When their dog disappeared four years ago, the Willey family of Owings Mills searched and searched. They combed their neighborhood, they called everyone they could think of and then they called them again. For months.
But eventually they gave up. And then they moved -- and then moved again.
The dog, a bushy Collie named Dodger, had been the family dog for years. And for years before that, the big dog with honey-colored spots had belonged to someone else. William Douglas Willey's ex-wife brought him home one day after his other owner died. It was supposed to be on a trial basis. But as Willey says, "The test never ended."
They family was living in Washington State then. And when the Willeys and their three boys moved to Owings Mills, Dodger, of course, came, too. When the dog disappeared one day, about four years ago, no one hurt more than Willey's eldest, Alex, who was about 14 at the time. He had gotten close to the dog, taking him on long walks through Baltimore.
Willey's youngest, Christian, was only 7, too young to really realize what had happened.
Since Dodger was microchipped, Willey thought they had a good chance of finding him. But when they didn't, the family went on with their lives.
But on Dec. 27, someone found an older Collie on Honeysuckle Lane in Severna Park. The good Samaratin brought the dog to Anne Arundel County Animal Control.
Officials discovered the dog, the worse for wear with missing teeth and scratches, had a microchip, but the phone number didn't work. The microchip company, however, was able to give them an alternate number on file -- a member of the Willey family living in Virginia -- the mother of Willey's ex-wife. It turns out that the Willeys had moved to North Carolina.
They were about to get one of the most surprising calls of their life.
"It's kind of unbelievable really," Willey, reached in Durham, told The Sun. "It's been four years. It was like, really? Really? They found him?"
A day later, Willey got in the car in the wee hours of the morning with two of his three sons. They drove the nearly six hours to Maryland, walked into the Anne Arundel animal shelter, and found themselves face to face with an older, thinner, grayer version of their Dodger.
Willey figures he must about 12 now, pretty old for a bigger dog.
When the shelter told him on the phone that Dodger was in bad shape -- that he might even be blind, as good as it felt to find him, that part felt like a punch in the gut.
But, it turns, out, it wasn't so bad.
Dodger's bushy fur was gone. Someone had given him a bumpy shave job. His bottom teeth were gone. He had scratches on his face. And when Willey ran his hands down the dog's side, he could feel the ribs and hip bones.
But that was his dog. That was unmistakable.
And he was pretty sure Dodger -- who could see just fine -- knew it, too.
"I think there was a small glimmer," Willey says. "A little recognition."
Dodger pulled on his leash, as if he couldn't get out of the shelter fast enough. And when Willey motioned to the back of his pickup, where an oversize kennel was waiting, Dodger leapt right in, like a dog half his age. The family, tired and happy, drove the six hours home.
It was warm that day and the family stopped a lot, feeding Dodger soft food that his teeth could handle and letting him pad around on the soft grass alongside rest stops.
In the days since he's been home, Dodger has been getting reacquainted with family life. Willey quickly built him a little house in the back yard, a big one made of wood -- roomy enough that his new little girl, who's just three, can get in there with the dog and play house.
Dodger treats her gently, happy to accept her snacks every time she says, "I think Dodger wants a cookie."
This summer, Willey, who works at a technician in Duke University hospital's cardiac unit, wants to add windows onto Dodger's little house, maybe give it some shingles like Snoopy's place.
"It's a work in progress," he says. "He seems to get along pretty well."