There's no need to ask Sue O'Brien how she felt. Anyone who's ever loved a dog can imagine.
On Sept. 11, O'Brien's 5-year-old field spaniel, Wynn, escaped from the county's Yahara Heights dog park on Madison's north side, either through a hole in the fence or the gate in front. O'Brien was not present; Wynn was at the park with his doggie daycare providers.
"They saw him on the other side of the fence," relates O'Brien, who works as a legal secretary in the Madison City Attorney's Office. "They tried to catch him. But he thought they were playing a game." Wynn, who O'Brien has had since he was a puppy, bounded across Hwy. 113 and disappeared.
O'Brien, aided by her cousin, Lori Rhodes, put up signs around the neighborhood - about 80 in all - with Wynn's picture and the world's two saddest words: "Lost dog." They also printed 600-800 flyers, many distributed door-to-door. And email alerts reached thousands.
Calls came in. People said they nearly hit Wynn running across 113. He was spotted at J.J.'s Top of the Swamp. Wynn was even in one caller's garage, but got away.
As the days passed, O'Brien and Rhodes expanded the search and sign perimeter, all the way to Waunakee. On Friday, Sept. 19, after Wynn was spotted on Veith Avenue, a posse was organized. That Saturday, a team of 15 people scoured the neighborhood, from one end to the other, beginning at 8 a.m. They did it again at 5 p.m.
It proved to be a no Wynn situation.
On Sunday, Sept. 21, the search effort planned a day of rest. But O'Brien "couldn't stand that." She went to Troy Gardens, where Dane County animal control had placed a dog trap. She could see it was closed as she approached and thought it was a skunk. As she got closer, Wynn started crying.
His fur was filled with burrs and prickers, and he smelled terrible. He had lost 10 pounds, down to 37. But he's since rebounded, as dogs do.
O'Brien, a lifelong north-sider, is touched by the concern her neighbors showed. She taped "Found" markers on the signs, and people were delighted. "What a wonderful neighborhood," she says.
But O'Brien is still hoping for one more thing - that Dane County makes the Yahara Heights dog park more secure. She says it took repeated calls to get the county to mend the hole in the fence, and she thinks the entrance should have a double-gate system, like other dog parks.
Darren Marsh, the county's parks director, says dogs in off-leash areas must be under voice control at all times. One park, Indian Lake, has no fence. Others, including Yahara Heights, have "natural barriers" like waterways that dogs can penetrate. Some dogs can leap the standard 47-inch fences; others get through holes in the ground or fence.
According to Marsh, county park staff initially couldn't locate the hole in the fence reported at Yahara Heights, but did find and fix it on Sept. 17. He says his department will be looking at possible improvements in the gate system, but time and budgetary constraints make it "something we have to plan for."
O'Brien and Wynn are just glad to be reunited. "He's not leaving my side," she says.