Goofy and affectionate, Hobie has been the perfect dog for the Dunham family since they brought the boxy-faced golden retriever to their home when he was 7 weeks old.
But the same qualities that made their three children fall in love with Hobie almost caused them to never see him again. Those, and a penchant for digging.
On March 1, the 70-pound puppy dug out of their backyard fence in Hammond Hills subdivision and stayed missing for nearly two weeks.
"I think they're the best dogs for children, but they're so friendly, they'll just go with anybody," Peggy Dunham said, adding that the day before he went missing, family members removed Hobie's tag because he had outgrown the collar.
Like most people who lose pets, the Dunhams went through the regular channels to find their dog. They called North Augusta Animal Control, but he wasn't in the pound. They checked with a vet who treats dogs found injured or struck by cars, but he hadn't been there.
Then they stuck "missing" posters and fliers in store windows and on bulletin boards around North Augusta, showing a photo of their 12-year-old daughter playing with the dog in the snow.
After a few false leads, a woman who had seen a flier in a church called a week ago and said she knew a man with a dog that looked like the one in the picture, Mrs. Dunham said. The man lived about a half a mile away in the same neighborhood.
"Everybody was ecstatic," Mrs. Dunham said. "After a week, I was thinking it wasn't looking too good.
"Believe me, we put a new collar on him right away, and we're putting up with him tearing up stuff in the house until we can do something about the yard."
Though pets can be like members of the family, they usually spend most of their lives inside fences or hooked to runners while their owners are at work and school. They are vulnerable to theft, and few animals pass up a chance to go exploring when they find a gate open or a spot of loose dirt along the fence.
Unlike lost children, animals can't tell strangers where they live, so they need identification tags. And when a pet doesn't return, it's up to the owner to get it back.
Once a dog or cat has been gone more than a few days, chances are it's not coming home on its own, says John Keane, founder of California-based Sherlock Bones Inc., a pet-finding agency with clients nationwide.
Of the 5 million pets that go missing each year in this country, 90 percent are recovered through information obtained within two miles of the location where they were lost, he said. That's why the pet detective recommends direct-mail campaigns targeting the immediate perimeter of houses, businesses, vets and shelters.
Priced on a sliding scale, pre-addressed mailing cards with the pet's photo and description can blanket 500 addresses for about $200, 1,000 for about $350 and 1,500 for about $450.
The trick is persuading neighbors to help you look, Mr. Keane said. While reward posters on telephone poles can be useful, they're typically read only by a small number of animal lovers who take the time to read them, he said.
"Successful pet-finding is really about effective advertising," Mr. Keane said. "And it needs to be active advertising as opposed to passive advertising."
Help is available from police only if there is evidence the dog was stolen, Richmond County Chief Deputy Ronald Strength said. In those incidents, the case is treated as a property crime, with the dollar value of the pet listed on the police report.
Chief Deputy Strength said that, considering the emotional attachment between pets and their owners nowadays, investigators take petnapping very seriously.
"We have a lot of things going on, but we certainly put everything we can into finding them," he said.
Eric Gibson, a University of South Carolina Aiken student living on Bellevue Avenue in Augusta, wasn't sure whether his bulldog George was lost or stolen when he returned home last month and found the $1,000 dog missing from the back yard. He filed a police report anyway and said the deputy who came to his home and determined George did not dig out seemed genuinely concerned.
Thanks to a flier posted at Bi-Lo, Mr. Gibson picked up George from a family in Goshen Plantation later that weekend. He was told the dog had been near Daniel Field, where a group of children was seen throwing rocks at the dog.
In his experience, police rarely play a role in locating a lost pet, Mr. Keane said. "Let's face it. The police have bigger fish to fry," he said.
It's a good idea to cruise the neighborhood yourself, keeping an eye out for the lost pet, he said. This worked for Dale McZilkey after two Labrador retrievers named Luke and Button apparently were stolen from his yard off Keron Way in Hephzibah last month.
A neighbor told police he had seen two teen-agers playing with the dogs on several occasions when no one was home. As Mr. McZilkey recalls, neither dog had much of an appetite just before being taken, leading him to believe the boys were building up trust by feeding them.
Two days later, he was driving down Old Waynesboro Road when he saw the two dogs running along the street. One had duct tape wrapped around its snout, he said.
Even though his yard is enclosed by a 5-feet-high fence, Mr. McZilkey said, he now leaves the dogs inside a kennel with a lock on the door.
"That's a hard thing to have to do," Mr. McZilkey said. "It's bad when you've got all that land fenced in, and you still can't let them run."
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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