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Detectives on pets' tails

The Baltimore Sun

Here were the facts:

Subject had fled in panic two days earlier. Unresponsive to repeated calls. Known to fear men - and Styrofoam packing peanuts.

No question, it was a case for Laura Totis and her trusty sidekick, Chewy, she of the neon sense of smell. If these pros couldn't solve this case, maybe no one could.

Pet detective and German shepherd pulled into a Reisterstown cul-de-sac at the back end of dusk. There stood Namha Corbin, frowning owner of the missing subject, one freshly shorn Wheaten terrier named Biscuit. And waiting with Corbin was the guilt-racked dog-sitting friend on whose watch Biscuit had disappeared.

Totis is one of two full-time pet sleuths in the Baltimore area who field several calls each week about a missing pet. Usually the lost is a dog or cat, but not always. Totis and her collegial competitor, Sam Connelly of Pure Gold Pet Trackers, have found themselves on the heels of a ferret in Canton, a llama, even a pet skunk in Pennsylvania.

This tends to be a busy time of year. Warm weather means more pets left outside, more doors and gates left ajar. Invariably, Fourth of July fireworks send dogs running for their lives.

As part of their services, Totis and Connelly offer practical, and at times obvious-sounding advice that they say can make all the difference. For example, they are big believers in well-placed posters with a phone number in large type.

Such techniques - recommended by Connelly to a client - led to the return of Mike the ferret after a neighbor who had seen posters spied the rodent slinking across his backyard.

But both trackers always stand ready to deploy their four-legged associates, whose schnozzes are capable of following a smell back to its fluffy source.

That's exactly what Chewy was itching to do that evening in Reisterstown when she hopped out of the car already in her blue harness. To prep herself, she was offered a few whiffs of Biscuit's dog bed. Then it was time to get serious about finding this pooch.

By now, Totis had gleaned the essentials of Biscuit's disappearance. Mareco Edwards, Corbin's now miserable friend, told the tale. Corbin, a lawyer, had dropped Biscuit off at his place Sunday before leaving on a business trip. Everything went fine until Tuesday evening when Edwards was working in his garage with Biscuit lying nearby. Then, BAM! a crack of bone-rattling thunder.

Dog and man jumped. Then, BAM! another ear-splitting clap. This time, Biscuit, regarding Edwards as if he were Zeus hurling thunderbolts, rocketed out of the open garage and into the stormy night.

Edwards, a 39-year-old insurance broker, gave chase, but realized he didn't stand much chance of catching Biscuit while wearing flip-flops. He returned home to put on sneakers, but when he went back out, he couldn't find her. He resumed the search in his SUV. Nothing.

Finally, he called Corbin, who was preparing to board a flight home from Cincinnati. Without realizing that he was shouting into the phone, Edwards broke the bad news: He had lost her 10-month-old baby.

All she could think to tell him was to relax and try calling Biscuit with an "inside voice."

Corbin got home near midnight, and there was still no sign of her dog. She immediately joined Edwards in the search, but other than learning that two neighbors had seen Biscuit in their yard, the night turned up nothing. No Biscuit, no crumbs. The next day, Corbin and Edwards took off work to print fliers, visit shelters, and post Web notices.

That Thursday, Edwards stumbled across the Web site of LJT Training, Totis' dog training and tracking business in Hampstead. That evening, she and Chewy arrived.

By then, Corbin was harboring the worst thoughts. Even if something terrible had befallen poor Biscuit, she just wanted to know what had happened. Totis, 45 and cheerful, said it was too soon for such talk, even if she didn't think this night would necessarily turn up Biscuit. A large entourage, she said, could well make a skittish dog even more so. Still, Totis said, she thought Chewy might be able to provide vital clues about Biscuit's flight path.

Totis began doing pet searches six years ago, after requests from pet owners to branch out beyond the human search-and-rescue operations she conducted, and still does. She takes the job seriously. You won't hear her make any cracks involving either the word Ace or Ventura.

About 80 percent of her animal cases are successful, she says, though she is quick to add that she and Chewy are just one factor. (She never did find that pet skunk in Pennsylvania, and the llama was corralled before she got there.)

A dedicated pet owner is key, she says. In this case it helped that Biscuit not only had ID tags but a microchip embedded under her skin. When scanned, it would reveal Corbin's phone number.

Chewy began to pull Totis, tugging hard at the end of the long leash. The dog dropped her snout to the ground like a locomotive cowcatcher as she raced around Freshman Court, over manicured yards, across Diploma Drive, down Transcript Circle and into still more yards.

Chewy's method looked helter-skelter, but the 4-year-old shepherd was no novice. Within minutes she gave her first head lift, a sign that she'd made an olfactory match. This was near woods off Diploma, a few hundred yards from Edwards' home.

As the detective and her deputy moved into the woods, Edwards followed with his flashlight. Corbin called out, "Biscuit! Come on, boo-boo bear, where are you?"

Even with a three-quarter moon in the sky, it was now dark. The odor of the woods and grass hung in the air.

Ever the professional, Chewy did not seem to mind the conditions. She kept poking around the woods, trailing what Totis termed a very good track. But then, inexplicably, the German shepherd lost her way.

Totis, however, was optimistic. It sure seemed that Biscuit had passed this way. No cadaver meant she was likely still alive, possibly not too far away. Totis doubted that anyone had picked her up and taken her home with them. Even though the terrier feared adult males (a mystery unto itself) and once recoiled at a Styrofoam peanut adrift in the wind, she was a friendly dog. Perhaps she would sidle up to some homeowner in search of kibble.

The search continued, now moving across busy Berrymans Lane and along another subdivision that backed up to the rumble and whoosh of Interstate 795. One man enjoying the evening air jumped up from his deck, startled by the posse moving through his unlit yard.

After two hours, the team was ready to call it a night. They returned to Edwards' home and debriefed around his dining table. Biscuit had been in those woods, almost for sure, and conceivably still was. She'd also been in the two yards where eyewitnesses spotted her, but based on Chewy's signals was not inside either house or in that immediate area now.

Totis issued new instructions: Put food by those woods, along with flour to indicate whether any footprints left behind were Biscuit's. Put an old shirt of Corbin's on the ground to give Biscuit a friendly smell.

Meanwhile, make fluorescent-backed posters with the phone number ultra easy for passing motorists to see. Put them at key junctions in and around the neighborhood.

And keep hoping. She asked for $50, mainly to cover her time and gas. Edwards doubled it, thankful for the leads and tips.

They did everything she advised.

About 36 hours later, Corbin's cell phone rang. It was a Saturday morning and P.J. Bean was on the line.

He had Biscuit.

The dog was alive and safe. Hungry and tired, but in good shape.

As it turned out, Bean had not seen the big, bright posters. But Chewy had been right: Bean lives a short walk from the woods and first spotted Biscuit the day before Totis and Chewy's search. So the search party had gotten close.

All that mattered to Corbin was that she had her dog back. Edwards, at least partly off the hook, felt immense relief. And now they knew where to turn if it ever happened again. Which it most certainly won't.

Corbin and Edwards remain friends, but from now on she'll find another pet-sitter when she travels. As she pointedly told him, a dog should always be on a leash when outside, even a docile one like Biscuit. To her it's elementary.

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