Some stories just beg to be told. This is one of them.
A litter of nine adorable Anatolian Shepherd-Great Pyrenees-mix puppies are abandoned at birth in early January, somewhere near Asheville, North Carolina. (Who would do such a thing? Bad human! Go lie down!) The pups are discovered under a rickety trailer, so starved that they’d eaten the insulation from the trailer’s underside.
The furry orphans are taken to Rutherford County Humane Society and nursed back to health. Meanwhile, up north in Pittsburgh, Bobby Standish is doing a search on Petfinder.com. He spots a photo of Radley, one of the nine, her eyes peering through cage bars as if to say, “I’m too cute to not take home.”
Bobby and his wife, Lisa, decide to adopt her. Their daughter, Mazzie, 11, and son, Axel, 7, jump for joy. The family dog, Scout, a Lab-Chow mix from the Animal Rescue League Shelter and Wildlife Center in East Liberty, is oblivious that he’s about to meet his new best friend.
Radley’s big adventure north begins on January 31. Initially delayed by a snowstorm, Bobby drives 2.5 hours to the PA Turnpike stop near Carlisle to meet Radley and bring her home to Wexford.
Aaahhh … a warm home, a blanket of her own, and kids! Oh boy, oh boy! The life of Radley! “She was pretty chill that first day and slept a lot,” Bobby recalls. “We’d had a huge snowfall, so she played in the snow with Scout and the kids then we made hot chocolate and sat by the fire.”
This dog tail … err, tale . . . could have happily ended here. Only Radley’s big adventure gets bigger the next day, and winds up involving an entire community of do-gooders who step up to play a role, even without a reward of treats or praise.
Bobby decides to work from home the next day. “Around noon, I grabbed Radley’s leash and opened the front door to let her and Scout outside. I could see something in her eyes. The door was ajar and she ran out and around the corner of the house. It was icy so I slipped, and she was really fast. She took off down the road.”
Bobby could see Radley run. Run, Radley, run!
As the story goes, Radley got hopelessly lost. “I was worried that she’d spent less than two days at our house, so she probably didn’t know it as ‘home’ and also didn’t know the neighborhood.”
Bobby sets out to find her, to no avail. Lisa alerts the local police, animal shelters and veterinarians. “I had no idea what to do next,” Bobby recalls. “I was devastated. You know, I had this sense of responsibility that I lost the dog. I didn’t know if we’d ever see her again.”
At four months of age, Radley was already a survivor, but she was about to get help from some two-leggeds and this human squeak toy called “social media.” That evening, Bobby has a 6 p.m. appointment to meet a friend, Nancy Furbee. “I get there and apologize for not being able to stay. As it turns out, I’m glad I went because Nancy has many friends who love dogs. One of them introduces us to a special group of volunteers.”
Nancy connects Bobby with this Facebook group page: Reuniting Dogs With Families. “We posted something on the Reuniting Dogs With Families page shortly after 6 p.m. and it caught the attention of dog trainer Beth McGonigal. By 9 p.m., Beth was at our home with her dog, Juneau, and a stash of hot dogs, chicken and braunschweiger.”
“As a trainer, I am bombarded with ‘save this dog, help find that dog’ but when I saw Radley’s information on that group page, something about it struck me,” Beth comments.
Once at the Standish’s home, Beth scopes out the environs to see what the situation calls for. “The area was definitely a challenge because there were a lot of good places for Radley to hide: wooded areas, barns, sheds. With North Park nearby, there were lots of deer tracks and neighborhood dogs leaving prints.”
The family makes another search that night but still no signs of Radley. The temperature drops to three degrees. “I was afraid that Radley might not make it through the cold night, but Beth assured us that her breed was built for winter.”
The week rolls forward and help with finding Radley pours in from all directions. Volunteers from Reuniting Dogs With Families print flyers and canvass the neighborhood distributing them. Neighbors (most of whom the Standishes had never met) go out searching. One offers fresh batteries for flashlights, and another hauls out a fluorescent green/orange crossing guard cutout to alert passersby.
There is a first sighting of Radley. She’s alive!
Marsha Lee Moore and Dawn Weichler from the nonprofit On Your Tail Dog Search and Rescue drive from Turtle Creek with traps, thermal imaging equipment and a night vision camera. “After the first sighting, I’m not exaggerating, there were households of people all over the neighborhood looking for her,” Bobby says. “I was amazed and grateful. I thought I’d be on my own with all of this.”
Around mid-week, Ben, an expert hunter and tracker in the neighborhood, reports a second sighting. He joins the search, along with Nancy and Beth, who show up every day to help.
Meanwhile, the RDF Facebook page blows up. “It was crazy! At times, we actually had too many volunteers,” Nancy recounts. One search string yields 238 comments. A volunteer, Tracy, posts a map with plotted sightings of Radley.
A turning point occurs Friday mid-day after another sighting. Bobby and Beth take to the woods behind the house where Radley is spotted and happen upon a trailer propped up by a pitchfork. Under it is a muddy circle surrounded by fresh puppy paw tracks. “I highly suspected this is where Radley had been sleeping,” Beth says. “We made the decision to move one of the traps, located about a mile away, to this spot.”
Everyone takes turns checking the trap every few hours, re-baiting it with rotisserie chicken. Beth offers to handle one of the late-night checks to give Bobby and his family a break from their vigilant round-the-clock surveillance. Around 8 p.m., Beth texts Bobby: “I’m heading out at 9:30.”
“My boyfriend came with me to assist navigating in the dark,” Beth explains. “Eventually, I spotted the cage about 100 yards away. Approaching from the back end, I saw exactly what I was hoping for. We shined the flashlight in the direction of the trap. Glaring back were two eyes glowing, surrounded by white fur. I ran over to her then fell on my knees and broke down bawling. I was so happy to see her. She was safe! We got her! I immediately called Bobby.”
When the phone rings around 10 p.m., Bobby knows immediately that it’s good news. “I answered the phone and heard Beth screaming. Lisa knew it was good news and started crying. I yelled down the hallway to my daughter and she started crying. We’re all crying and throwing on clothes at the same time so we can go get her. It was overwhelming, really.”
The family hops in the car, rushes to the scene (which, as it turns out, is only about a mile from home) and runs through the woods in the 12-degree dark night, headlamps illuminating the way. There she is—tail wagging, full of chicken and happy to lick Lisa’s outstretched hand. Careful to make sure she doesn’t run again, the crew carries Radley out of the woods in the trap until she is safely home.
Radley and the Standish’s are now reunited, and it feels so good. “We were touched that so many volunteers were so gracious with their time. I would say, ‘You don’t even know me,’ and people would respond with ‘Yes, but I have a dog’ or ‘I have a cat.’ People love animals but it’s more than that. Radley’s story is about the extraordinary kindness that people show to complete strangers. Talk about restoring your faith in humanity!”
As for our Top Dog, she’s happy to be home. She and Scout are inseparable. Mazzie and Axel have become junior dog trainers under the direction of Beth, who drives out to the Standish home to train Radley as a “welcome home” gift. What’s the very first obedience command they worked on? Beth answers: “To come when she’s called.”
Best tip if your dog is lost: blast flyers in your neighborhood with your pet’s photo, your phone number and the word LOST in big letters. Here’s how to reach Beth McGonigal: North Pittsburgh Animal Behavior, 412-708-9962 or Northpittsburghanimalbehavior.com. On Your Tail Dog Search and Rescue: Contact Dawn at 412-628-2840 or Pghpetdetective@outlook.com.
All photos by Brian Cohen.