On the last day of a December vacation to Florida, Tim Noonan, his wife and their two dogs, Jake and Lucy, stopped to see family friends at their Dr. Phillips home.
Jake, a 4-year-old shepherd mix, slipped through a crack in the backyard fence and disappeared.
The Noonans and their friends, Richard and Cele Salzenstein, scattered until midnight, whistling and calling Jake's name.
"We were all crying," Cele Salzenstein said. "I was just so afraid that Tim was going to find him dead on the road..... I just hated that this happened at our house."
Share your story about losing -- and finding -- a beloved pet
Noonan, who owns a tennis school in an Atlanta suburb, made the seven-hour drive to Orlando nine times to look for Jake. He put up more than 1,000 fliers, called newspapers and TV stations to get the word out, and had a pet detective analyze maps of southwest Orlando to pinpoint the search. The first month, he paced next to highways at rush hour wearing a sandwich board with the dog's picture on it.
"Anywhere there was a lead, I showed up with the sandwich board," Noonan said. "Every time I left Orlando without him, it was so depressing."
He would have gone to such lengths for any of his dogs, but Jake was special. Noonan's stepdaughter adopted Jake as a puppy from a local rescue group that had found him and his siblings being kept in a 55-gallon barrel on a farm.
Ron Betta, a fitness trainer in Windermere with two dogs of his own, was moved by the sight of Noonan on Sand Lake Road passing out fliers in early January.
"It just killed me to see him without his pet," Betta said. "I couldn't even focus at work."
Betta created a Web site about Jake and drove around Dr. Phillips for hours at a time, searching for a dog he had never met. When it rained, he thought about Jake out there alone somewhere.
In early February, Noonan received a call from Alex McCulloch in the Palm Lake subdivision, who had seen the signs around town. Jake had been eating the cat food the McCullochs left out for neighborhood strays.
"The dog, obviously being starving, didn't mind that it was cat food," McCulloch said. "As we kept putting the food out for him, he kept coming every morning, every night."
Noonan hopped in the car and drove to the McCulloch house, but after a 15-minute standoff with Jake, the frightened dog took off into the woods. The couple and Noonan staked out the yard several more nights and fashioned nets to trap Jake but never caught him.
"The people in Orlando were absolutely amazing," Noonan said. "All the people who were calling and praying, it was very uplifting...because we were trying so hard to get him back."
By May, when three weeks had passed and no one had seen Jake, Noonan began to fear he would never find the sweetest dog he ever had. But May 21, his wife received a call from the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, where a greenskeeper had been feeding Jake hot dogs and turkey. The dog was covered in fleas, dirty and had lost weight but was otherwise healthy.
Cele Salzenstein and one of her daughters raced to the golf course to pick up Jake. They handed him off to Richard Salzenstein, who met Noonan at the Georgia border. Noonan came equipped with two leashes, a harness and two collars. He wasn't going to let Jake get away again.
But Jake was ready to go home. He jumped in the car, wagging his tail. When they got home at 3 a.m., Noonan slept beside the flea-ridden dog on the screened porch. The dog nuzzled against him, as if he had never left.
Daphne Sashin can be reached at email@example.com or 407-650-6361. For more animal news, visit the Animal Crazy blog at orlandosentinel.com/animalcrazy.
Lost your dog? Experts recommend these tips for finding your animal:
The more eyes you have looking for your dog, the better chance you have of finding it.
- Alert local shelters, not just in the county where the animal went missing. Tim Noonan stayed in regular contact with the shelters in Orange, Seminole and Osceola.
- Post fliers in the neighborhoods near where the dog went missing with the animal's picture and your contact information. Give the fliers to postal workers, FedEx and UPS delivery people to place in their trucks.
- Place listings in local newspapers and on Web sites such as Craigslist's Lost and Found section, Petfinder.com and Pets911.com. Orange County has a pet forum at www.ocnetpets.com.