That unmistakable howl still sends shivers down Bill Ballato’s spine.
It came from thousands of miles away, through a phone line – a voice the 47-year-old Colorado man hadn’t heard in years.
It was his beloved Bosco.
“I answered the phone, not expecting anything, and the first thing I heard was Bosco howling,” he tells The Dodo.
“He doesn’t have a bark or howl or growl. It’s kind of all three together. You hear it and it stands you up straight.”
It was the siren call of a dog who had been fending for himself, homeless and scared, for three long winters.
The beagle mix was 9 years old when he slipped out of his collar and vanished from Ballato’s home in Westerley, Rhode Island, in January 2014.
Almost immediately after that, the region was walloped with not one, but three massive snowstorms.
“That was the first time it actually entered my mind that I’m not getting this dog back,” Ballato recalls.
“At the same time, I know this dog. He’s a tough little guy.”
But Ballato, who had searched frantically for him on foot, by car and through social media, eventually moved to Lafayette, Colorado.
On March 2, “pet detective” Sheilah Graham got a Facebook message from a friend at Missing Dogs of Massachusetts. It had been Bosco’s third winter on the streets. His owner was losing hope. Could she help?
Graham, who is a staffer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security by day, plays down her role as a pet detective. It’s nothing she gets paid for.
“My payday comes seeing the lost pet back home with their family,” she says.
But her way with wayward animals is uncanny – she’s helped reunite more than 70 pets with their families.
“I place pins on a map to monitor movement,” she tells The Dodo. “I place cameras out to study the pup and his approach and I make adjustments. And I give MacGyver a good run for his money.”
She couldn’t resist Bosco’s challenge. Graham spent three hours on the phone with his owner, discussing “every detail, sighting, Bosco’s attitude, anything that could be helpful.”
A dog matching his description had been spotted around a bar in Westerley, often leaving the parking lot with food in his mouth.
Bosco was a skittish dog. He had been rescued from an abusive family. He wouldn’t give his trust easily.
The Graham Plan? A trail of steak, liver, pork, bacon cheeseburgers and french fries leading up to a cage.
It turns out, when it comes to food, Bosco can’t help himself. He followed the feast right into the trap.
“Out of all of the searches I have been involved in, this was the longest one lost, and the quickest one trapped,” Graham says.
Something about that bar kept him around. Probably the food. With most dog searches, the pup tends to lose weight. Bosco, on the other hand, was the first dog she found who actually gained weight during his ordeal.
“Most dog searches, the pup will lose weight as time goes on unless they find a good food source,” she says. “Well, Bosco was the total opposite of the spectrum.”
While Bosco was howling from his cage, Graham called Ballato in Lafayette. The dog’s voice rang out.
“Hey Bill, do you recognize this voice?”
Of course, he did.
“I always felt that he made it,” Ballato says. “Except for a couple of days after those blizzards.”
Indeed, Bosco was in remarkable health, save for a benign tumor that only appeared when he was at large. (There’s a fundraising campaign to help pay for his surgery.)
Now, it was just that prickly detail of getting Bosco into the loving arms of an owner who happened to be halfway across the country.
“In the heat of the moment I was like, ‘Let’s go get my dog!'” He says. “But I’m scheduled for an eleventh back surgery. I’d be paralyzed by Kansas.”
So Graham offered to go the extra mile and drive him. Or, the extra 2,000 miles from Rhode Island to Lafayette and back again.
But first, Bosco would need some time to transition from his nomadic existence to being someone’s dog again. He spent weeks at the Glocester Animal Shelter, warming up to humans and frequently exploding in those bursts of happy-dog energy known as zoomies. And, yes, dieting.
“I never had a dog be found needing a diet,” Graham says.
In the early morning hours of April 3, Graham and a couple of friends loaded Bosco into a rented minivan.
“We went through two snowstorms with whiteout conditions and heavy rains traveling west,” she recalls of the journey.
When they got to Ballato’s house in Lafayette 36 hours later, another kind of storm was waiting.
The house was crammed with TV crews and reporters, all eager to capture this epic reunion.
Ballato was a little anxious about how Bosco might react to it all.
“I didn’t know what he was going to do,” he says. “The first couple of minutes, with everyone around and the cameras, he was like, ‘OK, who the hell is this guy?'”
Then Ballato said a simple word to his old friend:
“From that point, it turned around,” he says. “Obviously, it was familiar and it was pleasing to him.”
And, after 764 days on his own, Bosco was finally home – little worse for his travels save for a small tumor which only recently appeared on his back.
Ultimately, the road to this reunion was paved with bacon cheeseburgers.