What I am about to tell you is a story that could begin with any number of canine puns: Every dog has its day. It’s a dog’s life. Here’s a pup that was dog tired. The one thing it is not, however, is a shaggy dog story: A long rambling tale with a ridiculous ending.
Lila Silky Willow is the full name of Karen Lueders’ and Jim Dumont’s 6-year-old black and white cocker spaniel. She has three names because Lueders and Dumont have three children and whenever the family gets a pet each of the children contributes a name. The family lives in the hills south of Lincoln, their home surrounded on three sides by forest. Lila was the runt of the litter; the dog’s owner had told Lueders that the puppy wouldn’t survive. But Lueders thought she was adorable and said if the puppy did hang on, she would take her. Lila lived and came home with a litter mate the family called Pippen Miles Alexander in 2003.
This autumn, Oct. 15, just before dusk, Lila was tied by her leash to a small tree in the woods perhaps a quarter mile from the house while one of the children was climbing a nearby boulder. She was wearing her orange safety vest. Something excited Lila, and she broke free and raced into the darkening woods, dragging her leash behind her. The family searched long and hard that night. Dumont was so disoriented at one point in the forest that the family’s youngest daughter had to honk persistently on the car horn to help guide him from the woods.
Over the next week, the family tried everything to find Lila. On Saturday, the 17th, a dozen neighbors joined them to methodically comb the surrounding woods. Lueders posted photos across Lincoln, Ripton and Bristol. She used Lincoln’s Internet list-serve to share photos of Lila in the event someone spotted her. And on Oct. 22, she and her husband brought in a Plott hound — a breed trained to track a scent relentlessly — to try and find Lila. The animal tracked Lila to a nearby beaver pond … and then to some coyote scat with hair in it that seemed to match Lila’s coloring.
“I’d say that we now thought we were going to be a household without Lila. She was gone,” Leuders recalls. “But I always found myself thinking, ‘What if?’ as I drove.”
On the second day of deer season this month, a full 31 days after Lila had disappeared, Monkton’s Aaron Labell was moving slowly through the woods perhaps a mile in from the Notch Road. It was Nov. 15. Up ahead he saw something and paused. “I saw the fur and the orange and I knew it was a dog,” he says. The animal was caught by its leash to a sapling and couldn’t escape. “The area around it was matted down in a circle from where it had been pacing.”
The animal was skinny, her fur was a mess, one eye looked bad, and she was disoriented. But she was very much alive. The first thing Labell did was feed the ravenous dog his Rice Krispies Treat and his bologna sandwich. Then he freed the animal and carried her back to his truck, stopping when he came across a stream so the parched dog could drink. Labell hadn’t heard about Lila, and so he brought the dog to the Bristol Country Store on Vermont 116. There Tim Gratton happened to be shopping and he agreed to take on the search for the dog’s owner so Labell could return to the woods and his quest for a buck.
Vermont is a small state, and Bristol and Lincoln are small towns. Consequently, Gratton called the local pizza parlor, Cubber’s, to see if anyone there had heard about a missing dog. Amanda Lee was working that day and she suggested that Gratton call Lueders and Dumont. He did.
Lueders says there had been false alarms throughout Lila’s disappearance and she and her husband had followed up on all of them, even the ones that were merely someone phoning to say they had heard a dog barking in the woods. After the fur had been found in the coyote scat, she wasn’t about to get her hopes up. But as she and Dumont were driving to the Bristol Country Store, her husband turned to her and said, “The dog is wearing an orange vest.” And she realized she was about to see something pretty wondrous.
Indeed, there was Lila sitting on Gratton’s lap in the driver’s seat of his truck in the parking lot of the store. “I was shocked when I saw her, I was overcome,” Dumont says.
The dog, though weak, recognized him. She kissed him on the lips, her habitual greeting. Then, as Dumont lifted her away from Gratton, she kissed him, too.
Lila’s weight had plummeted from 27 pounds to 16. She had lived on melted snow and rain. She had probably depended on that vest more for warmth than visibility. And, Lueders believes, the human scent that was attached to the vest may have been what kept larger animals at bay.
In her first 48 hours home, Lila gained back over three pounds. Her eye will be fine.
On the afternoon that Lila was reunited with her family, Dumont had told Gratton that the dog had been gone for 31 days. Gratton smiled and said, “Well, Happy Thanksgiving.”
For a family in South Lincoln and one cocker spaniel, it was indeed. Miraculously, Lila was home for the holidays.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on November 29, 2009.)