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Finding Athena: Community rallies together to bring missing dog home

People by: Joanne Kountourakis, February 28, 2022

Randall Block with Athena. Photo courtesy of Randall Block.

A five-week-long search for a missing dog ended this past Thursday evening, when Athena, a rescue from Texas whose photograph on fliers dotted neighborhoods throughout East Northport and Commack, was found and reunited with her owner in the woods just off the Sunken Meadow Parkway. It was an emotional homecoming following weeks of harsh winter weather, maps of false and confirmed sightings, and the persistent teamwork of an entire community, said Teddy Henn of Long Island Lost Dog Search and Rescue.

Athena had just moved from Commack to East Northport with her owner, Randall Block, when she found her way out the front door on Saturday, January 22. A generally skittish dog “afraid of everything,” Athena was adopted from Little Shelter in Huntington by Randall when she was six months old. She enjoys a special bond with Randall, but takes her time in trusting other humans, he said. After learning about Long Island Lost Dog Search and Rescue on social media, Randall quickly reached out to Teddy and the nonprofit’s other members, including Lynn Fodale and Charmaine DeRosa, volunteers integral to Athena’s rescue, said Randall.

Teddy and his search dog, a long-haired dachshund named Winston, immediately began to look for Athena.

They went on a two-mile trek around East Northport, from Fifth Avenue to Pulaski and Larkfield Roads, where Winston eventually lost scent. Teddy thinks well-intentioned passersby chased a scared Athena down Fifth Avenue and toward Commack, quite a far distance away.

“We didn’t even know where to start from there,” said Teddy, who worked full days through rain, wind and snow storms to try and track Athena. With a scent trail wiped out by the weather, Teddy had to resort to other tactics: he looked for tracks, used drone surveillance, set up feeding stations with cameras and put out a call for neighbors to check their own cameras as Athena would likely be out at night when less people and cars were around. Community members flooded the area with fliers of the missing dog.

This flier that made community members aware of missing dog Athena became a familiar sight in Commack and East Northport, as well as on social media.

Teddy also searched the area’s train tracks, gas easements, and industrial areas by foot, going house to house until a homeowner said she had just seen a dog in her backyard the night before. When Teddy went into the backyard, he could see paw prints in the snow running along the property. A few minutes later, Athena ran out from under the deck, where she was likely taking shelter from the two feet of snow.

Teddy set up a feeding station and humane trap on the property but Athena never returned. Almost three weeks would pass before Teddy saw Athena again.

How one search and rescue led to hundreds more
Described by Randall as a “really good-hearted man, always trying to do the best he can for the animals,” Teddy became involved with search and rescue efforts after suffering a loss of his own. “When my dog died, I was just brokenhearted, completely distraught over it,” he said. During a long grieving period, Teddy saw an alert about a dog that looked just like his, lost a few miles away.

“I thought ‘Let me go help find this one pet, he looks just like my Ginger,’” Teddy said. He found that dog at 12:30am, in the rain. “And then it went on from there. I swore I would never get another dog because I couldn’t handle the pain when you lose them. But I could help save them.”

So Teddy went on a few cases and began finding dogs. He took up trapping, and set his sights on a tracking dog. He learned about Kat Albrecht, a former police bloodhound handler, crime scene investigator, search-and-rescue manager, and police officer turned investigative pet detective. The founder of Missing Animal Response Network (MARN), Kat is a pioneer in the best applications of search dogs for lost pet investigations.

Teddy attended Kat’s boot camps and took her classes. When he was intent on getting a bloodhound, Kat suggested Teddy start with a dog he had helped find and rescue a few years earlier, a timid dachshund pup left for dead with ten others in a cemetery in upstate New York. Brought back to Long Island by a concerned passerby who had found him on the road, the pup ran out of the car and into the woods immediately upon arriving in East Patchogue. A search party led by Teddy eventually located and trapped him. He was covered in ticks and scabs. After a visit to the animal hospital, Teddy took the dog to his house, and began gaining his confidence and trust. Once he had his first bath, the dachshund felt at home.

“I pulled him out of the tub, and he just put his paws around me and put his head up against my neck and was just hugging me,” said Teddy. “That was it.” When the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) informed Teddy that the dog would be put in a shelter upon his return upstate, Teddy adopted him. That dog, now named Winston, attended tracking courses with Teddy for 14 months, learning from trainers including Kat Albrecht how to own, read and be a search dog.

“He spent the first seven months of his life scared to death, lost in the woods,” Teddy said. “Since then his life has been dedicated to finding lost dogs. Because he has been through it.” In his five years with Long Island Lost Dog Search and Rescue, Teddy – many times with Winston’s help – has found and reunited over 300 lost pets with their owners.

“She has to smell you…”A sighting near the Sunken Meadow Parkway, in a wooded area where people often walk their dogs, this past Wednesday, February 23, brought Teddy his latest rescue in Athena. There he met Randall, and together they began to stagger four feeding stations on the east and west sides of the parkway, in the woods – an uncertain move with so many dogs and other wildlife visiting. While they were setting up the third station, Teddy started receiving alerts from the first station. A half an hour after they set it up, Athena was there eating.

“She found it right after we set it up. That’s the hardest part of trapping. It’s trying to get a bowl of food in front of the lost dog,” he said. “Once they find the food though, we’re golden. They’re going to keep coming back. And that’s going to lead to the capture.”

Randall and Teddy snuck back toward the first station and set a trap up, added some strongly scented food (Teddy called it “rotisserie BBQ”) but had no other sightings, all night, or the following day.

Describing the situation as critical – Teddy knew Athena was somewhere in the woods and didn’t want her to get spooked into running onto the parkway – Randall received the help of the Town of Smithtown’s Highway Department, who blocked off access to the section of easement trails Athena was suspected to be in. Together Randall and Teddy waited all day Thursday for Athena to return. By 430pm, Randall had to leave for Kings Park, where he works as a naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist. At 5:50pm, he received a text from a mother and daughter whose dog spotted Athena laying in the woods, on the Sunken Meadow side of the fence. The daughter stayed to keep an eye on Athena from a distance while her mom met Teddy, and Randall hurried back from work.

Once on site, Randall walked through the woods, pointing his phone flashlight toward the tree Athena was spotted by. “And then I saw her there,” he said. “It was really her, she was sitting there. I’ve been walking around woods for a month saying her name as if she’s there, and now she was really there.”

Curious, but still not certain who was calling her name, Athena remained hesitant. Following Teddy’s advice, Randall got close, and let Athena smell his hat. A skittish dog in survival mode does not have the time to recognize its owners, said Teddy. “Their natural animal instinct is to run,” he added. “They must smell you to recognize you.” If anyone had any chance of getting Athena without trapping her, it was Randall, said Teddy. “She has to smell you.”

With Randall’s scent now close by, Athena approached the fence, stuck her nose through it and smelled Randall’s hand. “And then she started wagging her tail and dancing around,” he said. It took a few minutes to really sink in, said Randall, but both dog and owner felt the ultimate relief as Randall hopped the fence and was able to pick Athena up and transport her to safety.

After 24 hours at Commack Veterinary Emergency Group, where she received treatment for dehydration and malnutrition, Athena went home with Randall. She has lost significant weight but according to Randall, is doing well at home, and is back to consuming her full caloric intake spread out into four feedings a day, instead of two. She is a little lethargic, but so very happy to be home, he said. Randall expressed his gratitude in a Facebook post, thanking the community members and volunteers “who spent long hours every day and night for the last five weeks helping me find my baby.”

“It really was like a miracle how it happened at the end,” he said. He knew Athena was scared of most things, including people, a trait that prevented her from getting rescued earlier. The day she was found, said Randall, she didn’t run when confronted with people in the distance. “She was running from everyone the whole time. That last day, she was just done,” he said. Athena will celebrate her third birthday on March 15, at home.

Long Island Lost Dog Search and Rescue is a not-for-profit 501(c)3, working solely on donations and requesting no payment for any of their search-and-rescue missions. Donations are accepted here: www.paypal.com/donate?hosted_button_id=68TUUB79BXT7

Teddy Henn with his tracking dog, Winston. Photo courtesy Teddy Henn.

Athena near the deck she found shelter under after a heavy snowstorm hit the area. Photo courtesy Teddy Henn.

Randall Block and his girlfriend Tara Bencivenga moments after they were reunited with Athena. Photo courtesy of Teddy Henn.