They say you have to sing to them. Calling their name, whistling—all our known approaches lose their power when a dog runs away. Alone in the woods or sprinting along dusty highways, a lost dog goes into a survival mode, reverting to their primal instincts: food, water, shelter. So, for five weeks, walking through the woods each night, he sang.
It happened on Sept. 21, the day of the Georgia-Notre Dame game, with people flooding into Athens by the hundreds of thousands. The mood downtown was tantamount to a coastal strip battening down for a hurricane, and according to Airbnb, the average cost for housing in Athens that weekend was $781 per night.
Christian DeRoeck, a local musician (Deep State, Blunt Bangs, Little Gold) had successfully rented out his Odd Street home once before using Airbnb and decided to use the game day weekend to try it a second time. He made plans to leave his 11-month-old puppy, a gangly blue heeler mix named Coach, with a friend.
“He had never stayed away from home before,” said DeRoeck, still pained. It is easy to understand his anguish. Only 20 minutes after dropping Coach off, the puppy bolted in an anxious panic, slipping from his collar and disappearing into the woods.
In the first 24 hours after a dog is lost, there’s about a 90% chance of a safe return. After that first day, those odds plummett to about 55%. DeRoeck and his partner, Allison Lamb, a social worker, spent that entire first day searching for Coach, combing the subdivisions and sprawling woods off Freeman Drive and coming up empty-handed.
“I had to work at Flicker that night, and it was just awful,” recalls DeRoeck. In the midst of an overwhelming game day rush, he found himself retreating from the bar to cry, only to find his roommate and co-worker, Barrett Smith, already in tears over Coach.
“It was especially terrifying losing him on that particular day,” DeRoeck said, referencing the record number of out-of-towners. “I just thought, he could be halfway to Indiana by now if someone scooped him up.”
Despite fearing the worst, DeRoeck continued to act under the assumption that Coach was still somewhere near where he went missing. Hundreds of flyers were hung, every shelter was called, and a plea was posted to Facebook and shared 67 times. For a week, he and Lamb searched every day for hours at a time. “It became our routine,” said Lamb. “Look for Coach, eat dinner, look for Coach.”
Any time they weren’t working, the pair was knocking on doors, scouring the woods alone and with friends. The community support was overwhelming. “One night, we were out hanging flyers, and a truck pulls up beside us,” DeRoeck recalls, “And it’s Seth Martin from Georgia Dish Boys. He was out looking for Coach, too. I just immediately started crying when he told us that.”
“People were Venmoing Christian money for dinner just to make sure he was still eating,” adds Lamb.
Despite all their efforts, their relentlessness didn’t seem to be paying off. After a week, no one had called the number on the flyers or seen any sign of Coach. Sleepless and anxious, DeRoeck would search through the night.
“He was getting up at, like, two in the morning and going out in the woods,” says Lamb.
She recalls tenderly that the fence was never latched that month. DeRoeck always left it cracked, just in case.
It had been seven days.
“You ain’t gonna find him,” a woman yelled, growing tired of seeing the couple walking the streets of her neighborhood. But there were more doors to knock on.
It was then, while canvassing after a week of rejection, that two women saw the flyer and said yes, they knew the dog. They had seen him get picked up on the side of the road by three young guys in a white pick up truck. Finally, a lead. “That’s when I really started feeling like a pet detective,” DeRoeck laughs.
They started targeting every house with a white truck in the driveway, leaving flyers on the windshields. It finally felt like progress was being made. If nothing else, someone had seen Coach alive. That alone felt astonishing.
Then, weeks passed. The tip about the boys in the white truck led nowhere, and DeRoeck became convinced that if Coach was out there, he had been inadvertently kidnapped. He was starting to get paranoid. “I would hear a bark from inside a house and think, That could be him,” DeRoeck says. “I was going crazy.”
Then, after an entire month of radio silence, the phone rang. A construction worker had seen a scrawny little dog come by his worksite two mornings in a row—a dog that looked strikingly similar to the one on DeRoeck’s flyer.
“I was out there every day that week,” DeRoeck says. “I had the cops called on me twice by the property owners, so I knew I was taking a big risk every time I went back, but I didn’t care.”
The risk paid off: It was there that he finally saw Coach. “He was about 30 yards away, and he saw me, and I just froze. At that point, we had no idea if the dog visiting the construction site was Coach or not, and I was finally able to confirm that it was actually him.”
DeRoeck crouched low to the ground and, as gently as he could, began to sing. But the snapping of a branch pierced the moment, and Coach bolted away. It was back to their routine—searches conducted under cover of night, frantic drives to the construction site when Clay, their contact, would call saying he just saw Coach. Somehow, they always just missed him.
Then, on a sunny Saturday, Smith decided he would ride his bike by there one more time, just in case. In what feels like one in a series of small miracles, Coach was there. Smith squatted down by the dumpsters where Coach was rooting, cautious, hopeful. He sang: “My Coach he lies over the ocean/ My Coach he lies over the sea.”
He approached. Reached out. And suddenly, Coach was in his arms.
“FIVE WEEKS TO THE DAY,” DeRoeck posted to Facebook with a teary-eyed photo of Coach’s face, his tongue in mid-lick, leaning against his own. “I’m losing my shit!!!”
503 Likes, 162 Comments—many in shock and disbelief. “I will watch the Lifetime movie based on this,” says one.
“It’s just so surreal,” DeRoeke says, petting Coach’s head.
As I spoke to DeRoeck and Lamb on his Odd Street porch, Coach kept coming to my side, his brown eyes peering up at me, hopeful for a treat. His big head and gangly body have the sweet awkwardness of a baby horse, all limbs and playful energy. Free to wander the yard as we talk, he never strays too far from where we sit. He’s just turned 1 year old.
Where do you go from here, in the afterglow of the miraculous? “We just invented a game called Dogsketball,” DeRoeck says.
He beams. So does Coach.
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