Dog school proves its worth

A lost dog just needed to hear the right word to be united with home.

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    A Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy competes in the Oklahoma City Summer Classic Dog Show.
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I glanced in the rearview mirror just in time to realize a distracted driver in a pickup truck was barreling down the hill behind me. I braced for impact.

The dramatic sounds of metal twisting and glass shattering shook me, but I was more stunned than hurt. My dog, Bailey, and I had been on our way to the park, to practice the commands he had recently mastered in beginning obedience class: "sit," "stay," and "heel."

It took me a few minutes to realize that Bailey, who had been riding in the back of my station wagon, had jumped through the broken back window and run off into the woods, trailing his leash.

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Declining medical assistance, I headed off to find my dog in my battered car. Increasingly distraught, I drove slowly in concentric circles around the accident site, wailing "Bay-leeee" out the driver's- side window until darkness fell.

When I couldn't see the landscape any longer I dashed home and left phone messages at the police and fire departments, animal control offices, and shelters.

"Please be on the lookout," I implored, "for a lost dog of medium size, shiny black coat, four white paws, soulful brown eyes, curly tail, and one ear that points up and one down."

"He's afraid of strangers," I added, "and may run off if approached."

Bailey had been a "gift" a year earlier from my teenager, who brought him home one evening from her summer job at a New York dog adoption center. He was originally from Georgia, where dogcatchers had picked him up running loose on a road. Once they had him in custody, his days were numbered.

He was sprung free by members of a growing movement of nationwide dog rescuers. Just like the brave volunteers of the Underground Railroad who smuggled fugitive slaves to safety in the North during the early 1800s, these animal lovers pick up dogs that face certain death in Southern "high kill" shelters then drive them hundreds of miles north to "no kill" adoption centers.

I quickly learned why Bailey had been found running on a road. If I left a sliding door even a tiny bit ajar he'd push his way through and take off like lightning. It became a game. He'd escape; I'd grab my keys and go after him in the car.

Inside the house, Bailey entertained himself by shredding my furniture, chewing whole boxes of tissues into tiny bits, and barking like a maniac at everything that moved: school buses, garbage trucks, and even the wind.

We passed the cold winter nights watching TV; I held the remote in one hand and scratched his ears with the other, speaking softly in hopes he'd become more accustomed to being with people. Bailey seemed particularly interested in the "Dog Whisperer" program. He'd sit directly in front of the TV, nose to the glass with his head cocked, as though listening intently to trainer Cesar Millan's advice.

The day after the accident, I was up at dawn searching again. When it was time to leave for work, I left our garage door open and set up a blanket with Bailey's favorite toys and some food and water, hoping he'd somehow find his way home.

I hadn't been in my office long when I got a call from my local police department. It was the dispatcher, saying she had a black dog with white paws matching Bailey's description in her office. Could I come right over?

She told me that shortly after the crash, Bailey had wandered into a nearby apartment complex. A man who lives there tried to grab his leash, but Bailey ran away. When the man saw Bailey still hanging around the next morning, he had the idea to walk up to him and say "sit" in a firm, commanding voice.

Being the "Best Learner" in obedience class, Bailey sat. My good Samaritan grabbed the leash, and walked Bailey the short distance to the police station. When I arrived, I found Bailey curled up under the dispatcher's desk, snoring and sleeping off the many dog cookies she had given him to keep him busy.

I later put Bailey's "Best Learner" certificate in a frame and sent his rescuer a thank-you card festooned with cute dog cartoons. And I signed up Bailey for advanced obedience class so he could master the next lesson: "Bailey, come."

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