Need a dose of hope? Let tale of Scout, the miracle dog, inspire you

Scout disappeared in a strange part of town. Social media and an army of helpers worked to bring her back. CONTRIBUTED BY THE GARTMAN FAMILY

Scout disappeared in a strange part of town. Social media and an army of helpers worked to bring her back. CONTRIBUTED BY THE GARTMAN FAMILY

I walked out this morning to take my dog Ralphie for his constitutional and saw a familiar sign on a tree: “Lost Dog. Reward.”

It’s such a common sight that we ignore the pleading words, the desperate offers of money.

And it made me think about Scout, a creature that looks more like a Muppet than a canine, a dog that, by all odds, should be nothing more than a fading poster on a tree.

Scout escaped on a freezing Monday last January. She dashed out the door of a strange house in a new part of town, and ran right into the path of a car.

Bouncing off the car’s fender, she shrieked, tumbled, limped off down the street and disappeared, with her caretaker in hot pursuit.

Madeline Gartman was frantic. She was watching the overgrown puppy for her mother, my neighbor Beth Gartman, who was out of town. Worse, Madeline was keeping Scout at an East Atlanta rental house she’d moved into days earlier, miles away from Beth’s (and Scout’s) Decatur address.

Scout, a Muppet-like Australian shepherd mix, is a rambunctious dog who doesn’t like to stay inside. CONTRIBUTED BY THE GARTMAN FAMILY

icon to expand image

Scout had no idea where she was. She was injured, disoriented and a long way from home. Then the temperature started to drop.

When I joined the search party that Tuesday morning, it was so cold it hurt to take your hands out of your pockets. We passed a man in a utility truck and flagged him down to ask if he’d seen a gangly dog, an Australian shepherd mix with a multicolored coat that was part black, part gray, part buff and part something that was almost blue.

No, he said, and he looked worried. “Have you seen what the weather’s going to do?” he asked. “I just hope you’re prayed up.”

Oh yes. We were praying.

Many of us have lost dogs and cats. Many of those animals never come home.

They have to navigate Atlanta’s streets, sliced by Atlanta’s insane drivers. They have to dodge coyotes and other predators. When an injured dog gets lost, his or her instinct is often to hide. Scout was a 6-year-old rescue dog. She and her sister were found as young pups sitting on the side of the road in the North Georgia mountains, and she’d never lost the urge to travel.

Madeline had already put up 30 posters by Monday evening, and enlisted a dozen friends to help. She and her hardy colleagues specialized in combing through the thick woods that fill the empty places in her neighborhood.

On Tuesday, Beth and I drove around East Atlanta and south DeKalb, joined later by our neighbor Duran Dodson. We walked through yards and looked in parks, along creeks and in overgrown vacant lots.

Madeline’s house was in a part of DeKalb County that varied from middle-class to scruffy. We questioned everyone we passed. No one had seen Scout.

With the help of her friends, Beth had begun a full-on social media assault, posting information on Tracking4Paws, paying for a Pet Amber Alert, consulting Find Toto and PawBoost.

She posted to her Facebook page, and her friends shared the information. She and Madeline visited shelters. Her husband, Bryan, and son Tommy were heartsick that they were out of town. Both flew in at the first opportunity and joined the effort.

And, Beth isn’t ashamed to admit, she consulted a pet psychic. For $115, a woman named Hilary asked for basic information, including the breed and the circumstances of the dog’s disappearance. Hilary looked at photos.

“After a 15-minute meditation, she can tell if the dog is still with us, or the dog is in the spirit world,” Beth said. “I’ve never communed with a psychic before.”

The psychic told her she saw “a toddler, a baby, a woman talking to a man in a truck at the end of a cul-de-sac or a dead-end street. I see a jagged path leading to Scout. I see a trash can next to the house. I see an overflowing trash can.”

The information was probably worthless, Beth said. “But you get to a point of desperation.”

She had paid for other efforts, including a company that makes robocalls to selected numbers in the neighborhood. Madeline left a trail of clothes outside her house that smelled like family members.

Beth worked as a psychologist at the Howard School but took the week off to look for her dog, and her administration was understanding. Her principal even joined the posse.

A co-worker who lived in the neighborhood set up a staging area to coordinate volunteers. Another, pregnant at the time, also walked the area, wriggling at one point through a barrier into a house under construction.

By Wednesday, it was not only cold, it was raining. That night, a crowd of volunteers roamed the streets of south DeKalb, shouting Scout’s name into the fog.

On Thursday, the volunteers started to thin out. The family’s telephone number was on Scout’s collar, so anybody who found her would know whom to call. Unless they decided to keep her, or worse.

Morose thoughts began to chase out hope. One searcher, a pet rescue worker, said under her breath that a dog-fighting ring might be to blame. Little, friendly dogs like Scout were often used as bait.

At some point in any search, it starts to make sense to give up. I tell this story now because I admire what Scout’s family did. They refused to give up. They refused to despair. And they called in every favor they could summon.

I also tell it because of the incredibly clever way that Scout was lured back home, and the very clever woman who had a hand in it. That woman is my wife, Maureen Downey.

Maureen writes about education for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She is also smart as hell. When she faces a problem, she takes it apart with logic. She finds the missing piece. She puts it back together again until it works.

Once, many years ago, our dog Ralphie disappeared, also during the winter holidays. We were in New Jersey, visiting Maureen’s family over Christmas vacation, and Ralphie was staying at our babysitter’s house in Atlanta.

On the evening of Dec. 23, we got a frightened call that Ralphie had somehow jumped the fence and disappeared. (You need to know that this is a very short dog. Jumping that fence was a miraculous display of dogged determination.)

Maureen told Laura to drive to our house, which was several miles away in Decatur. Sure enough, Ralphie was outside the door of our empty house, barking at nobody. He had crossed Ponce de Leon and other perilous four-lane surface streets in the cold, rainy dark, navigating a path he had never traveled before.

On Saturday, five days after Scout disappeared, Beth called Maureen to say there had been a sighting, near a very run-down apartment complex, by a woman who saw a posting online. Beth asked Maureen to please help. Maureen’s hopes were low. She went anyway.

She had already studied the best way to catch a runaway dog: Don’t chase it. In fact, do quite the opposite.

If you see the dog, turn away. Don’t look them in the eye. Pretend you’re doing something interesting.

Maureen walked into a block of apartments where a man had been murdered a few weeks earlier, and followed the drive to the back, where dumpsters were overflowing and the woods were strewn with garbage.

There, peering through the weedy jungle, she saw a well-known furry face. Scout was watching her. Maureen turned away, sat down and began talking to herself. “Oh, what a nice day,” she said to nobody. “It sure would be nice if Scout was here to play with me.”

Then she actually stretched out on the damp ground, lying in repose, saying out loud, “I wonder where Scout is.” Scout couldn’t resist, and walked over to see what was happening. Maureen took gentle hold of Scout’s collar, snapped on a leash, and called Beth on her cellphone.

“Beth immediately burst into tears,” Maureen said.

After nearly a week on the run, eating from garbage cans, Scout was recovered. She went wild when she saw owner Bryan Gartman. CONTRIBUTED BY THE GARTMAN FAMILY

icon to expand image

The search party began converging on the apartment parking lot, and the joy was contagious. Someone videotaped Scout’s reunion with Bryan, and it was like that famous clip of the dog greeting the returning soldier.

Scout was only mildly injured, and very hungry. Beth and her family had persevered. With superhuman effort, plus native smarts (and a legion of helpers), they found Scout.

Reflexively, she gives credit to her friends. “Over the days, an army of volunteers put up hundreds of signs on telephone poles, walked door to door, checked backyards and just drove around,” she said.

The effort by this group still astounds her.

“I’ll never forget how nice people have been who don’t even know me.”