Little dog lost, then found using unique tactic

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Rocky, a toy poodle, was lost for three days in the mountains. His owners found him by placing a sweater with their scent on it on a trail near where he went missing.

Tony Alti and son Michael had lost their little dog, but then Michael, following the advice of an animal rescue agency, used a unique tactic to find the toy poodle, which survived three days in the mountains.

By Olivia Damavandi / Staff Writer

After a relentless two and a half day search, Tony Alti, owner of Colony House Liquors, and his son, Michael, were shocked to discover that their four-year-old white toy poodle, Rocky, had survived three frigid nights and the jaws of predation in the Santa Monica Mountains last month.

“I don’t know how he did it,” Tony said in a telephone interview. “This is a dog who’s used to eating at Gelson’s and drinking Fiji water.

“After three nights of cold, mountain lions, rattlesnakes and coyotes, I said, ‘Even a man can’t survive,'” he continued. “And don’t forget he’s a white poodle, it’s difficult for him to stay camouflaged.”

With dusk approaching and two miles left of their 11-mile hike along the Backbone Trail one Saturday last month, Michael asked his friend, Ray, to hold Rocky while he hurried to get their car. But, wanting to follow Michael, Rocky jumped from Ray’s arms and dashed quickly out of sight.

That night, a team of family, friends and their dogs helped search for Rocky until midnight. With no sign of the toy poodle, Michael and Tony started the five-hour hike again at 1 a.m., seeing only two rattlesnakes and hearing the howls of coyotes. Tony despaired of finding the little dog.

“We hiked 13 miles Saturday night, from 11:30 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” Tony said. “I had two special jackets for hiking and I was cold so I thought, ‘How can Rocky do it?'”

A glimmer of hope surfaced early the next morning when Michael, while standing on the edge of a small hill, spotted Rocky 50 feet below him. Though the dog ran out of sight again, the knowledge he was still alive added fuel to the search. But by the end of the day, people began to give up.

“Local rangers of the Santa Monica Mountains recreation area refused to help search for a lost dog, and a cop [who] pulled by at the time said, ‘We have murderers, mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes in this area, just give it up,'” Michael said in a telephone interview.

But the father and son persevered in their search.

“You have to follow your gut and tune out the negative comments that are unproductive and useless,” Michael said.

After searching all morning and afternoon on the third day after losing the dog, Michael set up a humane trap with chicken bait along the trail in the evening where they had hiked the Saturday before. He also decided to follow the advice of a rescue agency and leave his sweater in a little opening between some bushes, with the hope that the scent would draw the dog.

“I went to check on the trap and monitor the site again [the next morning], and there he was, lying on my sweater looking straight at me,” Michael said. “I didn’t want to scare him so I got on my knees, but he ran up and licked my face.

“Dogs like your smell, they’re comfortable with that,” he said, adding that the same rescue tactic had helped his friend find his dog a few months ago.

In spite of more than 35 tick bites, Rocky was physically healthy at the time of his rescue, Michael said. The dog is, however, now afraid to be by himself, especially in the dark.

“He’s physically attached and won’t leave your side,” Tony said. “He’s better, but I guess it’s going to take some time for him to get back to normal, if he ever does. Three nights in this cold darkness is scary for anybody.”

After hiking 55 miles in two and a half days, Michael said the experience has taught him to follow his instincts, and to “never give up and keep trying, no matter how bad a situation looks.”