By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010
Salsa is a working dog, a warm, wet snout for hire. And at $100 an hour, her earning power is nothing to sneeze at.
"C'mon, Salsa, find your dog, find Sweetie," called Sam Connelly, Salsa's owner, handler and partner. The pair set out from a 7-Eleven on Silver Hill Road in Suitland in search of Sweetie, an errant beagle.
Connelly waved a little patch of Sweetie's dog bed in front of Salsa's nose, and almost instantly, the retriever strained into her orange harness, nearly pulling her partner down a low hill.
"She's got it," Connelly shouted over her shoulder as Salsa rushed, nostrils down, along the sidewalk one day before this month's snows.
The two are professional pet trackers. Trained to locate lost hikers and hunters, Salsa applies her expert beezer to the last-known steps of missing dogs and cats.
In an era when distraught pet owners go to ever-greater lengths -- and expense -- to bring their animals home, there are businesses that blast e-mail notices of lost pets to veterinarians and dog walkers, deliver robo-calls to thousands of households and, in the most extreme cases, use Salsa's tracking skills to scour the Washington area.
Connelly's Baltimore-based Pure Gold Pet Trackers is busier than ever. "We found 87 animals last year, and this year is shaping up to be just as big," she said.
Salsa tugged Connelly deeper into the complex of townhouses. The 8-year-old golden retriever was about $300 into the day's shift and eager for more. Half a mile on, the dog whimpered at the edge of a tangle of bare oaks and old tires. In they plunged, Connelly pushing aside scratchy tendrils as Salsa bore on.
"She's been around here within the last 24 hours," Connelly said of the missing beagle.
This is Salsa's third track in a search that started three miles away at Sweetie's house in Southeast Washington. The day's work probably won't end with Salsa sniffing her way to Sweetie's wagging tail. Most searches don't. Instead, Salsa will zero in on Sweetie's most recent movements, letting Connelly and Sweetie's owners know where to focus their search.
"The poster is the most important thing," Connelly said. "More than 90 percent of recovered animals are found by a stranger calling the number on a poster. What the tracking dog does is tell you where to put up the posters."
But the occasional eureka moment does occur. Last month, Marianne Rosato had nearly given up hope that her beloved mixed-breed Spot would ever be caught after it bolted from a friend's house in Arlington County. Six days into her frantic search, Rosato had spent nearly $2,000 on posters and lost-pet services. One firm, Amber Pet Alert, blasted lost-Spot e-mails and faxes to veterinarians, dog walkers and shelters. Another, Find Toto, made thousands of robo-calls about the dog to households.
There had been sightings from more than five miles away, including one on an entrance ramp to Interstate 395. But the little dog, who came to Rosato from a rescue shelter, ran when anyone approached. A retired police officer eventually suggested that the owner call Connelly.
Starting from the spot of the most recent sighting, Salsa led Connelly and Rosato on a two-mile loop. She ended up whining at the fence of a community garden that was closed for the winter. Rosato jumped the chain-link, crossed her fingers and started calling calmly to the dog she prayed was inside. She found Spot -- a week on the run, dehydrated and hoarse -- leaning against the back fence.
"It was unbelievable," said Rosato, 44, who works for a defense contractor. "Spot was so happy to see me, I thought he was going to crawl into my hair."
In the month since, Rosato has become one of Connelly's volunteers. She went on a recent track for a missing Brussels griffon in Alexandria that lasted until 1 a.m.
"It's usually a group effort," said Connelly, although she often finds herself alone with Salsa in dicey neighborhoods, crossing yards and sniffing around trash cans.
Another tracker, Laura Totis of Clarksburg, once had a gun pulled on her by a suspicious police officer, Connelly said.
Connelly and Salsa were longtime volunteers with a search-and-rescue corps that provided tracking dogs to law enforcement agencies. When Connelly had to leave the corps five years ago because of health concerns, she retrained Salsa to find four-legged quarry. Salsa is one of only about 25 dog-finding dogs in the country, Connelly said.
In Suitland, Connelly trotted along behind Salsa in an orange coat, a golden retriever pin on her chest. She has another retriever painted on a barrette in her hair and a Dalmatian-spotted scarf around her neck.
"My main concern is recovering the animal," she said. "About half the people who call me are never charged anything."
When an owner contacts Connelly, she walks them through pet-finding fundamentals, starting with posters. "People put too much detail on them, about where the animal was last seen or how loved they are by the kids," Connelly said. "And then the phone number is a quarter of inch tall."
A proper poster features brief details, a reward and a picture (a cute snapshot of the actual animal is less useful than a clear picture of the correct breed, Connelly said). Most important, she puts the phone number in a towering font. Best location for posting: at intersections with traffic lights. Stop signs won't do.
"People don't have time at stop signs to pay attention," she said. "At traffic lights, they're just sitting there."
She recommends that owners put notices on Craigslist, neighborhood e-mail group lists and lost-pet sites such as Petfinder.com; start a blog; and keep food in a sheltered place outside.
About half the time, that's enough. Only when it isn't does Connelly load Salsa in her battered Pathfinder and hit the trail. Her longest ongoing search is for a wandering cairn terrier in Massachusetts. She has driven up several times in the past year, at 50 cents a mile plus about 25 hours in the harness for Salsa.
The quickest success came in the case of a house cat that fell from a second-story window in Reading, Pa. Three days later, Salsa needed just 15 minutes to find the cat hiding under a lilac bush at a neighbor's house.
Sometimes the trail goes cold. Salsa tracked an 8-month-old bichon frise in Rockville recently, only to have the scent end in a drugstore parking lot. "It was like she was abducted by aliens," Connelly said.
Make that a minivan rather than a spaceship. Weeks later, the owner got a call from New Jersey, where a man sheepishly reported that his sister and her kids had scooped up what she thought was a wild (albeit well-coiffed) puppy from the parking lot. He fessed up only after realizing that the dog had an identifying microchip.
"It's when people get involved in a dog's wandering that we have trouble," Connelly said. Otherwise, she said, Salsa usually gets her dog.
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