crazy without a job, she decided to train them for pet tracking.

Eight o’ clock Tuesday morning Sam and her Goldens arrived at Debbie’s house and met with the anxious owners. Daisy had now been missing for over three days in the Lake Linganore neighborhood with no sightings reported.

The only scent source was the back seat of the owner’s car where Daisy had ridden on the way down (along with a trace of her last meal). Sam put on latex gloves and, using sterile gauze pads, gathered a scent article for the dogs to work from. She wiped the gauze along the seat picking up a couple of clumps of hair and dropped it all in a Ziploc bag. Leaving some more gauze on the seat for Laura to use later in the day, she left the car closed and instructed Phil and Sandy not to clean it.

Sam pulled out her big, 7-year-old, male Golden, Brando, and put on his tracking harness. He was so excited to be going to work she could barely get it fastened as he bounced and wriggled in anticipation. Once the harness was secured he received the command to “down” so he could be introduced to the scent of the missing dog. Opening the scent bag, Sam held it in front of him and he thrust his slightly-graying muzzle into the bag. As he sniffed deeply she told him “mark” to let him know that was what he was looking for. “Okay, Bran, go find!” Sam instructed him and the big dog jumped up and went right to work. He sniffed the car, then walked up to the front door, turned around and followed the scent back up the driveway, then turned and went across the yard and down the hill beside the house.

Phil walked, ran, climbed and slid along with Sam throughout the neighborhood, across steep back yards and along the muddy banks of the lake as Brando followed Daisy’s path of escape. After a couple of hours of tracking they had found no trace of Daisy and Phil was very disappointed. Sam explained that his dog had a three-day head start and that it would probably take quite a while to find her. A tracking dog is just to give you a direction of travel and to verify sightings. You will never “catch” a running dog with a tracking dog. The tracking dog will get you in the area where the dog has been but it will take the cooperation of people reporting sightings, timing and a lot of luck to actually recover the dog. Usually, if the dog is too smart to go into a trap, or if you never get a good sighting to determine the location for a trap, it will be captured by accident when it gets so hungry and desperate that it goes to someone’s home looking for food. Not the words Phil wanted to hear knowing he had to leave tomorrow to go back home. Sam also had to leave as it was now 10:30 and she had to be at work in Baltimore at noon.

She noted the location where they had left off so Laura had a starting point for the afternoon track. She reassured Phil and Sandy that they would come back to verify any sightings and advised them to run a lost dog ad in the local paper with both their phone number and their daughter’s as well. She gave them her card to leave with their daughter in case there was a sighting when Phil could not get down from Philadelphia to check it out (since she was only an hour and a half away). Sam told the owners that the team would continue helping them until they found Daisy.

Laura arrived in the afternoon as promised with her big Rottweiler, Xena, and her high-drive German Shepherd Dog, Chewy. Xena, also a retired Search and Rescue dog had been cross-trained for lost pet tracking for a couple of years now. Chewy was trained for basic tracking and then she too was trained for pet tracking. All of the dogs on the team had very good track records of frequently recovering the pets they were looking for.

Laura and Chewy led Phil through even more treacherous terrain than Sam and Brando had earlier. For hours they followed the trail of the frightened Golden only to have to call the search for the night when it got too dark and too dangerous to continue.

Laura told Phil and Sandy basically the same thing Sam had told them. Be patient, don’t give up hope, be persistent and keep track of all of the sightings, location, time of day, description given by the witness of the dog’s behavior, etc.

The next day Phil and Sandy packed their car and the saddened couple went home without their Daisy.

The following Wednesday Phil got a call from a lady in the development across the main road from his daughter’s development. She had seen a Golden playing with the little Cairn terrier across the street a couple of times over the past few days and then saw her again down by the beach. She didn’t realize who the dog was until she saw the ad in the paper. When she called Phil she told him the dog had string or something hanging from her collar. Phil immediately called Sam to see if she could meet him back in New Market the next day to check the scent with Brando to see if it was indeed Daisy. Then perhaps they could track her to where she had gone or at the very least set up a feeding station to attract her back.

Sam agreed to meet him in the morning and when they got there they spotted a Golden lying in a yard up the block from where the sighting had been. For a moment there was that little tingle of adrenaline as the hopes rise, then, subside as you realize that the dog in the yard was larger than an average female, not to mention darker and a had heavier coat. It was probably a male that lived at that home.

They went on up to talk to the lady, Mary Smith, who had called in the sighting. She repeated the description of the dog that had come to play with the neighbor’s terrier and felt confident that it was the missing dog. She said the last place she had spotted the dog was on the path down by the beach. Sam suggested they take her playful female Golden, Salsa, to use as a “magnet dog” (a dog that encourages other dogs to come play with them to attract shy dogs to come out of hiding).

Sam, Salsa and Phil walked down the street to the main entrance that led down to the beach. About halfway down the path they saw a pair of dogs in a yard. The little female made their hearts leap until they realized that she wasn’t a shaved down Golden but a yellow Lab like the other dog (a larger male). They wondered if that was what the witness had seen and Phil climbed up the steep stairs to their house to see if the female had gotten loose from the invisible fence in the past week or so. The owner said that neither of her dogs had ever been out of her yard unaccompanied. Phil thanked her and the three searchers continued on down the path to the beach. After half an hour playing ball on the beach they decided to go back and get the tracking dog, Brando, to see where Daisy went from her visit with the neighbor’s dog.

Sam and Brando ran a cross track through the neighbor’s yard and moments later Brando was charging down the back of the yard toward the water where there was a narrow trail at the water’s edge. The scent was strong and he followed it around the curve of the lake and right back onto the same trail by the beach. The track continued around the path at the far end of the beach. It led to a concrete walkway that ran from that neighborhood all the way back around to the main road nearly half a mile away. They came out on another pathway that led up and across the road at a very treacherous location next to a hill and a curve that limited visibility but didn’t limit the speed of the passing cars. The scent trail went across the busy road and continued up a path on the other side into the woods along the water. Unfortunately, it was 10:30 and Sam had to leave for work. She promised to come back the next morning to pick up where they had left off. Phil was disappointed but encouraged that Brando had confirmed the sighting in the other neighborhood. Maybe tomorrow would be the day.

Bright and early the next morning Sam and her Goldens met Phil near the place where they had ended their track the day before. Phil brought his niece, Dafna, to walk along with them. Dafna was a volunteer wildfire fighter who worked with the US Forest Service to control the damage done by wildfires each year. She was definitely fit and eager to follow the trail of the missing Golden. She had never watched a tracking dog work and found the process fascinating.

The trail led along a creek that fed into the lake and past an ancient cave that had been used by the indigenous people who had lived in this area hundreds of years ago.

Then they came to a cross trail and it took the big dog a few minutes to determine which direction their subject had taken. Soon, though, he crossed over a little footbridge and up a path that climbed a steep hill with rocky outcroppings. The trail wandered around the top of the hill for a little bit then came out in another neighborhood across the creek from the neighborhood where she had escaped.

Her path ran through several back yards and up under a deck where there was a strong pool scent, indicating she may have spent one of those recent stormy evenings hiding out there. She had checked out all of the local trash cans and a couple of barbeque grills for traces of food. Then the trail went down a yard and out onto a dock where it ended with the big tracking dog staring at the water and then back at his entourage. Apparently, she had gone for a swim at that point. This was another disappointing development and another day where the searchers had to go home without even sighting their quarry. How long could she survive? Where could she have come out of the water? What do they do next? So many questions and no real answers yet. Sam had weekend plans as did Phil but they planned to keep in touch and pray for sightings.

The following Tuesday evening Phil received a call from Patti Flanders who had seen a small blonde Golden running up and down along a small beach across the creek from her home. Her home was only two blocks or so from where Phil’s daughter lives. That would mean that the dog was on the same side where we had been tracking her the previous week. It appeared as though the dog was afraid to go into the water for whatever reason, perhaps because the bottom of the creek was deep mud and very difficult to walk through without getting stuck. She may have had a scare when climbing out from her swim the day we lost her track and could not bring herself to go back in. The most encouraging comment that Patti had made was that she had spoken to Phil that first day and then seen the poster with the dog’s name on it. She had called “Daisy” and then “Darla” across the water to the frightened dog. When she called “Darla” the dog looked right at her and appeared to want to come to her, desperation in her eyes. Her heart went out to the poor starved dog and she wondered how they were going to get to her. The area was marshy all the way around that little point where she was stranded. Quite inaccessible by car or on foot and the water in the creek was too shallow for a boat rescue but the bottom was too deep and muddy to walk across.

They were expecting severe storms again that night so Patti advised against attempting a rescue in the dark. Sam told her that she could get there by 8:00 the next morning so Patti spent the night periodically going out and “checking” on the dog by calling “Dar-la” across the creek. Each time the frightened Golden popped out on the beach and frantically ran up and down looking for a way across. Even in the midst of the storms at 2:00 am Patti called her and the poor little girl came out looking longingly across at her only hope. The situation was heart-wrenching as the night dragged on and the rain poured down.

The dawn came up clear and bright. Sam arrived at 8:00 am with her little female “magnet dog”, Salsa. She also had a bright green ocean kayak on top of her SUV.

Patti took Sam down to survey the area and to see if they could lure Daisy out onto the beach. “Dar-la”, Patti called in the familiar tone. Within moments a shy, thin Golden stepped out of the wood line onto the beach. Sam caught her breath as she realized this was certainly the dog they had been looking for. Two feet of cord hung from the clip on her collar. It was all that was left of the flexi-leash she had been dragging.

The women spoke comforting words to her though the meaning was not important, just that she felt connected to the two people on the opposite shore who were encouraging her to stay there.

The pair went back up the hill and fetched the kayak from the truck and took it down to the water’s edge. Sam stuffed her pockets with a slip-lead, treats and little, pop-top cans of Fancy Feast cat food. She also brought lots of bug-repellant/sun-screen as the mosquitoes were voracious and plentiful.

They found a likely place to put in and Sam launched the boat into the creek. Thanks to the storms the night before the creek was higher than usual allowing the kayak the clearance it needed to navigate across to the stranded dog.

Paddling slowly and quietly, Sam slipped up to the beach at one end and grounded the kayak to begin the wait. She called the dog as Patti had but she fled deeper into the brush so Sam stopped and sat silently in the boat for nearly half an hour. Still the dog refused to come out and show herself. Sam signaled back to Patti, watching from the other shore, to call the dog. “Dar-la”, Patti called with a strong voice. Sam saw movement in the underbrush but the dog was too frightened to come out to the stranger on the beach. Even when Sam threw treats into the bushes and onto the sand the fear was stronger than the hunger, though the starving Golden watched anxiously from her shelter.

Sam decided to move away a little bit to see if she would come out and eat the treats. She paddled a short distance around the bend of the creek, out of sight, and at the same time surveyed the shore for a more accessible path back to the beach. The thick brush and trees grew right down to the shore and the blackberry brambles made an impenetrable barrier. She steered the kayak back over to where Patti waited and asked her to go get Salsa and bring her down. Minutes later a beautiful, wavy-coated, blonde rescue dog came dashing down the steep stairs to the water. Sam yelled to Patti to let her go so she wouldn’t drag her down the stairs. She didn’t have to worry about Salsa running away, because all she wanted to do was go kayaking with her mom. She jumped into the water with great delight nearly capsizing the kayak in her enthusiasm. Sam paddled back across the creek followed closely by the ebullient Salsa.

As they came up to the beach, Salsa climbed out and began snacking on the treats out on the shore. Sam tossed out some more then threw a couple more into the brush. After several minutes of this, the curious Golden in the bushes peeked her head out to see what was going on. Salsa was running up and down the beach in absolute joy at having discovered her very own mother lode of dog snacks growing wild on the beach. Then Sam popped open a can of chicken giblets in gravy and set it in the small indentation on the front of the kayak (like it was designed for it!) The smell drew Salsa over to “check it out” and Sam let her taste it a little while petting her and telling her what a good dog she was. This was more for the sake of the little Golden in the woods than the one standing next to her.

Soon the hungry Golden could no longer contain herself and she crept out of the bushes onto the narrow beach. Cautiously she approached Sam and Salsa who appeared to be completely distracted by the contents of the little can that smelled soooo good. Salsa took little notice of the dog that was creeping closer and closer to her private “good dog party”. When she finally did notice her, she trotted over and made her welcome with a wag and a play bow. After munching a handful of treats that Sam was throwing in front of her, drawing her in closer and closer, Darla stretched out her nose as far as she could to reach the intriguing can of food in the center of the bright-green buffet table. As she took her first taste of the meat and gravy she trembled and then surrendered to her starvation. Committing completely to the first meal in three weeks she savored every last morsel of the tasty food. Sam popped open another can and held it out in her hand. The grateful dog came over close to this wonderful person with the magic cans in her pockets devouring the second can as Sam reached out slowly and tied the end of the dog’s two-foot cord to the double-ended lead that was snapped to the tie-down on the kayak.

Salsa came around to the opposite side of the kayak and the three of them slipped back into the water and paddled across the creek to a teary-eyed Patti. “That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed!” she exclaimed as she helped Sam get the dogs out of the water and safely on shore. “I will remember that forever.” “It gave me Goosebumps!”

Sam told her “That is how we always hope our searches will end.” “Gotta love a happy ending!” she said with a grin as she climbed up the hill with the two Goldens walking happily beside her. She put the two dogs in the truck and went back to get the rest of her gear. After helping to tie the kayak back on the roof rack, Patti let Sam use her bathroom to change into dry clothes for the drive home. First, though, she called the anxious owners and gave them the good news. They couldn’t believe they were going to get their Daisy back after so long, nearly three weeks.

Phil and Sandy drove down to Sam’s office, an hour and a half from their home in Pennsylvania, to pick up the thin but otherwise unharmed Golden girl. What an adventure she had taken them all on. Judy Breuer, Darla’s breeder, called Sam on the way home to thank her and congratulate her on her excellent service. “You need to be better advertised!” she told Sam. “I didn’t even know that pet-trackers existed much less how to get in touch with one in an emergency.” She assured Sam that she would keep her contact information handy, just in case she or anyone else she knew ever lost a pet again. “We will definitely be sending you a better expression of our gratitude very soon by mail for all of your hard work and your expenses.” “We appreciate what you’ve done more than words can say.”

Sam and Laura were just glad to have reunited the little runaway with her owners, for that is truly the greatest reward of all.


Sam Connelly has been a friend to the Land of PureGold for many years now. She actually won Fourth Place in our Treasured Golden Bonds Storywriting Contest, with her entry: "Emilee, The Throw Away Dog"

Emilee - The GRREATest Gift!Sadly, Emilee recently left Sam's side, having earned her Golden wings on June 30, 2006. The following was written a mere five days before.

"My dear friend, SAR partner and companion, Emilee, has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At 12-years-old she was spunky and playful until last weekend when she became very lethargic. She did her last therapy-dog event at Port Discovery children's museum on Saturday and was exhausted afterward. She refused to eat that evening and the next morning so I made an appointment at the vet. He did blood work and x-rays and then explained very gently and caringly how quickly this form of cancer progresses. She will probably only be with us for a couple of weeks or so as she now needs help to go outside and has to have several small meals a day to keep her blood glucose up. He has prescribed Prednisone for her to make her more comfortable.

I am very fortunate that I have a job where I can take her with me everyday. She still enjoys being at our waterfront office where she can watch the ducks, herons and geese in the yard. I know she has made many friends out in the world between her search and rescue work and her therapy work as well as being an outstanding ambassador for GRREAT and the Golden Retriever breed. I just wanted our friends to know that her story is coming to an end though she will never be forgotten.