Lost Labs: Missing dogs fan theft fears

Damie, Louie, and Luna are missing. These happy-go-lucky Labrador retrievers disappeared within days of each other, and at least two of the owners are convinced someone nabbed their pets.

Damie was last seen the evening of February 6. He was on a walk in Advance Mills when he slipped his collar and went "gallivanting off to the woods," says owner Chris Clark. That didn't alarm Clark because Damie liked to run through the woods and fields, and in the past, when the five-year-old black Lab had taken off, he'd always been back by 2 or 3am.

Ten days later, Clark has run classified ads, posted 200 to 300 flyers, offered a reward, and visited the SPCA repeatedly, as well as called shelters in surrounding counties. And still no sign of Damie.

"This dog's not a loner," says Clark. "Somebody's got him. I really feel somebody's got him."

Clark calls the loss of Damie "pure hell. I can't concentrate. All I do is look for him."

Louie disappeared February 9 from his home near Woodlands Road. "Our gut feeling from day one was he was stolen," says Dana Wangensteen, Louie's owner.

She'd noticed an odd vehicle with three men in the driveway a day earlier. "I didn't think that much about it," she says, until Louie went missing. "The next day, I said, 'Wait a minute.'"

Louie is neutered and was raised with three other dogs. One of the dogs, arriving home without Louie, seemed "very nervous," says Wangensteen.

Her worst fear is that Louie may have been kidnapped to be used as a bait animal to train pit bulls.

The SPCA's Laura Sharp is reassuring on that point– at least for Labrador owners. "They don't usually use Labs because they're too big," she explains. "A Lab would do too much damage. They usually use cats or smaller dogs like terriers."

Michael Bullock doesn't buy into the conspiracy theory, but he thinks it's very odd that his black Lab, Luna, would so totally disappear. He'd taken the one-and-a-half-year-old Luna and her littermate, a yellow Lab, for a walk around noon on February 10. Because the invisible fence people were coming to adjust the dogs' collars, he'd taken them off.

The yellow Lab returned about three hours later. "She was going nuts," says Bullock. "She was barking like crazy, like something had gone wrong."

Bullock lives near the Ivy Landfill, where there's plenty of land for a dog to roam. He's distributed around 1,000 flyers and received word of Lab sightings, but none have been of Luna.

"She could have easily been disoriented or come across other Labs," Bullock says. "I have this sneaking suspicion Louie and Luna are having a little vacation."

His worst fear is that she's hurt and in the woods. "She's my baby girl, like my daughter," he says. "I've been pretty distraught."

Laura Sharp sees nothing nefarious about all the missing black Labs. "It's the most common dog breed," she points out, and black is the dominant Labrador color.

"What is strange is all these responsible owners actively looking for their dogs," she adds.

"Often a friendly dog shows up at someone's house, and they'll keep it because they don't want to take it to the shelter– even though that's why we're here, to reunite dogs with their owners," says Sharp.

She offers suggestions to humans who've lost their dogs. Of course a pet should always have a tag with a phone number on it, but Sharp admits that even she's had a dog slip out of its collar.

Because dogs can wander 10 miles, Sharp says to post flyers in a far wider radius than you'd think. She also suggests talking to mail carriers. "They're very cognizant of dogs. They see everything," she says.

Check the shelter every three to four days, "like clockwork," she says. And if you find a dog, take it to the shelter in the county where you found it. "If you lost your wallet in Wal-Mart, are you going to look for it at the Wal-Mart in the next county?" she asks.

And the SPCA encourages owners to neuter their pets. "People who steal dogs don't steal altered animals," says Sharp. "They're useless to them."

As for the likelihood of theft, Sharp says in her 3-1/2 years working at the Charlottesville shelter, she's never seen a proven case, but concedes, "It's hard to prove."

Albemarle animal control officer Sharon Tate says it's extremely common for lost-dog owners to jump to the conclusion their dog was stolen. "They say, my dog was taken for medical research or to fight pit bulls," she says.

(And no, the now-suspended Life Saving Techniques Lab at UVA med school, which was recently in the news for using live dogs for medical training, did not buy its dogs off the street. The animals were purchased from a company called Covance in Princeton, New Jersey, according to UVA spokeswoman Marguerite Beck.)

Tate describes the typical lost dog as not neutered or spayed and having no collar or tags. "In the springtime with females coming into heat, they can smell a female for miles," says Tate. "Love is in the air." And even neutered males find that hard to resist.

Dog theft may be rare, but tell that to Chris Dougherty. She's posted at $1,500 reward for the return of her English bulldog, Gordon.

She returned to her Cismont home on February 8 to find a door open and Gordon nowhere to be found. "I figured he was asleep, because that's what he does," she says.

From her 1,800 flyers and radio and newspaper ads, she's gotten lots of calls from well wishers, those with horror stories, and those who claim to have seen Gordon in circumstances she can't imagine, such as running with a pack of dogs. "If he had a choice of sitting on the sofa or following stray dogs," says Dougherty, "he'd be sitting on the sofa."

She's convinced he's been stolen: "You can't see my house from the road, and we've had a lot of construction work done over the past year. And I've had a lot of people say they want my dog," she says.

That's why she's offering a $1,500 reward, "so if somebody wanted a bulldog, they could go buy their own damn dog."

A rash of missing Labs has left a string of brokenhearted families.