Stephen Alioto, left, thought his dog, Daisy, drowned when their boat sank last week in Richardson Bay. They were reunited with the help of Sausalito Presbyterian Church Pastor Paul Mowry. (Courtesy of the Marin Humane Society)

A few times a month, Stephen Alioto jumps in his 18-foot kayak, places his 5-year-old pit bull, Daisy, on his lap and paddles 1.25 miles from the boat he calls home to a dock in downtown Sausalito, Calif. From there, Alioto and Daisy travel a few blocks on foot to the Sausalito Presbyterian Church, where they receive free meals.

Alioto, who doesn’t have a job and relies on the church’s meals, has been making the trip for years. He thought he was the only one paying attention to the directions — but apparently Daisy was, too.

That may be the only way to explain how the 50-pound dog survived the same trip on her own last week, in the middle of a severe storm that sank her owner’s boat and forced the pooch into the frigid San Francisco Bay in the middle of the night.

The storm, which began on the evening of Dec. 10, brought wind gusts, flooding rain and violent swells to the area and was responsible for sinking a number of boats in the bay, though nobody was killed, according to news reports.

Alioto was delivering a generator to a friend’s boat when the storm hit, stranding him on the friend’s vessel. When he made it back to his own boat the next morning, all the 50-year-old found was the mast sticking out of the water.

It was hard enough knowing he’d lost everything he owned in the storm, he said. Making the next 48 hours almost unbearable was the feeling that he’d also lost his beloved dog.

“When I saw the boat underwater that was the hardest moment of my life,” he told The Washington Post, unable to hold back tears. “I thought Daisy had met her demise because of my own negligence. It was terrible.”

As it turned out, by some miraculous feat of endurance or fortune of circumstance, Daisy was alive, but battered. Somehow, she’d made her way to the familiar Presbyterian church, where she was found shivering and wet beside the front door two days after the storm. She was eventually given to Pastor Paul Mowry and spent the rest of the day curled up on some towels beside his desk in a deep sleep while Mowry worked to track down her owner.

“She looked familiar, but we didn’t know who she was,” Mowry told The Post. “She was such a sweet dog that you could tell she was well-loved.”

The pastor notified police, and the Marin Humane Society, with the help of a microchip, eventually linked Daisy to two phone numbers. The first one didn’t work, but the second number led him to someone who said the dog had been given years before to a friend named Steve, Mowry said.

Mowry knew a Steve who came to the church for free meals on Wednesdays, but it wasn’t until the next day that police informed Mowry that a man named Steve had lost his dog when his boat sank in the storm.

“I put two and two together, and suddenly, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, this dog escaped a sinking out in the bay,'” he said.

Unable to get in touch with Alioto by phone, Mowry went looking for him. He eventually found him at another ministry that provides free meals to people in need. Mowry approached Alioto and told the distraught man that his dog was alive and well at the Humane Society.

“He just burst into tears and threw his arms around me,” Mowry said. “He squeezed me so hard that I felt light-headed. It was just this rapturous joy and sobbing.”

The next day, both men went to the Humane Society to pick up Daisy. As Alioto approached Daisy’s cage the dog’s tail began spinning “like a helicopter blade,” Mowry said.

Moments later, Daisy was smothering her owner with kisses, and Alioto was clutching his dog and weeping. They were tears of joy, he said, brought on by the realization that he had been given back the only possession in his life that he couldn’t replace.

“I’m Big Daddy Kibbles and Bits,” he told San Francisco’s CBS affiliate KPIX. “I’m the guy who provides the dog the walks, the baths, and everything that she tells me she needs.”

How did Daisy survive? Mowry wondered if warm El Nino waters kept her from freezing, if the strong currents worked in her favor, or if her strength of spirit prevailed amid the elements.

“I’m so impressed with her,” he said. “In a world where we are surrounded by such tragedy and indifference and cruelty, here is this little dog determined to get back to the place she knew her owner could find her.” 

Nobody can be sure, but Alioto has his own theory about how his dog survived.

It has nothing to do with the life jacket he bought her several years back or the impromptu swim lessons he gives her from time to time by tossing her into the bay. (Daisy, as it turns out, “hates the water,” according to her owner.)

Alioto thinks it was Daisy’s nose that kept her alive.

“She’s marked her territory all the way to church for years now,” he said. “I guess when you’re a dog you can just follow your pee all the way to safety.”