How a town found a dog

Dogs go missing all time. If they’re very, very lucky, they get lost in a community like Middlebury, Vt.
On Monday, Dec. 18, my three-year-old golden retriever Willie and I were in a downtown crosswalk when we were hit by a car. I received only minor bruises. Willie was hit as well and took off in a panic across the green. Within seconds he had passed Town Hall Theater and was seen racing down Water Street. Someone glimpsed him running past the high school — and then he disappeared. The traumatized animal was lost and alone, hungry and terrified, in the wilderness for the first time in his life.
You need not be a dog owner to understand the agony that Debby and I felt. If we had to face this alone I don’t know how we could have coped. But we had a secret weapon: a caring, selfless community that leapt into action to find this dog.
The phone rang constantly with people asking how they could help. Bruce Zeman at WVTK radio made it his personal mission to find the dog, giving updates on the radio but also joining the search on the ground. John Flowers rushed an article into the Addison Independent. Complete strangers bundled up to look for Willie, and by the end of the week literally hundreds of people were on the lookout for him. WCAX-TV aired a story on Willie’s disappearance that went viral; we began to hear from people across the country.
It quickly became apparent that social media can be a great power for good. Front Porch Forum, Homeward Bound, Middlebury Agway and other organizations sent out blasts to their mailing lists. Our Facebook posts were read, liked, shared and commented on, creating a literal web of concerned people that numbered in the hundreds, and eventually in the thousands. We had eyes all over Addison County.
A tight group of people dropped everything for the entire week to help us create a coordinated search. These people, several of them complete strangers to us, put in 12-hour days in search of Willie. We wish we could salute everyone who helped, but these people were our rock: Walter Stugis, Jennifer and Henry Johnson, Ashley Hansen, Jory Brush, Cindi Duff, Beth Karnes Keefe and Holmes Jacobs. Debby stayed home all week, serving as command central from morning till night.
There were ups and downs, false sightings, moments of great hope and moments when that hope was cruelly dashed. Willie showed up at the theater on Friday night, only to be frightened away by people who wanted to nab him for the reward we were offering. The break-through came six days into the search on Saturday morning, when a young lady who was house-sitting on South Street saw a stray dog in the backyard. Brittany Baker doesn’t even live in Middlebury. She’s from Bridport, and it wouldn’t have been surprising if she thought it was just another neighborhood dog. But because the community took this search to heart, publicized it on social media, talked it up, shared information, worked and sacrificed and generally made this a high priority, Brittany knew exactly what she was seeing. And she knew who to call. In less than 15 minutes, Willie was safely in my car.
His right rear leg is gouged, but we’re told he’ll be just fine. We’ll never know how he survived six days in the cold and snow with no food, but somehow he managed it. Dogs, even pampered ones like our Willie, are tough.
Debby and I haven’t processed all of this yet, and to have him next to us on the bed still brings up an overwhelming mix of emotions. But one thing is certain: This community got us through it, and we are eternally grateful. It’s our best Christmas ever, not merely because we have our dog back, but because we see more clearly than ever the compassion, strength, determination and just plain goodness in the people around us.

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