More than four hours after his panicked parents reported their 6-year-old missing from his southwest Missouri home, rescuers found the child huddled in a ditch with his two dogs lying on top of him to keep him warm as temperatures dipped into the low 20s.
Ryle Smith, 6, was playing outside of his Seneca home Friday afternoon when he followed his dogs, Baxter and Bella, into the woods and soon became disoriented and lost as darkness fell.
After searching for his son, Ryan Smith called authorities for help around 6 p.m., the Joplin Globe reported.
"I was nervous because it was getting dark and some of the area in the woods can be really dangerous," he said. "He was outside with the dogs, and we didn't see or hear from either of them."
Emergency responders from the Joplin, Seneca and Redings Mill fire departments, in addition to the Newton County Sheriff's Office and Newton County Rescue and Recovery team, joined in the search.
"We got into action quickly, and that's what helped us find him," Sheriff Ken Copeland said. "The Highway Patrol chopper was even in the area with infrared to see if they could help. It really was an area-wide search that got him home."
Smith said his son was checked out at a Joplin hospital and was relatively unscathed, even though he was found without his shoes, cuts on part of his body and holes in his clothes.
Smith gives the dogs — Baxter, a large boxer that has been with the family more than 10 years, and Bella, a mixed Labrador, who joined the family over Christmas — credit for keeping Ryle safe.
"They both were incredible in the way that they protected him," Smith said. "They wouldn't have left him for anything. You can't ask for more in a dog than that."
He also said he was extremely thankful for the way so many people in the area sprang into action.
"It amazes me how quick everyone came out to look for my son," he said. "An hour after word got out, you couldn't get anywhere close to the driveway. I still haven't got to meet the men who actually found Ryle, but I just want them to know how thankful we are."