Dexter’s Story – A Newly Adopted Dog is Lost in Frigid Temperatures in Northern Wisconsin for 7 Nights

As told by Esther Maina, Lost Dogs of Wisconsin volunteer

Dexter, a shy and timid dog, was surrendered by his former owners. After four weeks in the shelter he was finally adopted. When they arrived home, before they could grab his leash to help him out of the car, he ran off. His timing couldn’t have been worse. We were in the middle of a deep freeze up here in Northern Wisconsin with nighttime temperatures dipping as low as -40 below. There was also a concern of him getting tangled up as he was dragging a leash.

The owners immediately notified the shelter who in turn posted an ‘urgent’ message to their followers to help find him. Dozens of people drove to the area to look for him. At one point he was spotted out in the middle of the frozen lake and a person chased him down with their snowmobile. They tried to outrun him thinking they could get him to run back to his new home. Instead, a very scared Dexter disappeared off the other side of the lake and wasn’t seen again the rest of the day. The owners diligently handed out flyers and the shelter brought a live trap to the home. The owners put out food and heated water.

The next day someone with a flyer alerted them that they had seen him on their street (about a mile away). But when they arrived to search, no Dexter. There were no sightings for nearly two days. Temperatures were subzero during the days and evenings. One of our LDOW volunteers who is experienced with trapping and luring in lost dogs volunteered to assist onsite to help find Dexter. On her way there the owners texted her that something had eaten the food in the trap. They did not have trail cams set up so we could not be sure it was Dexter but we were hopeful. She set up a wireless trail cam facing the trap and food station and placed four additional cams around the lake (that would need to be checked manually). She grilled bacon, sausage and hot dogs both at the trap location and in various locations around the lake and quietly left. Dexter spent a fourth night in the subzero temperatures and no further sightings.

That weekend the family had to leave for a couple of days because their daughter and friends were planning to stay at the cabin for their 12th annual ‘girls’ weekend’. Our volunteer and their daughter assured them to not worry as we’d all continue with the process. The next evening our volunteer arrived at the site to refresh the food (grilling) and to check the cams around the lake. The temps were -26 and we knew it was not likely a lost dog would venture out but we wanted to do all we could to continue to lure him to the trap. After she checked grilled and checked cams (no sightings) her brand new car refused to start! Roadside service was called but they couldn’t get to her until the next morning. She was stranded an hour away from home in subzero temperatures. She knocked on the cabin door and explained her situation to the ladies staying for the weekend and they warmly welcomed her with food, a bed and a brand-new toothbrush. Roadside arrived bright and early the next morning to get her back home. Tip: Leave car running if possible when checking trail cams in subzero temperatures! Dexter had now been out five nights out in subzero temperatures.

The next afternoon around 2PM the owner’s daughter and friends spotted Dexter in the trap eating the grilled goodies! Our volunteer also received images of him at the same time. The first thing we noticed was that his leash was chewed off! Given the location of the ‘chew’ we do believe he was caught up or wrapped around something restricting his movement.

Now that sightings had resumed and we could confirm he went into trap we could begin the trapping process. The trap door had been bungeed open and the back had been taken off creating a ‘tunnel’. This allowed him to enter through both sides of the trap. It’s a technique used to help get a dog comfortable going all the way in (and through). We still needed to make sure he would still go inside the trap with the back door replaced. We replaced the door and the food replenished and waited. No Dexter. That night temperatures dipped to -33 below. Our volunteer kept vigil on her trail cam during overnight hoping to see Dexter, no luck. Then finally at 8:30AM he arrived! He looked great and we were ecstatic that he survived the coldest night of the week and was still coming around for food. We had one more step and that was to try to confirm that he didn’t bump his head on the trap door while entering (it was being held up with a bungee cord so if he bumped it, it would not come down). If he bumped his head on the door there was a risk of it coming down on him allowing him to back out. Being a shy and timid dog if this occurred it would more than likely prevent him from entering the trap again setting us back days, weeks or even months. So while it was extremely cold, it was more important to be patient and get it right the first time. Dexter would need to spend a sixth cold night on his own before we could visually confirm he ‘ducked’ his way into the trap. The next day the owners arrived, refreshed the food and waited. Early afternoon they visually watched him enter the trap with no head bump, we were ready to set the trap!

Our volunteer immediately drove to the site to help with the trapping process but on the way there suggested the owners set the trap on their own so we did not miss an opportunity. They all sat inside the lake home watching through the massive windows waiting and waiting. No Dexter. They waited until nearly 10 pm but unfortunately had to bungee the door open and Dexter needed to spend yet another (seventh) night out in the subzero cold.

That night our volunteer woke up at 3AM and immediately checked her trail cam. There were nearly 80 images that were sent during the night. Dexter was laying in the trap! He had not moved from the same spot all night so she began to worry that he may be injured. She could also see the temperatures had dropped from -8 to -14 and then at 4:00AM to -26 degrees! She began texting the owners hoping they’d wake up and at 4:30AM they finally responded! She suggested they warm up the food (which included sardines) and set the trap. She knew if they ventured outside he’d run off but because he was comfortably laying in the trap she assumed he’d come right back to the smell of food. By 5:30AM the trap was set.

Hours passed but no Dexter. The owners remained calm and patient. They had confidence in the process and stayed inside to ensure the location remained quiet. Finally NINE hours later our volunteer began receiving images from her trail cam. The third image showed Dexter safely in the trap! Relieved she called the owners who were already on their way outside to carry the trap inside their home. They had watched the whole event take place from their window.

There were many lessons learned. First, never chase a scared and shy dog. While the people walking the area whistling and calling for him and the person on the snowmobile all had good intentions, it was terribly frightening for Dexter. This only caused him to run further away. Second never assume a dog dragging a leash will get tangled up and die. This was a nylon leash and Dexter was able to chew it off. Third never assume a dog will freeze to death. They are survivors and will find a safe place to hunker down out of the elements. Dexter had so many things working against him and many people assumed he’d never survive but his new owners stayed positive. They trusted the process and after seven nights during a polar vortex was safely trapped and now enjoying his new home with his new ‘sister’ Phoebe. Welcome home Dexter!

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