This was written by Andrew, Harry’s dad. It is posted with his permission.
I was going to cut down a Christmas Tree on Saturday, December 13th. I asked my oldest daughter, Lauren, if she wanted to come with me and, as I usually did when I was running errands, invited the dogs as well. Upon hearing the invitation, phrased as “who wants to go in the car?” the two dogs, who are West Highland White Terriers, start spinning and barking with excitement. For whatever reason, going for a car ride seems to be the most exciting thing Harry and Mae can imagine.
I wanted our oldest daughter Lauren to come with me because I thought it would be a memorable experience for her – picking and cutting down a Christmas tree with her dad. We were headed to a series of logging roads which branch off a forest service road located about 14 miles from our house.
We live in the Cowichan Valley in British Columbia, which is a rural community on Vancouver Island. Since the 19th century this area has been driven by forestry and the sprawling system of logging roads we were going to visit wind over a hundred miles to the west coast and intersect vast tracts of wilderness populated by all manner of wildlife including elk, deer and cougars.
Normally when we go for family hikes as we often have on forest trails, or on the beach we let the dogs off leash so that they can explore. They have always stayed within sight of us and when called they faithfully return. When I stopped our small pickup truck at about 1:00 in the afternoon I considered for a moment leaving Harry and Mae in the truck, but thought it would be nice for them to run around and stretch their legs, so I decided to let them out.
We were on a logging road about 500 yards up from the main two way gravel road which was on an old cut block (a large swath where almost no large trees remained, but where there were smaller fir and cedar trees popping up from the ferns and salal which covered the terrain). The logging roads in this area are now largely used by people riding ATV’s and dirt bikes on the weekend and are quiet during the week.
After about 10 minutes of trying unsuccessfully to locate a suitable specimen for our Christmas tree I noticed that the dogs were not around. I called for them but they did not come. I had last seen them trotting down the logging road and thought that they had likely headed down to the main forest service road.
I was not terribly worried – they had always come when called and I thought that once we saw them, they would bring their little tail wagging selves back to the truck and I could leave them there until it was time to go.
When Lauren and I got to the intersection between the logging road and the main road, there was no sign of Mae or Harry. I stopped the truck so Lauren and I could get out and call for them. They did not come. When they did not come after a minute or so of calling I started to get anxious; I did not know what direction they had gone when they had come down the road and hit this intersection. After calling for a few minutes, I took a guess and we drove to the right . We drove about half a mile down the road but did not see them.
I turned around and, while driving back in the opposite direction I saw the two dogs pop out from the long grass and bush on the right side of the road about 100 yards ahead of me. I rolled down my truck window and called them. As soon as they heard me calling them, they bolted down the road in the opposite direction. I drove down the road after them, all the while calling their names out the window and expecting them to come. I caught up to them and, driving alongside them, stopped and jumped out of the truck. I called Mae, the older and slightly more sensible of the two. She hesitated, but when I told her she was a good dog, she turned, wagged her tail sheepishly and came. I quickly picked her up and popped her in the truck.
Meanwhile Harry continued to run down the road. I got back in the truck to give chase and just as I started to catch up with him (a Westie can run surprisingly quickly – I estimate at least 20 miles per hour) another truck appeared coming in the opposite direction. I was now alarmed and continued to call out for Harry, worried that the other truck would run him over. Just as I caught up to Harry he darted off the road to the right.
I stopped, leapt out of the truck and ran to the spot where Harry had veered off the road. The road was up on a steep bank which went down about 10 feet, ending at some wet tangled logs. Harry was scrambling over the logs and as I started to go down the bank, calling for him, he continued to make his escape, running through a small clearing into the tree line about 25 feet away. I tried to give chase but by the time I had negotiated the small tangle of logs, Harry had disappeared.
I called his name for about 10 minutes, using every entreaty I could think of – “good dog Harry, come on Harry, do you want a treat? do you want to go in the car?” to no avail. Harry seemed determined, for whatever reason, to get away.
Feelings of panic and despair rose in my throat. I had officially lost our dog – and seemingly in the worst possible place. The terrain where Harryhad gone into the forest was extremely rough – waist high salal and ferns, rotted fallen logs, holes, uneven terrain riven with creeks and a rushing river surrounded by swamp and brambles. We were about 3 miles from the main road and the logging roads from which we had come stretched into the wilderness providing almost infinite places for a lost animal to go – none of them easy to access or search.
After bashing around in the forest for another 15 minutes with Lauren waiting in the truck, I decided that I needed help. Because cell service was spotty, I had to drive back with Lauren out to the main highway to call my wife, Janelle.
I blurted out, “I lost Harry.”. I paused, adding, ‘I am so sorry.”
“What do you mean you lost Harry?”. I told Janelle the story as quickly as I could and asked her to pack up our son and other daughter Ben and Scarlett and come out to help me. Janelle is both dogs’ favourite person (I am a distant second) and I thought that if Harry just heard Janelle’s voice he may come out of the forest.
I also called Lisbeth Plant, who runs Cowichan Canine Behavior and Training and who had helped us with some training for Harry. I thought that Lisbeth may have or know of someone with tracking dogs to find Harry in case he was tangled up in the bushes or hurt.
Lisbeth suggested that I also go to the Facebook page of an organization called FLED, an acronym for finding lost and escaped dogs. FLED is run by Jill Oakley and Gary Shade who have been helping people locate lost dogs for over 30 years. As we would learn, contacting FLED was the most important thing I could have done.
By the time Janelle arrived it was about 2:30 in the afternoon – so we only had two hours before darkness descended. The weather was not terribly cold – it would go down to about 4 degrees celsius that night. We travelled up and down the road, walked in the forest below the road where Harry had gone and just stood on the side of the road and called until we started to become hoarse.
As the sky started to darken, I had to confront the reality we now faced. Harry was either unwilling to come to us, was not in the area or was hurt. Regardless, we were not going to get him back that night – he would be alone in the forest, with no hope of stumbling into a friendly back yard, finding food or shelter.
I also had to face the possibility that we were not going to get Harry back.
It turns out that many dogs, when they are scared and lost, particularly after they have been in the wilderness for a day or two, revert to what Jill from FLED has described as “survival mode”. This means that they will flee from people, even their owners, because they are scared. This also means that they are incredibly difficult to recover – and what we intuitively think will work – getting within earshot of the dog and calling for them to come back – will not and may in fact make the situation worse if the dog runs further from the sound of the voices calling. This is not true for all dogs in all circumstances, but according to Jill, is a very common, bewildering experience for people who have lost their dogs.
Jill has relayed several stories where dogs – happy go lucky dogs who love their owners – will happen upon them after being lost for a day or two and, as Jill puts it “book it” in the other direction. This experience is agonizing for the dog owner – their beloved family pet is seemingly at their fingertips, about to be saved from oblivion – and the dog runs as fast as it can in the other direction – double crossed by its own survival instincts.
Jill describes owners who tell her “not my dog – my dog will come to me – my dog loves me”. As we would eventually learn, none of this matters.
We got home on Saturday night, empty handed, feeling gloomy and deflated. We left my truck at the side of the road where Harry had made his escape and left some food in it and Harry’s bed, with the door open. Janelle contacted Catherine Hamilton, the breeder who sold us Mae and Harry. Catherine loves all her dogs – including Harry – and was as committed as we were to getting him back. Our plan was to leave the kids with my mother on Sunday morning and head back out in waterproof clothing to search below the main forestry road where Harry had escaped.
About 250 yards from the edge of the forestry road there was a large steep bank ending at a raging creek. Our Westies don’t like water particularly, so we thought that Harry would be hemmed in by that creek, although if he managed to cross it, there was a bank going back up a hill leading to a large open area where high voltage power lines stretch into the distance. The power lines are kept clear of trees and there is a small, rough dirt road which tracks alongside the power lines. Our minivan was not up to the task of driving this road – which is very rugged. If Harry had made it to this road, he could be miles away by now. There was no way of knowing.
Our friend Todd Blumel came first thing on Sunday morning with a jeep and volunteered to drive the power line to see whether he could spot Harry. He did not.
Janelle and I spent two hours in the morning traversing through the forest and swamp moving roughly a mile back and forth, trying to cover the ground where we thought Harry may have gone. We called and called, but no Harry. Catherine arrived with her husband Doug and several other Westie owners who had learned of Harry’s disappearance. We were all driving up and down the road, calling and searching, to no avail.
Janelle and I also printed several glossy ‘lost’ posters for Harry and handed them out to ATV riders exploring the area.
There were also FLED volunteers who were contacting us to see whether they could help. A fellow named Curt who lives close by on an acreage did some scouting with his ATV both day and night and Cheryl Gilroy, another volunteer who I happened to know growing up, volunteered to spend entire days trudging around to help find Harry.
At about 1:00 on Sunday afternoon, I emerged from the forest below the road, feeling quite dejected and Eva, one of the searchers, said that she had seen a small white dog about 500 yards up the logging road – but that when she called him he ran off. She did not know where he ran to – either up the main logging road which ascends up a small mountain, or to the right down a dead end branch that went about 3/4 of a mile to the right. Janelle was still searching below the road – so I got in my truck and went up the road, asking Eva to get Janelle and have her come up. I was sure that if Harry could just hear Janelle, he would come and we would have him back.
I was elated – for the last 24 hours I had been thinking only about our small white dog and pushing away the thoughts that kept appearing in my head – that Harry was gone and we were never going to see him again. My elation started to wane after an hour went by, then another, with Janelle traversing the logging side road and forest below it, calling and calling for Harry.
Then, there was another sighting. Catherine’s husband Doug saw Harry about 3/4 of a mile further up the logging road – but when Harry saw him he turned tail and ran up another side road – this one very steep and impassible by anything but a 4 x 4 or a person on foot.
Janelle and I then started searching in that area, walking and driving up and down the road, calling and calling, without success. I started to think that Harry must have heard Janelle and for some reason was not answering her calls. This was exasperating – our goal as a group had been to locate Harry and we had done so twice – so why was our typically friendly, good-natured dog running away from people and not coming when called? I started to think that if he would not come to us our search was hopeless – we could not catch him, he was too fast.
Or could we?
Darkness started to blanket the logging roads late on Sunday afternoon and we realized that we were not going to come home with Harry that night. Lisbeth Plant had generously agreed to come up in the afternoon on Sunday and try to track Harry with her Burmese Mountain Dog. Lisbeth’s dog followed Harry’s scent up the steep side road, but lost it after about a kilometre.
After leaving empty handed on Sunday, I started to think that we would need to trap Harry. I started to research how to build live traps and also tried to locate live traps for sale. Canadian Tire sells live traps – the largest one they have is designed for racoons. Harry is roughly racoon sized – so I told Janelle that I wanted to go to Canadian Tire at 8:00 a.m. when it opened and get some live traps.
Janelle and I headed back up the logging road on Monday morning at about 8:30, armed with three live traps – which was all Canadian Tire had in stock. As we were heading back up the logging road in our van, about 150 yards down from the steep road where Harry was last seen, we saw Harry. When we came around a corner he was running back up the logging road away from us.
Janelle and I, suddenly bouyed by the possibility of getting Harry back, immediately started calling him from the van window, but he just kept running. We got to the intersection where a side road goes up and to the right, and Harry bolted up that road. We tried to give chase on foot, both of us oblivious to how ultimately harmful this could be to Harry – calling and pleading with Harry to come…but he would not.
My suspicions were confirmed. Harry was not going to come to us. The good news was that we knew where we was and I thought that we could trap him. We set the live traps using some cooked hamburger and some freshly cooked bacon as bait. We set the traps at three locations – at the intersection with the side road where we last saw Harry and then at 500 yard intervals going down the hill in case he circled back through the forest.
We decided that leaving the area was sensible now – even if we saw him he was not going to come to us – so we went back home. Before we did we went to the SPCA to see whether they had a live trap and whether they had any ideas. They did not – they just advised us to keep looking. As it turned out, most people – even serious dog people – don’t know what to do to recover a dog in these circumstances.
We went back to check the live traps three hours later, but with no success. We then waited for the rest of the day until it got dark. We were disappointed that Harry had not taken the bait and worried that maybe he had left the area. When we got home, I called Jill at FLED to give her an update on the search.
Jill told me in no uncertain terms that I had to remove the traps I had set. She said that if he set off one of the traps without going in it, or if a racoon got in one it would make such a racket that it could scare Harry out of the area and he may not come back. The other risk in cold weather is that when the trap is only slightly larger than the dog, such that the dog can’t turn or move once inside it, hypothermia can set in very quickly.
Jill said that we needed to set up a feeding station – a dog crate covered by a tarp to create shelter and lined with Harry’s bed, some of our worn clothing and with a dish of savoury food – she suggested rotisserie chicken. Jill said that dogs usually stay within a given area and that he was likely still around, particularly now that he had been spotted three times. She also gave encouraging words, explaining that dogs are animals and that they are tough and are good at surviving in the wilderness. Jill relayed stories of dogs – less robust breeds than Westies – who were lost for long periods in the wilderness and eventually recovered.
Jill also told us to set up a trail camera on a tree opposite the feeding station. A trail camera is a motion activated camera which takes pictures or video when an animal comes into the area. That way we would know that if the food was eaten that Harry, rather than say a raccoon, had eaten it. This would lead to phase 2 – replacing the feeding station with a live trap.
I went back on Monday night to remove the small traps and set up the feeding station as Jill suggested. I went back on Tuesday morning and set up the trail camera. Now it was time to wait. It was Harry’s third birthday.
Janelle and I were both on pins and needles, fraught with worry. The temperatures had dropped and the forecast was for heavy frosts through both Tuesday and Wednesday night. Along with the worry that Harry may get hypothermia, we worried he may have left the area, scared off by our attempt to chase him. Although we didn’t speak of it, we also worried about cougars – although sightings are rare, the cougar population in our area is healthy and Harry would not fare well against one. As time went by, these fears grew more and more oppressive.
On Wednesday Janelle went to the check he feeding station – 24 hours after we had set it up and four days since Harry had gone missing. The food was untouched. I went back later that afternoon and the food had been disturbed – but likely only by a bird.
Wednesday night was another night undisturbed by sleep and plagued by fear and unanswered questions – why had the dog not eaten the food? Was he not starving at this point? Was he still in the area? Was he still alive? There is something torturous about not being able to simply go and pick up your cold, hungry dog (as our instincts were directing us to do) and having to move through the painstaking plays of a much longer game (as our new education and perspective dictated). The fantasy Janelle and I had been playing on a loop in our heads of seeing Harry, calling him and having him gratefully sprint into our open arms had to be laid to rest.
Jill sent another encouraging email on Wednesday night – don’t panic, sometimes they take days to come to a feeding station, dogs are resilient, be patient. These assurances were of great help to Janelle and I who were both struggling.
On Thursday morning, Janelle left to check on the feeding station right around first light. She called me from the mountain: “I saw Harry! He was in the feeding station when I drove up! He heard me and he took off – back up the side road!”.
On hearing those words, the heavy fog of distress, worry and anxiety evaporated. I was overcome with emotion – I said to Janelle “thank you for giving me that good news” but I could not get the words out. I am not a crier – I don’t think I have cried about anything in the last decade – but I was actually weeping upon hearing this news. Janelle too broke down and cried. We exchanged a few more garbled words over the phone and I lay back, feeling assured that we were very close to getting him back.
I spoke with Jill from FLED about the sighting and she was encouraged. Gary arranged to drive from Victoria (about an hour away from the logging roads where Harry was) on Thursday afternoon and brought FLED’s live trap. It is a large trap – about 30 inches tall, two feet wide and four feet long. It is equipped with a light which goes on when the door is triggered and slams shut (a most helpful feature when the trap is being monitored at night and from a distance). One of FLED’s conditions for setting up the trap was that it be manned 24 hours a day. If the dog is trapped in it, then he is unable to defend himself in the event that a cougar, or a pack of raccoons comes by and is able to get into it. The other concern was that, given that Harry’s precise location had been widely circulated, including on social media, we did not want to risk Harry getting caught in the trap and then stolen. Alas, neither of us was capable of really sleeping at home, anyway.
We thought we would have him Thursday night, but no Harry. Janelle stayed on the hill about 20 feet from the trap, sitting in our minivan, all night (she insisted). On Friday night, Janelle was there and at about 11:00 p.m. Todd Blumel called me and told me that he was going to go up and relieve her for the night. Janelle came home at about midnight, feeling distraught that we didn’t have him yet and also worried that the commotion of having Todd drive up there could have scared Harry off.
We both fell asleep, Janelle determined to go back up before light. Janelle left again at around 4:00 a.m.
At 4:15 a.m. my cell phone rang. It was Todd. “Do you want to see your dog?”.
When Janelle arrived back at the turnoff to the main forestry road, Todd was parked there. Janelle stopped to say hi out the window, thinking that Todd was just awaiting her return to spell him off, but Todd asked her if she wanted to see Harry. The agonizing wait was over. Janelle immediately began stuffing freshly cooked bacon through the trap bars for Harry. Todd, who has a gift for lightening moods, quipped “Where’s my bacon”?
Mostly it was shedding the emotional burden that Janelle and I carried for that week that was such a relief – teeth grinding stress and worry lifted, replaced by calm and rejoicing. Todd and Janelle came back to the house and we brought Harry, still in the trap, into the house (we were not taking any chances). He wagged his tail and when I opened the trap door Janelle called him.
Harry was sore and tired for the first week after his return home. He had been running over rough logging roads so the pads of his feet were worn and his muscles were sore. He was also thinner – he had likely not eaten, except for what he managed from the feeding station.
He is now mostly recovered and back to his perky self – yesterday when asked about a car ride he performed his patented double spin and bark.
Reflecting on the experience now I know that both Janelle and I suffered, probably more than Harry and more than I would have predicted.
We were lucky to have the support of both friends and strangers who gave their time, encouragement and optimism without question to help* – not just with the search but also with keeping our three lovely children clothed, fed and educated, thus freeing up our time to search. We are especially grateful for the assistance of Jill and Gary at FLED – without their help Harry, and to a great extent Janelle and I, would still be lost.
* Catherine and Doug Hamilton; Lisbeth Plant, Julia, Eva and John Hamstra; Catherine and Ray Thompson; Susan Ramsay and Mark Donelan; Ricki-Lee and Greg Alison; Curt, Todd Blumel, Cheryl Gilroy