Nearly two years ago, a gate left open by a delivery man gave Gunner just the escape route he needed to explore the sights and sounds of Pittsburgh.
The dog’s owner, Joseph Karl of Verona, thought he might never see his golden retriever-collie mix again or that his pet might even be dead. But through the kindness and persistence of many strangers including Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Animal Care & Control officers, Gunner not only survived life on the streets — including two harsh winters — but came home to his family two weeks ago looking healthy and happy.
“It was like he’d never left, like he’d just come in from outside,” Mr. Karl said after a news conference Friday with Mayor Bill Peduto.
In June 2013, that unlatched gate let both of the family’s dogs — including Gunner’s brother, Shooter — escape without anyone noticing immediately. By the time Mr. Karl’s wife, Reilly, realized the dogs were gone, they were nowhere in sight.
Shooter returned six hours later, but 7-year-old Gunner had disappeared.
Mr. Karl called the animal control bureau that July, and officers began receiving calls from residents around Frick Park about a dog that matched Gunner’s description. Officers began trying to lure him with food and capture him using humane traps, all without success.
Weeks turned into months, as the dog dodged every attempt to catch him. Officers learned his habits and where he usually could be found -- often in the woods of Frick Park -- but could never get close. They often would leave him half their sandwiches so he wouldn’t starve, according to a written account by officers Jeff Ley and Steve Costa.
Fall passed and winter came, and then came the Polar Vortex with its subzero temperatures and biting wind, and the officers made saving the dog their mission. Worried about his safety in such brutal conditions, they would stop at locations where he often could be found, and leave dog food and blankets.
“When it snowed we would track his fresh paw prints for miles around the neighborhood, cemetery and the trails in the park, always leaving behind some food for him,” the officers wrote. “We would dress in multiple layers of clothes and fight the elements to try to save him.”
Although the dog no longer ran away every time they got out of their truck, they still couldn't get near him and he never entered the humane traps they set for him, they said.
As officers continued their efforts, seven miles away the Karl family searched the local woods with Shooter and spread the word about Gunner's disappearance. Mr. Karl said he placed classified advertisements in the Pennysaver and local newspapers, placed posters around the neighborhood and posted notices on websites for lost pets.
He said he also called all the local shelters and every dog catcher in the area with a description of Gunner and the information that Gunner was carrying a microchip so that he could be identified.
"Anybody who could possibly catch a dog, I called that person," he said. "I wanted to make sure he was scanned."
Months continued to pass and another bitter winter arrived. A half-dozen residents of Squirrel Hill in the area of Darlington Road and Beechwood Boulevard had come to know Gunner and would leave food out for him.
One couple left their garage door open in cold weather so Gunner could take shelter there, Mr. Karl said, but the dog would run away if they ever tried to close the door with him inside.
Finally, in February, one of the people who had been feeding Gunner managed to lure him into a humane trap, and took him to the Animal Rescue League Shelter and Wildlife Center. There, workers discovered that Gunner -- who had left home with a collar and tags but lost them -- had a microchip, and tracked down the Karls using the information encoded on the microchip.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Karl got a call that Gunner had been found, and the family was reunited at last. Gunner not only remembered his family, but licked Mr. Karl’s face in greeting and -- besides needing a bath and some brushing -- seemed none the worse for his adventures, Mr. Karl said.
“He was really happy to be home,” Mr. Karl said. “I doubt he’ll run away again.”
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: firstname.lastname@example.org.