CARTHAGE — Although Stella is part-collie, she has yet to make like Lassie since her disappearance on April 28 and come home.
Anna Runge and her daughter Angelica Runge, however, have not been just waiting and hoping for Stella’s return. They’ve been consulting the specialists and doing the work to get her back.
Matt Osinski is a Baldwinsville-based contractor by trade, but his passion for dogs, some in-depth research and an innate ability to anticipate their moves have allowed him to recover about 16 out of 18 lost dogs he has been asked to locate since January.
“I just feel like if I have the ability I have the responsibility to help, so I kind of just kept doing it and help anyone when I can,” he said.
The day Stella went missing, she had sneaked out the door of the house with another of the Runge family’s dogs, Bruno, who is the leader of the pack, which includes Stella and her brother from the same litter, Buddy. Bruno came back but Stella did not.
After a search the next morning, Mrs. and Miss Runge started putting up flyers and reaching out to Jefferson County Dog Control, Countryside veterinarians, and the local community on Facebook. The community reached back.
One stranger designed a flyer with an eye-catching yellow background and another stranger in Black River connected Mrs. Runge with Mr. Osinski, who had helped her get her dog back earlier in the year.
From Mr. Osinski’s perspective, the Runges have taken the right steps from the start. They started looking for Stella as soon as possible without a large group, put up eye-catching flyers, reached out on social media, and they have been patient even after two weeks without anyone reporting they had seen her.
Mr. Osinski said there’s a good reason for that because when a dog leaves its owner, it will go into “survival mode” at some point and after that happens, there are some behavioral patterns that happen regardless of breed.
“Usually after they go through that first night by themselves, they will switch to survival mode, although it may happen sooner for some. It depends on how they’ve been living at home.”
And once they are in that mode, dogs may not respond to their owner’s call. They are back in touch with their wild side, while their domestic traits temporarily go somewhat dormant he said. They often see humans as a predator at this point and so are more likely to run than respond to a call.
“It’s important not to get groups of people trudging through the woods and yelling their names because if they’re on the edge of that survival mode, that’s going to push them into it and they’ll be gone,” he said.
But at first, the owners stand the best chance of getting a response, so they should act quickly.
Every day since she has been gone, the Runges have gone to look for Stella, tramping through acres of property behind their house. A friend of the family even brought his drone over to get footage over the swamp to see if she could be seen.
Then on May 11, a person in West Carthage contacted Mrs. Runge and said she had seen a dog she believes to be Stella on Bridge Street near the intersection with Barr Street, almost four miles as the crow flies — or as the dog walks — from her home on State Route 126 about halfway between Champion and Carthage,
Mrs. Runge only believed it was a true sighting when the person described Stella in adjectives the family would often use for her, too.
On Thursday, a second person saw Stella, this time behind Jreck Subs in Carthage.
Mr. Osinski said dogs will usually follow trails or railroad tracks and stay near water instinctually, so when he helps people, he first looks for those geographical characteristics.
In both Stella sightings, rails, trails and water along with food — the other motivator for a dog in survival mode — have been nearby, although there haven’t been enough sightings of the dog to establish patterns.
As recommended by Mr. Osinski, the Runges have set up food stations and cameras in three locations near the first sighting and are working on a fourth near the trail and tracks by the second sighting.
The trick is, with only two sightings, the Runges aren’t yet sure which direction Stella is heading.
“It’s not about where they’re going, it’s about where they’ve been,” he said, noting that dogs usually return to the same spots, eventually forming circles marked by stops in the same spots.
If the dog doesn’t run or tries to approach, it’s better to sit on the ground and avoid eye contact, he says, but usually it’s just better to take a picture and immediately contact the owner or the dog catcher and not approach the dog to avoid spooking it.
“Whatever you think you should do, you need to do the opposite,” Mr. Osinski said.
The process takes a couple of weeks normally, he said, but there are a lot of variables.
“You can’t rush it. You’ve got to go through the process and the dog is going to do what’s best for the dog,” Mr. Osinski said, “He or she is going to tell us what’s best.”
With Stella, and other dogs who are too far away for him to do all of the legwork himself, Mr. Osinski guides owners through the process, and they put all of the pieces in place so he knows the best locations for the traps he has custom-made to capture the dogs while causing no harm.
For the Runges, Stella can’t be found soon enough, but hope has been renewed with the two new sightings and Mr. Osinski’s guidance.
“I trained her for the last year and a half to be my support dog,” said 17-year-old Angelica Runge. “High school has really treated me roughly and she has really helped. She is me, but as a dog. I love her to death.”
Anyone with information about Stella can contact Mrs. Runge at 315-783-7378.