Jill Barsky gets calls, texts and emails every day from anxious owners asking for help finding their lost pets. “It breaks my heart,” says Barsky, a real estate agent with Long & Foster who started the nonprofit group Tailed Treasures of Maryland Inc. in 2004. “We’re on this emotional roller coaster with the owners every day that the pet is gone.”
Barsky, who lives in Rockville, advises owners (at no charge) about what to do to lure back their dogs, cats, even peacocks, and leverages her volunteer network to join in the search. It often involves putting out just the right treats, stinky clothing and safe traps outfitted with video cameras.
A successful reunion, Barsky says, requires a shift to thinking like the animal, which is often scared, disoriented and in “flight mode.” That means ignoring what might be your first instinct: to chase the animal or yell. Instead, Barsky advises using a gentle approach to coax a pet back, taking a non-threatening stance, avoiding eye contact and talking softly.
Also, getting the word out broadly about a missing pet is critical. Experts suggest sharing on social media, making simple posters and alerting neighbors, as well as veterinarians within a few miles. There also are tracking services, such as Dogs Finding Dogs, a nonprofit in Baltimore that aids in searches in Montgomery County.
Lost or stolen pets are a big problem in the area, but there are plenty of resources to get pets back to their owners, says Lisa Carrier Baker, director of marketing and community outreach for the Montgomery County Humane Society. “You have to be ready to act quickly and never be afraid to reach out to a professional for help,” she says.
It can be a traumatic experience to have a pet go missing, but here are some stories in which animals were reunited with their people. The episodes also highlight how easy it is for an animal to slip away and the lengths to which owners will go for their cherished pets.
The runaway puppy
Archie was the kind of puppy who at first preferred to hide under furniture than snuggle. So, when the 20-pound Shiba Inu was lost on a frigid night this past February, the family imagined the worst.
“I thought, If he’s so shy in our own house, how is he going to be in the woods with all of these animals and all of this noise?” says Thaovy Hoang, 19. “I was worried he would get run over or eaten by the foxes.”
Her family had adopted Archie in December and he was staying at the home of her older sister Thao Hoang, 25, when the puppy found a 6-inch hole in the fence and ran away, losing his collar in the process.
Thao’s boyfriend, Michael Nguyen, 28, leaped over the fence in pursuit of the 5-month-old Japanese purebred.
“He was just gone. It was awful,” says Thao Hoang, who joined in the search immediately. “It was so cold out and muddy. We just had to call it a night by 3 [a.m.]”
It was already an emotional weekend. Archie was staying with Thao because her parents were hosting extended family in town for her grandfather’s funeral.
The family started looking again at 6 the next morning, then broke for the funeral and resumed searching afterward. Thao Hoang posted about Archie’s disappearance on Instagram and a lost pets page on Facebook. It became a family affair, with her siblings and cousins posting signs on utility poles and giving them to neighbors.
On Monday, they contacted Tailed Treasures of Maryland and Barsky, who arrived with her gear and instructions. Thao poured liquid smoke with a strong barbecue smell around trees and piles of leaves. Thaovy sprinkled shredded rotisserie chicken in the yard. They hung a pajama top belonging to Thao’s mother, Thi Hoang, 54, from a tree. The hope was that all the scents would draw Archie back home. Two large metal crates were set up as traps with pressured sensors to trigger the doors to close, and a security camera was poised on each to capture any activity.
“We had a sighting or two, but he kept running away. He’s a very skittish dog. He runs at the sound of a pencil hitting the floor,” Thao Hoang says.
Thaovy Hoang says it was hard to sleep while Archie was missing. “We only had him for such a short amount of time. I didn’t even realize I had such a bond with him up until that moment,” she says. “To lose him the weekend of such a tragic event for my family was adding on to the heartbreak.”
On Thursday, Thao Hoang and Nguyen were restocking food in one of the traps in the woods across the street from her house when they saw Archie about 50 feet away. They called Thao’s mom. She came over and sat on the ground, using calming techniques she’d learned from Barsky, such as pretending to eat food and making “yummy sounds,” Thao Hoang says. After an hour, Archie started smelling her mom’s hand and let her pet him. When he was close enough, Thi Hoang picked him up and, with the help of her daughters, brought him safely inside.
“Everybody on social media knew what I was going through, and I was telling the story for two weeks after it was over,” Thao Hoang says. “I let everyone know there was a happy ending.”
Hamster on the loose
Feeling badly that her three young kids had to spend so much time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jess Weber decided to get them a hamster. In late 2020, the Kensington mom double-masked and headed to the pet store alone. She did a video call with her kids, and they chose one of the larger hamsters, about 5 inches long, and called him Winter.
The family had had other hamsters in the past, but Winter quickly became their favorite. “He is just very calm and happy and goes with the flow,” Weber, 37, says. Anna, 9, and her younger siblings, Ryan, 7, and Ellie, 5, like to take him out of the cage to explore. “We build houses for him, and he plays in those. It’s kind of fun to watch him,” Anna says.
On a Sunday in late August 2021, the kids were eager to show Winter to friends who had gathered in their front yard just before the start of the school year. They brought the hamster outside in a collapsible cage with netting. Before they knew it, Winter had wiggled his way out.
Weber told the kids: “You know the hamster is gone now, and he’s going to be eaten up by something,” she recalls. The family lives close to Rock Creek Park, where they often spot wildlife. “I could just picture this hamster being, like, carried off by a hawk,” Weber says, “and I was thinking: It’s not going to go peacefully.”
Anna says she and her siblings were sad and confused but hopeful.
“They naturally asked Alexa what to do,” Weber says of the virtual assistant, which suggested filling a cardboard box with dirty bedding to lure a hamster back.
Weber’s husband, Nick, now 39, cut a hole in the side for Winter to enter, turning a LaCroix water box into a would-be hamster magnet.
“The kids said, ‘Don’t worry, Mommy. We will pray a rosary and he’ll come back,’ ” Weber says. “I’m like, ‘OK, guys, that doesn’t work every time. That’s really nice, but it’s not magic.’ ”
The next day, Weber was working until midnight with other moms, making a balloon arch to put in front of the kids’ school on the first day. As they were finishing up, she went to Safeway to get new flowers to go with the display. When Weber returned home about 1 a.m., she saw Winter next to the box they’d set out. He froze in place, and she scooped him up.
“His little heart was beating like crazy. He was so scared,” Weber says. “I couldn’t believe it. He’d been gone for two full days at this point.”
Although it was the night before the first day of school, Weber was so excited that she woke up the kids and showed them Winter. They were happy, but also very tired, and went back to sleep.
Afterward, the kids pampered Winter—putting chicken soup in his water bottle and giving him extra attention. Adds Anna: “Now we watch him a lot and make sure he doesn’t have any places to leave.”
The Beagle who bolted
Bill Hettinger was walking his dog, John Boy, in the Fallsmead neighborhood of Rockville when the 25-pound beagle jerked hard and pulled away into the woods.
“Before I could pick the leash back up, he took off like a bolt,” says Hettinger, a 73-year-old federal retiree. “I tried to run him down, but he was way too fast.”
Hettinger returned home and enlisted the help of his partner, Trish Hartman, with whom he’d adopted the rescue dog less than a week earlier. They put a notice on the Fallsmead Facebook page and were heartened by the response from their neighbors who joined in the effort.
The couple knew it would be a challenge to find John Boy, who was about 5 years old. “It was really tough. I had pretty much given up on ever catching him,” Hettinger says, especially because just having arrived, the dog didn’t really know his home. Before they adopted John Boy, he had been mistreated and mostly lived outdoors. “He was terrified,” says Hartman, 72, a part-time clinical social worker and psychotherapist. The dog wasn’t used to being in a house and didn’t know how to use stairs or what it felt like to be walked on a leash. Some people may have turned the dog back in because he was not loving enough, says Hartman, but the couple was committed to doing all they could to help the beagle adjust. “We were as gentle with him as we could possibly be,” Hettinger says.
After the news was out that John Boy was gone, Rebecca Edelman, a neighbor Hartman calls “the dog whisperer,” immediately responded and told others not to chase the dog. The 27-year-old has her own dog-walking business and helps with rescue efforts in the area. She worked with other local rescue volunteers from Tailed Treasures to set up a large metal trap in the nearby woods with a security camera.
They covered the base of the crate with hot dogs and cat food, hoping John Boy would find the scents irresistible.
Edelman worked in shifts with others to monitor the livestream nearly 24 hours a day, and volunteers through Tailed Treasures flew drones over the area to look for the dog.
“I had no idea any of this was possible,” Hartman says. “The amount of energy that went into this was astounding and touching.”
Four days in, Edelman spotted John Boy on the video feed: Thankfully, he had fallen for the trap. When she went to the woods, she found him scared but safe.
“We were just over the moon. We just couldn’t believe it. It was somewhat of a miracle,” Hartman says of the episode, which she says illustrates “the beauty of community.”
John Boy was in good condition after his adventure. For months afterward, Hettinger says, he used two leashes on walks with the dog—one tied to his belt and another in his hand, wrapped around his wrist. By May, he was confident enough to return to one leash on walks.
The vanished purebred
Michael Hall kept a journal during the difficult 17-day search for his beloved cat Pogo. The 64-year-old data engineer learned all he could about how to find a missing animal by doing research online, watching YouTube videos and reaching out to the community to find his white
Siberian purebred. Hall says he was encouraged by the empathy of neighbors and strangers in his search. “It gave me hope for humankind,” he says of his ordeal that began on Dec. 3, 2021.
Hall’s wife, Laura, was hanging Christmas wreaths on the windows of their Rockville home and removed the screens. While the couple was watching a movie in the evening, Pogo ran his paws up and down the glass—hoping his owners would open the window for his fresh air fix. Although “super sweet,” the cat is also “very stubborn” and knows how to get their attention, Laura says. Michael Hall opened the window to placate the cat, forgetting the screens were out.
Twenty minutes later, they realized he was gone.
Hall searched nearby yards in Woodley Gardens to no avail. That’s when he started to get worried. “My first thought was that somebody snagged him. He is a striking cat, and somebody driving or walking by might have grabbed him,” Hall says.
Over the next few days, Hall discovered cats liked to prowl at night, so he walked the neighborhood with his flashlight between 2 and 3 a.m.
“It was very quiet,” Hall says of his night patrols. “I saw a lot of foxes and deer and wildlife, but I actually didn’t see any cats.”
Hall contacted the nonprofit tracking service Dogs Finding Dogs. Kathy Mullaney, 69, a retired interior designer, had her German shepherd sniff a favorite blanket of Pogo’s and follow the scent. As the dog lost interest at certain points in the neighborhood, it helped eliminate some areas and point Hall in the likely direction the cat wandered. Mullaney was also a sounding board throughout the search, providing guidance and support, he says.
Laura Hall says she helped, but it was Michael who had the tenacity to knock on doors and reach out to so many people. Every night Pogo was gone, the couple would rehash the situation and speculate on the cat’s whereabouts. “We were heartbroken. It was just not knowing,” Laura says.
On Dec. 20, just as Michael says he was losing hope, someone from the county’s lost pets Facebook page sent him a photo of Pogo. He had been spotted near West Gude Drive, living in the woods where a woman had been feeding feral cats. Hall drove to the area and shook a bag of treats.
“He popped out of the woods like he was shot by a rocket,” Hall says of Pogo, who stopped about 50 yards away once he saw his owner. “I called his name and shook the treats again, and he came running to me. It was amazing. He was meowing and jumping on me like a dog.”
Pogo returned from his adventure with some ticks, and he’d lost about a third of his weight. The vet advised the Halls to feed him small portions at first so he wouldn’t get sick. Also, because he had been living in a feral colony, there was concern that Pogo could have picked up a transmissible disease that would harm the Halls’ other cat, Nikolay. So Pogo was quarantined in a spare bedroom for 30 days, where Hall slept with him. “We spent a nice Christmas together,” Hall says.
The best advice from his playbook: Post on the local Nextdoor website and Facebook lost pet groups. “Sometimes social media can annoy me,” Hall says, “but in this case it was very helpful.”
Racing from a fire
In late March, Terri Jefferson was at her babysitting job when she got a call in the early evening that there was a fire in her Montgomery Village building. “I was like, ‘My dog, my dog!’ ” she says of Reecey, a 12-pound Jack Russell terrier. The dog is a “cuddle bug” and her best friend, says Jefferson, 49. The two usually go everywhere together. But on that afternoon, Jefferson had left her at home for a few hours. By the time she returned about 7 p.m., there were firetrucks and bright lights, but no Reecey.
Firefighters had broken through a sliding glass door to rescue the small black and white dog from the smoke-filled apartment. They put Reecey in a Rubbermaid tote, but she jumped out and ran away.
Jefferson began the search with help from her cousin Dean Romanchock of Gaithersburg, posting about the missing dog on Nextdoor and other social media outlets. She couldn’t return to her home, so she stayed with a friend nearby—checking her phone, waiting for any word. Sightings through social media began to come from neighbors in nearby Sharon Woods, which meant the dog had crossed busy Montgomery Village Avenue and run around Lake Whetstone.
Reecey was seen on someone’s doorbell security camera and roaming through yards, but no one could catch her.
Jefferson says she always dresses Reecey in cozy clothes because she is a little anxious and shivers. This made it easy to identify the dog, who was darting through the neighborhood wearing a blue sweatshirt with a rainbow.
As Jefferson was searching on the edge of the woods in the neighborhood the following day, she met Leigh Guiel. The longtime resident asked if she could help and recruited others on her cul-de-sac to join in. She offered to put something in her screened-in porch to draw Reecey inside. Jefferson brought the dog’s blue fleece blanket and a bone. That night, Guiel left the porch door propped open.
About 6 o’clock the next morning, Guiel checked the porch. She found the blanket had been rearranged and then spotted Reecey. As soon as she saw Guiel, the dog ran out of the porch and then back in. “Then my husband snuck around the outside of the house and shut the door. And, voila, we had a dog.”
To get Reecey to come to her, Guiel used techniques she learned while volunteering at the local animal shelter. She sat quietly on the ground, waiting, and avoided looking directly at the dog. Once Reecey was safe, she called Jefferson to share the good news.
When Jefferson pulled up in her car, Reecey went to the living room window and started bouncing up and down. “I had to pick her up to make sure she didn’t run out the front door when I let Terri in,” Guiel says. “[Jefferson] had a big smile. It was pretty neat.”
Jefferson says Reecey jumped into her arms and she almost started crying. Then she hugged Guiel, who, she says, was like her guardian angel, adding: “I want to give a shout-out to that neighborhood. If it wasn’t for them, I never would have gotten [Reecey] back.”
Tips for keeping pets safe
Always have identification on your pet
Include rabies tags on their collars, and get them microchipped. Lisa Carrier Baker, director of marketing and community outreach for the Montgomery County Humane Society, says some microchip companies do not automatically reregister every year, so it’s important for owners to check that they are paid up and have provided current contact information so they can be reached if the animal gets lost.
Never leave your pet unattended
Don’t tie up an animal outside a store or restaurant—or leave them alone in a car or private backyard, Carrier Baker says. Gates can be left open unintentionally, and animals can be stolen.
Choose safe leashes and collars
Get a good-fitting harness or collar. Experts suggest avoiding retractable leashes, which don’t give owners a firm control of their dogs. Consider a GPS tracking collar, such as Whistle, Tractive or Fi, advises Jill Barsky, who founded the nonprofit Tailed Treasures of Maryland Inc. Have a Bluetooth backup, such as Apple AirTags.
Don’t let your animals run free
While it’s tempting, there’s always a risk that they won’t come back when called, says Anne Wills, founder of Dogs Finding Dogs, a canine tracking nonprofit in Baltimore that serves Montgomery County. “Dogs will run like Forrest Gump,” she says. “We humanize our pets too much and think they’ll never run away. That’s not true. You are dealing with animals with a prey drive and free will.”
Maintain fence security
Dogs can be relentless in scaling, jumping and digging under fences. Barsky suggests a 6-foot stockade fence that can be padlocked from the inside and not relying on electric fences alone. Wills says animals sometimes will run through an electric fence to escape but aren’t always willing to take the zap to return home.
Screen pet sitters
Never trust a pet sitter you don’t know or who doesn’t come with a reference. When you find someone, be sure to communicate the routine and emphasize safe measures taking the animals in and out.
Be aware at dog parks
In public spaces, be extra cautious about letting a dog off leash. “When animals get away from their safe space and their safe people, you can see behaviors you’ve never seen before,” Carrier Baker says. “When a dog gets off leash, that can be a recipe for disaster.”
Protect pets from loud noises
Leave animals inside during fireworks displays and thunderstorms, both of which can spook them and cause them to run away.
Caralee Adams is a freelance writer in Bethesda who covers health, education and other topics for Bethesda Magazine.
This story appears in the July/August 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.