Four-Legged Miracles: Heartwarming Tales of Lost Dogs

By Brad Steiger and Sherry Hansen Steiger. St. Martin’s Griffin. $14.99.
When you think of how much trouble many of us would be in without a GPS unit or Rand McNally map, you have to wonder how dogs find their way home over several thousand miles of challenging terrain or after several years of separation.

If only they could talk. One story after another here leaves the reader in awe in this heartwarming chronicle epitomizing the human-animal bond at its best.

With their built-in compass of perseverance and love, dogs battle the elements in their deep-rooted determination to return home after being freaked by their new surroundings, alone against the wilderness and prey animals, falling overboard on a boating outing, chased by nature’s ravages, dognapped, etc.

In the Introduction, the authors note that in 2011 an estimated 4 million dogs were lost or misplaced and only 600,000 were reclaimed at animal shelters nationwide. That number could be boosted simply by owners making certain their companions are licensed and microchipped, which prove key to reuniting many subjects with their emotionally-spent owners, whether they’re three or 3,000 miles apart.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, founder of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University, writes in an article, “The Homing Behavior in Dogs and Cats,” that in their evolution with humans, the dog who could find his way home would be the dog most likely to survive and pass his genes to his descendants. Like birds, the species most known for its ability to navigate vast distances, dogs may bring particular talents to bear on finding their way home, such as mental map making; surveillance of the terrain; sense of smell; hearing; magnetic fields; and the position of the sun.

While dogs’ ability to find their way back into the family circle is the laser-like focus here, owners’ emotional devastation over the loss and their never-ending commitment to bring their missing family member home is a central tenet of all accounts, too.

Whether it’s Petunia, a 3-year-old pit bull living on a family farm in Fredricksburg, Va., that disappeared in 2003 and was found in Yuba County, Calif., eight years later, or J.J., a male Labrador retriever-German shepherd mix, that was left behind in New Orleans by an owner fleeing Hurricane Katrina and reunited with him four years later in the midst of litigation with its new California adopters, “Miracles” is a colorful mosaic of true grit with a blend of frustration and fascination.