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JAMESTOWN â€“ As so often happens, I have been drawn to the story of someone with four legs. In this case, that subject has a partner with two legs and they are gaining national acclaim.
They are Abby â€“ Rhode Island's first certified search-and-rescue bloodhound who is part of the Rhode Island K9 Response Team and is certified by the American Mantrailing Police and Work Dog Association, in Indianaâ€“ and her owner LuAnn Botelho, a master handler and instructor.
In recent years, Abby, who is named for the Goth forensic scientist on the TV show â€śNCISâ€ť â€“ the dog has a nose for discovery, too â€“ has expanded her talents in a unique way. She will track and find your missing pet.
As a result of her success, she and LuAnn are sharing their knowledge and techniques through an organization LuAnn founded recently called American Pet Search and Rescue. She works with two handlers in Indiana and another in Canada who are on call with their search dogs to help people find missing pets.
LuAnn proudly notes that dogs â€śhave been found because of what we do.â€ť
This calling to ease the heartbreak of owners whose beloved companions have run off to an unknown fate began three years ago.
â€śIt started when Lola the boxer went missing,â€ť recalls LuAnn, a Massachusetts native who has been around dogs all her life. â€śLola took off from the toll plazaâ€ť at the Newport bridge; her owner lived nearby.
Called to the scene, Abby used one of Lola's toys to start tracking. As long as she has a scent article, says LuAnn, the black-and-tan hound â€ścan track anything.â€ť And just because she can find domestic pets, that doesn't mean Abby hunts deer or other wild game. That's not in her job description.
â€śShe does scent discrimination,â€ť LuAnn explains. â€śShe doesn't 'critter.' She can follow the scent of another dog across deer prints and keep right on going.â€ť
When Abby's on the trail, â€śshe tracks at a trot and pulls me. She only bays once in a while; she's got her head down and she's all business. I have to be her eyes and ears. Bloodhounds are so [focused] on the scent, they'll run into a parked car.â€ť
At 109 pounds â€“ northern bloodhounds are chunkier than the rangy southern versions â€“ Abby, who work in a harness and leash â€“ pulls LuAnn up hills.
â€śIf I fall, she stops. When I get back up, she returns to work.â€ť
In the case of Lola, Abby wasn't deterred by the fact that the boxer had the poor judgment to flee on New Year's Day in the pourng rain. Head down, nose to the ground, she tracked her up East Shore Road to a cemetery and a hole in the fence.
Lola was on the other side in the pine needles, favoring her hind leg. She'd been hit by a car. It had taken Abby less than 15 minutes to find her and, after veterinary treatment, the wayward Lola was fine.
Since then, Abby has found a number of lost pets â€“ the happy endings are recorded in her scrapbook and on a wall of fame in the Botelhos' home â€“ and has become a favorite at parades, nursing homes, meetings of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and at such special events as animal shelter open houses and school functions.
The Jamestown Police Officers Association sponsored her official business cards and she has earned a wide fan base.
â€śI walk her down the street and everybody goes, 'Hey, Abby!',â€ť LuAnn says of her dog's popularity.
The famous tracker has been called to retrieve Miniature Pinschers who've gone AWOL, Anita Marie, a chocolate Lab who was on the lam for two months, and the Botelhos' own cat.
Abby was part of the huge volunteer effort to find Zorro, the little Lhasa apso, amazingly located after a two-week walking tour of North Kingstown. She has even tracked coyotes for a group that monitors the growth and movement of packs in Rhode Island.
With all Abby's professional success, LuAnn takes great pleasure in the host of ribbons she's won at the annual Potter League competition in Newport. They're for agility â€“ a timed obstacle-course race that includes maneuvering through a tube, negotiating a serpentine path around cones and splashing through water, among other challenges.
The agility course is not usually won by large, placid dogs more likely to mosey than to fly manically through the air as smaller breeds are wont to do.
â€śShe beat a border collie and a sheltie!â€ť LuAnn exclaims. â€śShe does [the contest] every year. She's won two or three times and took second one year. She loves the tube and jumps right in the water; she's not afraid of anything.â€ť
A school bus driver by day, LuAnn has translated her lifelong love of canines â€“ â€śwe always had mutts when I was growing upâ€ť â€“ into work that requires a deep understanding of the bond between an animal and its owner.
She has no patience with people who say â€śIt's just a dog.â€ť
Nearly three years ago, LuAnn and her husband, Bill, acquired a bloodhound puppy from Arkansas and she's become Abby's apprentice. Like the older dog, she is named for an â€śNCISâ€ť character, in this case Ziva, a former trained assassin for the Israeli secret police.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.