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Her dog went missing in the middle of the pandemic — and a neighborhood of strangers found a mission

Someday, when scholars attempt to convey the historical undulations of the year 2020, they will write about pestilence, mass death, catastrophic job losses, state violence, oceans of protesters flooding city streets in the name of racial justice and a presidential election, held during a pandemic, with no less than America’s soul in the balance.

They will not write about Finn the dog, though maybe they should.

His story unfolded well apart from the hospitals and city streets where the nation’s major dramas have been taking place. But the canine’s tale speaks to the tendencies of the human heart: our eagerness to rally around a common purpose, and our hope of recovering something loved and lost.

So today, in this space, we’ll choose Finn. Or perhaps he chose us and is, right now, choosing you. Dogs have a way of knowing when we need them.

Finn’s story starts in the woods of Northwest Washington. But really it starts almost three years earlier when, as an 8-week-old Bernese Mountain Dog puppy, Finn landed at a shelter, left there by a human who had bought him from a breeder only a week earlier.

The shelter called Debi Blaney. She’d been fostering dogs for a few months since her own Bernese Mountain Dog died young, at age 5, from cancer. Blaney wasn’t sure if she was ready to give her heart to another animal, but after 24 hours with Finn she knew the fluffy puppy with velvety ears and a black dot on his white nuzzle wasn’t going anywhere. It was as if the universe had dropped him in her lap.

Finn was skittish and shy around strangers, yet deeply attached to those he trusted — clingy, even. He clung to Blaney — through a divorce and a move to McLean Gardens, an apartment community in an upscale neighborhood near Washington National Cathedral. Finn’s hunger for affection was insatiable; whenever two humans hugged, he would nudge between them to get a piece of the action.

So it went until three months ago, when the coronavirus nudged all of the humans apart indefinitely. The threat of contagion sent Blaney and everyone else into socially distanced limbo. Reliable things disappeared. People were losing family, losing their jobs, losing their bearings.

And then, one day, Finn was gone, too.

On May 3, a Sunday, Blaney clipped a leash to Finn’s collar, near his orange name tag, and they headed out the door.

When the pandemic hit, Blaney, an educational programming manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was ordered to work from home. Which was great for Finn (more snuggles) but hard on his human (endless screen-staring). They would make escapes to Glover-Archbold Park, by their new home, and to the home of Blaney’s boyfriend, Paul Basola, who lives in a neighboring apartment building and had come to love them both.

That’s where Blaney and Finn were headed Sunday evening. Blaney decided they’d go the long way, through the woods, for a dose of nature and exercise. Once they were on the trail, she unclipped his leash. Finn’s low tolerance for separation was something of a benign mystery; Blaney sometimes wondered if he had been weaned too early. The upside was that she trusted him off-leash. Finn always kept Blaney in sight and if she got too far ahead, “he’d come galloping.”

But a few minutes into their walk, she looked around and didn’t see him.

She called his name.

. . . Nothing.

She telephoned Basola, who came out to help look. Basola, who met Blaney two years ago, had often marveled at Finn’s intuition. “He can sense from rooms away and come to you at the right time,” he told The Washington Post. “It’s really amusing how attuned he is to human emotions.”

But Finn wasn’t coming. Could he tell his human parents were worried? Could he hear them at all?

Keeping the requisite six feet of social distance, the pair asked everyone they encountered if they’d seen a loose dog. No one had, but several people offered to help look. One of them was David Magee, a teacher at the nearby Horace Mann Elementary, who was out walking with his wife. Magee and Blaney were neighbors, though they’d never met.

“It was a pretty brief interaction, but she was definitely worried,” Magee says. He gave Blaney his phone number and asked her to send a photo of Finn.

After two hours of searching, the skies darkened. The winds began to gust and torrential rain beat down against the city. Blaney knew it was useless to keep calling out for her companion over the howling of the storm.

Lights blinked on in the homes of people who lived next door but had made a habit of avoiding each other. Humanity was in survival mode.

Did her dog know how to survive, out there on his own?

Blaney wasn’t sure. Basola led her home as her dread began to swell.

David Magee got home that night and texted Blaney for an update.

“I feel like dogs are immediately found when they run off leash like that,” he says. “And that’s not what happened.”

The wind beat against his windows as the teacher thought about the lost dog and his worried owner. He wanted to help. So the next morning he wrote an email to his second-grade students at Horace Mann.

“Hello Woodpecker Families,” Magee wrote, addressing his students by their chosen class name. “If you are going outside today – I could use your help.”

He forwarded them Blaney’s picture of Finn, along with a map of the area. “It occurred to me,” he says, “that with 22 students, that’s 44 eyeballs that could be looking for this dog, too.”

Later that morning he took a break from work to walk in the woods where Finn went missing. He didn’t see the dog, but he did see one of his second-graders, searching for Finn alongside a younger brother. Magee’s teaching had been confined to a screen for a month-and-a-half; now, he had the chance greet a student and offer some encouragement in person. “That was really special to me,” Magee says. “Just to catch a little kid in the act of trying to be a hero. And to be able to tell him that he is — for just being out there.”

Blaney had been doing her own recruiting, posting notices of Finn’s disappearance on social media and local listservs and encouraging anyone who wanted to help search to meet that afternoon at a nearby dog park. Around 20 people came. Magee showed up and saw several of his students there, too — masks on, ready to help. One child held a newly purchased box of dog biscuits.

In a pandemic, being a good neighbor meant staying home, staying apart. The case of Finn seemed to have stirred some pent-up Good Samaritanism in the humans of Blaney’s Washington neighborhood. It was an opportunity to come together — at a safe distance — around a mission that, unlike the coronavirus, was easy to understand: A dog was lost; he must be found.

Perhaps none of them felt this more strongly than Toni Ghazi.

Ghazi, a 40-year-old Realtor, had been about to go to bed when he saw Blaney’s posting about Finn on the community board site NextDoor.

“His photo captured my attention — just his eyes,” he says. “I was obsessed with finding this dog. And deep down I knew that he was part of who I am because we’re all really connected.”

Something about Ghazi: He’s a very spiritual man. In the coming days, Ghazi would seek guidance in the search for Finn from his shaman. He would also place a picture of Finn under the Buddha on his altar at home, where he lives with his husband, Craig Hollinger, and their five rescue dogs: Bae, Elliot, Aiden, Siri and Dave.

Ghazi got in touch with Blaney via text, and printed 100 copies of the flier she’d made. Early Monday he ran around buying staple guns, packing tape, laminate sleeves and extra masks for the search party.

The searchers who showed up to the dog park that afternoon fanned out in all directions, but found nothing.

But their resolve was contagious. The next day, Tuesday, twice as many people showed up. The managers of Finn’s old doggy day care, in Alexandria, brought their entire staff of nine employees. More of Magee’s students came with their families. More neighbors, dog-park regulars, Internet strangers.

And still, nothing. Finn is a big dog — 70 pounds — and Washington is a densely populated city. Two days, all those eyes and not so much as a sighting.

On Wednesday and Thursday it rained. Cold, driving rain with the threat of a frost. Blaney went out anyway. Her volunteer task force no longer assembled at the dog park, but she was not alone. Her phone buzzed constantly with texts from numbers she didn’t recognize, she says. “People saying ‘I’m going out with my dogs now.’ ‘I’m going out with my kids.’ ‘I’m going on a bike ride.’ ‘I’m going on a run. Where do you want me to look today?’ ”

The hunt for Finn was no longer merely an amateur affair: The doggy day-care managers set her up with a search-and-rescue dog, who went on the hunt for Finn. Blaney also hired a professional dog finder, who put up a motion-activated camera and trap cage near the spot where he had gone missing.

The telephone poles of Northwest Washington were saturated with Finn fliers. The cause of his safe return had taken on outsize proportions.

Still, days three and four came and went — no confirmed sightings.

The sameness of quarantine was returning, now with an extra layer of disappointment. Magee began to wonder if he should have told his students about Finn. They asked for an update every morning, and he had no news to share.

Blaney had barely eaten or slept all week. By Friday night, after putting Finn’s untouched food bowls away in a closet, she collapsed. Sobbing, she worried aloud to Basola that Finn had been kidnapped. Or worse: become stuck in a deep hole, alone, slowly wasting away. The way the whole world seemed to be stuck.

Even Ghazi began to have doubts. But he banished them. “I want to live in a reality where Finn is found,” he remembers telling himself. The negative thinking came, Ghazi says, “but I quickly kicked it out of my vibration.”

On Saturday, May 9, a vibration ran through Blaney’s phone. It was an incoming text message from an unknown number:

“Is this your dog?”

The picture, showing a black and white dog lying in the dirt, was unfocused and taken from far away. After five full days, was this a sighting? Maybe. Unclear, but maybe.

Blaney got the man’s address; he was two miles away. She and Basola sped over. The man, Steven Williams, explained that his neighbor, Kevin Hodges, had taken the photo after spotting the dog in his backyard. Williams had seen Blaney’s posting on NextDoor and thought it might be Finn.

Blaney and Basola headed to Hodges’s house. He was there alone; his wife, Andrea, was in Connecticut caring for her mother, who was dying of covid-19. Hodges said the dog had left, but not before he’d snapped a closer picture. Blaney studied the second photo.

An orange name tag, a black spot on the dog’s nuzzle.

It was him.

“I broke out in tears,” she says. “It was 100 percent Finn.”

He must be alive, she thought, and close by. Blaney texted Toni Ghazi and rest of the task force. Everyone redoubled their efforts. This time she got multiple texts reporting Finn sightings, but still no one caught him. Of course not: Finn was scared of strangers. Always was. He’d bolt at the first sign of chase.

“He just disappeared again,” Blaney says. The sixth day ended.

The next day, Sunday, was Mother’s Day. Ghazi was already out searching for Finn when he received an early-morning message from his shaman.

The shaman told him that she could see Finn, by a creek.

She said he would be found that day.

Blaney and Basola had just finished looking into what turned out to be a false-alarm Finn sighting when Ghazi texted her about the good news from his shaman.

“I am not spiritual,” Blaney says. “But at this point I’m like, ‘I’m taking it.’ ”

That afternoon, an American University librarian named Laura Neal, who makes a habit of noticing lost-pet fliers, was taking a restorative walk around the neighborhood when she saw Finn’s flier for the first time. After walking for two miles she saw a big dog lying in a fenced-in yard. She knew the property, which stood out for its opulence (mansion-like house, pool, multiple fountains), and she’d never seen dogs there before.

Neal approached the chain-link fence and locked eyes with the dog. It looked tired and kind of sad, with twigs and burrs stuck in its fur.

“Are you the dog?” she asked aloud.

And then Neal, 59, took off running. She snagged the flier and called Blaney’s phone number as she doubled back in her car.

Blaney had been warned that dogs who’ve been on the loose for a while are in flight mode, prone to run even from their owners. When she arrived at the house she found Neal, who pointed her toward the dog. Blaney slowly walked toward Finn and sat down on the opposite side of the fence. “Hi Finn-Finn,” she said sweetly and squeezed his favorite ball.

Finn came immediately. Blaney clipped a leash on his collar, hopped the fence and buried her head in his fur. She cried tears of relief.

Neal watched the reunion from her car: “It’s definitely the happiest thing that’s happened to me since covid.”

That night Ghazi went to Blaney’s apartment to meet in real life the dog whose photograph had called out to him a week earlier. “I kept looking in his eyes,” Ghazi says. “Like I know him and he knows me.”

The next week Blaney logged into the Magee’s online class to give his second-grade students a presentation on deep-ocean exploration. “When Finn was found it was this great lesson in hope,” the teacher says, “and then they got to see that this is the person they helped.”

In the weeks to come, Blaney would run into a parent of one of Magee’s students who told her that “Finding Finn” had replaced hide-and-seek as the neighborhood kids’ favorite game.

Dogs have a way of knowing when we need them.

Finn always knew when to come. And maybe, this time, he knew when to go. Because when he did a community of people left their lonely bubbles to try to find him. And in the process they found each other.

“I almost feel like, ‘Thank you, Finn, for making us all get together and find a new purpose and a reason to talk to each other,’ ” Ghazi says. “It was just deep, deep love.”

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