Harriet Dunkerley had lost her dog and she was about to lose her mind.
Bubba, adopted by her family only days before, had been spooked by something while being taken for a walk just outside their Rockland County home.
The German shepherd retreated up the front steps as if wanting to go back inside, but when Dunkerley’s husband, John, tried to open the door, Bubba lunged at him and then disappeared into a nearby woods.
Mistreated by his previous owners, the 2-year-old pooch was literally a quivering “bag of bones” when the Dunkerleys took him in.
“He was just scared of everything,” Harriet recalled.
That night, the frantic family searched for Bubba, shouting the dog’s name; a big mistake, they later learned.
Chasing or calling an animal that’s too terrified to think of anything but survival will only make it run farther.
After posting pictures of Bubba on social media and scouring missing pet websites, the Dunkerleys started to hear from people who had spotted Bubba near busy Route 9W.
The thought of their beloved dog darting into traffic kicked the fear factor up more than just a notch.
“I wasn’t sleeping or eating,” admits Harriet. A cantor for a synagogue in Connecticut, she was also starting to worry about neglecting her work.
Then one of the volunteer searchers suggested calling in the canine cavalry, John Whalen of Missing Pet Pawlice.
The Somers animal lover has not only learned to “think” like a runaway pup or kitty, he knows how to keep their humans from completely freaking out.
Whalen, a retired police officer, ex-soldier, former National Guardsman and licensed private investigator, first interviews “witnesses” to gather purr-tinent data about the AWOL pet.
Is it a Great Dane or Chihuahua? A tabby or Maine coon? Was it wearing a collar or does it have a microchip? Was it chasing a deer when it went missing or, as in one of Whalen’s most memorable cases, brazenly snatched from a shopping mall?
What’s the animal’s personality? Is it one of those hail-fellow-well-met types that will beg anyone for a belly rub? Or is it likely to get snarly or—heaven forbid—bite or scratch when approached? Is it shy or aloof?
Whalen then unleashes his prodigious investigative and organizational powers, formulates an “action plan,” posts easy-to-read neon signs with the missing animal’s photo and hands out fliers with contact information.
As soon as sightings come in, Whalen uses paw icons to plot them on a digital map. When he has enough intel to pinpoint the area the fugitive is frequenting, he sets up a feeding station, humane trap and weatherproof wildlife camera.
Because dogs “operate through their noses,” Whalen also “scents” the area by poking holes in a box, filling it with something yummy like bacon, and hanging it at least 10 feet off the ground.
When something trips the camera—hopefully not a raccoon, coyote or skunk—the photo goes right to his cell phone.
But Harriet says Whalen’s best skill is very low-tech—compassion.
“We were sitting at the kitchen table, working out the plan, and I was like ‘We gotta go, go, go.’ ” But Whalen’s calm, professional demeanor convinced the family to let him take the lead.
After all, making themselves sick with worry wouldn’t bring Bubba home any faster.
“It gave us some peace of mind to know that he was out there,” Harriet said.
But sometimes it takes a village to find a pet.
Harriet said the family was also impressed by his willingness to accept help from all quarters, as long as it was well-intentioned and not counterproductive.
“My only goal is to bring the dog home, not to be a hero,” explained Whalen, who had set a trap in Rockland Lake State Park where Bubba had apparently been roaming.
Three days later, although sightings had mounted, the pooch was still on the lam.
The clock was ticking, so, on a hunch, Harriet arose one day at the crack of dawn and walked to the end of a fence on a private road. There she espied a place Bubba might have been using to get onto a nearby golf course.
She reached out to an acquaintance with connections in the animal control world, borrowed a second trap, and with help, set it up.
The next day, there sat Bubba, looking, if not contrite, at least resigned.
Praising Whalen’s compassionate expertise as well as all the volunteers’ “amazing” contributions, Harriet said Bubba’s recovery took “a real community effort.”
“It really restored our faith in humanity,” she said.
Whalen has truly walked a mile in the Dunkerleys’ well-chewed slippers.
The proud doggie dad of Mabeline and Winnie, he had fostered a sick Husky for more than six months.
Once well, Sasha was adopted by a family from New York City, but then escaped while her new owner was visiting friends in lower Westchester.
Not yet in the pet recovery business, Whalen was over the moon to later learn that the errant pup had been safely recaptured in a humane trap.
This “near tragedy” made the young retiree decide he had found a new avocation and a way to continue a life of service.
After training online as a “missing animal response technician” and getting a PI license, Whalen launched Missing Pet Pawlice, which he runs out of his Shenorock home.
Whalen admits that even someone with heavy-duty skills like him doesn’t have “magic dust” to sprinkle to make every beloved pet reappear.
So part of his duty to their humans is to help them brace for potential bad news.
“It was heartbreaking,” he said of one recent search that turned up the body of a Putnam County client’s elderly dog.
Despite the tragic outcome, Whalen said he was grateful to have been able to lend the grieving owner his support.
Whalen was once teased about his new avocation by a friend who thought he was barking mad to chase “kitty cats at 3 in the morning.”
But the remark ran like water off a Doberman’s back.
“There’s nothing better than giving someone back their pet,” said the softhearted tough guy.
So how is Bubba doing now?
After being relieved of the nasty legions of ticks he had picked up on his journey and having a good feed, he is settling in.
Bubba is still a bit afraid of Harriet’s husband—perhaps because the person who had abused him in the past was a man—so for now Harriet is the only one who can walk him.
But with time and patience—and some help from a professional trainer—Bubba will regain his self-confidence.
“Thank God, he’s becoming our family dog,” Harriet said.