Dudley took off.
Theresa Eilertson was working in her Bloomington garden when her 10-year-old mostly deaf beagle got his leash wrapped around a bush. Eilertson was untangling him when he ran away.
“I’m not far from the Minnesota River Valley,” she said. “All I could think about was the coyotes.”
She spent a day crisscrossing the neighborhood, calling his name, but Dudley was nowhere to be found.
Until she called the Retrievers.
The cleverly named nonprofit group, made up of two dozen committed volunteers, helps owners find lost dogs. The group augments old-fashioned ground searches with ingenious high-tech tools and keen insight into how frightened dogs think — and act.
“We have a team, a system and a strategy,” said Devon Thomas Treadwell of Faribault, Minn., who co-founded the Retrievers three years ago and is its director. “We’ve developed best practices.”
Those practices include online mapping, social media, trail cameras, feeding stations and electronic traps. And they get results. So far this year, the Retrievers have taken 188 lost dog cases; 126 of them have been found. While the group can’t claim credit for all the happy endings, they’ve improved the odds with their multipronged approach.
In Dudley’s case, they helped Eilertson saturate the area where he vanished with signs bearing his picture and her phone number.
“You don’t think making a sign is a good use of your time, but you immediately create a search party,” Eilertson said.
As calls came in, Dudley sightings were plotted on Google maps, which allowed Eilertson to move the signs as the dog moved. When Dudley was twice spotted in a wooded area in Eden Prairie, she put up a motion-activated trail camera lent by the Retrievers. When the trail cam confirmed that the beagle returned to the spot every afternoon, the nonprofit told Eilertson to bring his bed, his food and water bowls, a few of his toys and a few pieces of her clothing to the site.
“That was his safe space,” she explained.
But instead of trying to get her dog as quickly as she could, the Retrievers advised her to hold back.
“A dog on the move is anxious because of lack of stability in their environment,” Treadwell said. “In survival mode, they perceive any person as dangerous. They’ll run from their own family if they get spooked.”
The team used a spray (containing an elixir of beef broth, sardine juice and liquid smoke) to lay a scent trail that led Dudley to a trap rigged from a large wire kennel. Within two days, Dudley walked into the trap — and started his journey back home.
“He looked at me with this funny little face, like, ‘Well, finally, you got me. I can go home,’ ” Eilertson said.
The Retrievers is a lean organization, running on donations from grateful owners whose dogs are returned. Last year, its budget was $16,000, much of which went to buy high-tech tools such as a thermal camera, night vision goggles and several sizes of traps.
Although the group is organized into directors, case managers, ground support coordinators, etc., there are no paid positions, and volunteers log long hours and plenty of miles without being reimbursed for gasoline or expenses.
But Brian Torkelson, one of the group’s case managers, said he and his wife are hooked on the hunt.
“We’ve spent weekends sleeping in our van waiting for a dog to go into a trap, sometimes to no avail,” he said. “We were out last winter when it was 20 below.”
The Crookston couple often lead searches for dogs that go missing in a wide swath of the northern tier of the state.
“It’s the most rewarding volunteer work we’ve ever done,” Brian Torkelson said. “There’s an adrenaline rush when you catch a dog and get them back to safety.”
Last spring, the Retrievers pulled out all the stops to track and trap a pointer mix that Mandi Wyman, director of the Carver-Scott Humane Society, had placed in a foster home.
“I work with animals every day,” she said. “It’s how I make my living, but what the Retrievers do was all new to me.”
More than half the cases taken by the Retrievers involve rescue dogs that are being fostered or are newly adopted. Many of them have been neglected or abused in the past.
“Rescue dogs are more skittish,” Treadwell said. “A dog in transition is a flight risk. Even one that’s well socialized is nervous in a new setting.”
Nutmeg had been with John and Molly Lyon just a week when she got away from John while on a walk. The six-year-old yellow Lab, who’d come from a puppy mill, went bounding down Fairview Avenue in St. Paul.
“I felt terrible; it happened on my watch,” John Lyon said. “Honestly, I was in tears when I called the Retrievers.”
Assisted by volunteers from the rescue organization that had placed Nutmeg with them, the Lyons orchestrated a social media campaign, put up signs and distributed fliers door-to-door in their neighborhood.
After more than two weeks, the Lyons got a call from a man who’d seen Nutmeg in a van parked in a backyard. The Lyons staked out the vehicle, found Nutmeg and lured her with a treat.
“The Retrievers had a great system to get eyes on her,” said John. “It worked.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis -based broadcaster and freelance writer.