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Dog defies odds with safe return

Thursday, 06 July 2017. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Dog defies odds with safe return
Brianne, left, Andrew and Tonnia Watson are happy to be reunited with Buddy after the family pet was missing in the Waterton wild for two weeks. This was Buddy’s first return visit to the park after a week at home recovering from his ordeal.   Photo by Auralea Boldt

Dog defies odds with safe return

By Auralea Boldt

When the Watson family lost their dog in the wilderness of Waterton Lakes National Park, to have him return two weeks later, many told them it reminded them of the movie Homeward Bound.

Tonnia Watson and her husband, Andrew, had driven from Cardston for the day, and were hiking Rowe Lake Trail with their dog Buddy when they came upon a grizzly bear, two kilometres from the bottom of the trail.

In the confusion, they dropped Buddy’s leash, and he ran off. The bear ran off after him.

The couple followed Buddy’s tracks to the bottom of the trail. Though they called him repeatedly, walked up and down the trail, and waited at the bottom where they questioned other hikers, they were unable to find him.

Buddy, a lab and pit bull mix, was wearing a harness and shock collar and was dragging his leash at the time of his disappearance.

Tonnia says that while initially she was hopeful, it was hard not to imagine the worst.

When they got off the trail, they made a report with the park ranger. When Tonnia got home that night, she started a Facebook post with Buddy’s picture.

The post struck a chord with Waterton and dog lovers alike, and with others who knew what it was like to look for a missing pet. It ended up going viral, and was shared over 1,200 times on Facebook.

Tonnia and her husband have hiked in the park extensively, and had never encountered a bear before. They were doing everything right, including hiking with a dog, talking loudly and carrying bear spray.

They came around a corner and “almost literally ran into the bear,” Tonnia says. She was trying to remember to back up slowly, and Buddy started getting very excited.

The bear also became agitated.

She threw the bear spray to her husband, tripping over Buddy’s leash in the process.

She says she doesn’t remember letting go of Buddy’s leash — it all happened so quickly — but Buddy was gone, running down the hill.

Her husband used the bear spray, and the bear ran downhill also.

“Oh no, he’s going to get stuck and the bear’s going to kill him,” Tonnia thought at the time.

While they were forced to give up on Buddy for the moment, they came back to the park every day for a week to look for him.

When they returned three days later to hike Rowe Lake Trail again, they ran into another grizzly bear.

Tonnia says they had never encountered a bear at close range before these two encounters over the course of a few days.

Meanwhile, tips started pouring in over Facebook.

Someone thought they saw him at Waterton Lakes Lodge, another at Mountain View store. There were possible Buddy sightings as far away as Coaldale.

There was even another black dog lost and found in the park the same day, which initially they thought might have been Buddy.

“You don’t realize how many other dogs start to look like your dog,” Tonnia says.

At first, all the information made her feel very hopeful, but soon the family hit dead end after dead end.

A service called K-9 Recovery saw the post and made suggestions such as putting some of Buddy’s food at the bottom of the trailhead.

Waterton Lakes business Larkspur Coffee House tagged other local businesses so they would see, and hopefully share, the post.

“After the first week, the second week went by and nothing happened,” Tonnia says.

It became hard to not imagine the worst.

“Is he chasing other animals?” Tonnia wondered. “It’s such a huge area. Is he stuck? My concern was that he was going to starve to death or cougars or coyotes were going to get him.”

“It felt like we went through all the stages — denial, anger, bargaining — it was such a bizarre situation.”

For both emotional and logistical reasons, the family couldn’t continue coming back to the park every day. They knew the word was out, and many eyes were looking for Buddy.

The weekend of Father’s Day, they returned to look for their dog again, but the road to Rowe trailhead was closed due to construction. They ended up camping out Saturday night.

Buddy didn’t make it home in time for Father’s Day, as they had hoped. But, the following Monday morning, they got a message from one of the park wardens that Buddy had been found.

They tried not to get overly excited, in case it wasn’t him.

The dog had been found at Lineham trailhead, where he was sniffing around and jumped into the vehicle of two hikers when they opened the door. This information made the family hopeful, as Buddy has always loved car rides.

Andrew drove to the warden station and picked Buddy up, then took him directly to Tonnia’s workplace.

Buddy had no physical injuries or health issues, other than being extremely skinny when found. The Watsons were surprised to find him no longer wearing his harness.

When he got home, Buddy went straight for his bone and started chewing it.

“You could tell he was happy to be home,” Tonnia says.

Buddy had a big bath that evening, and Tonnia also updated the Facebook post.

“I wanted people to know he was found,” she says. “So many people cared, everyone that was following the post. I felt like they deserved to know.”

While Buddy has regained some weight and is doing very well, the Watsons feel he’s been a bit traumatized by the experience.

He’s had a few accidents since being back home, but they recognize he needs time and patience.

Tonnia did some reading on how to help dogs recover from these types of experiences, and they took care to ensure he was kept at home for the first week.

He’s also been sleeping on the bed, something that was a no-no before his disappearance.

Andrew works night shifts, and Tonnia says she feels much safer since Buddy’s been back.

“He’s a perfect fit for our family” she says. “There’s never going to be another dog like him.”

This is more than a second chance for Buddy, who was originally found wandering in the Cardston area. He was adopted locally, after efforts were made to find his owner. When his new family was no longer able to keep him, he was rehomed with the Watsons.

For now, his hiking days are over. The family is also consider microchipping him or fitting him with a GPS tracker.

Tonnia says that throughout the ordeal she kept wishing Buddy had been wearing something they could track him with.

The Watsons were amazed by how many people cared about Buddy and supported their efforts.

“It’s such long time to be gone in the mountains,” Tonnia says.

Read more in this week’s online edition here.
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From the July 5, 2017 print edition of Shootin’ the Breeze.
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