Tracker dogs join growing industry to help owners find lost pets

A small industry has grown up to help owners find missing pets, and Sam Connelly of Baltimore and her golden retriever, Salsa, have joined the hunt.
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.

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