Missing dog unites River Place community

Sherman Burrows credits his dog, Leo (shown), with finally bringing Belle home. Courtesy Sherman Burrows

Belle found nine days after lost on trail

By LESLEE BASSMAN, Four Points News

Although the River Place neighborhood comes together for its annual Independence Day Parade and Dads in the Hood campout, it was a lost Labrador Retriever that united the community over the past couple of weeks.

“Belle” was running the River Place nature trail with her owner, Brent Harrell, on April 8, as the pair has frequently done, Brent’s wife Melissa Harrell said. However, on this particular Sunday, 2-year-old Belle suddenly became spooked and darted away around the creek crossing in the middle of the trail, she said.

Despite Brent backtracking his steps and asking other trail runners concerning his dog’s whereabouts, Belle could not be found that day.

Belle entered the home of the Harrell family, which also includes 16-year-old Hunt and 13-year-old Lila, when she was just a puppy, Melissa said.

“Belle means everything (to me),” Lila said. “We go hunting and I handle her. We play around and snuggle. She is what I look forward to when I come home.”

Lila said she and Brent trained Belle to respond to voice commands as well as whistle calls, having her sit when she hears one whistle blast, and to return when she hears three whistle blasts.

Melissa and Lila were out of town when they learned of Belle going missing and, as soon as they returned home, the entire family joined together in search of their pet, Melissa said. They spent the rest of the day, until 10 p.m. on a school night, looking for Belle in the neighborhood and on the trail but to no avail, she said.

Since the Harrells live in Northwest Austin by the Domain, Melissa said she contacted her friend, River Place resident Marlee Calvert, to put notice of the dog being lost on the community’s Nextdoor, a social networking site that serves local communities.

“How terrible is it to not live in the neighborhood where your dog is lost in this enormous, beautiful place and not be able to have eyes on her, constantly looking for her,” Calvert said, adding that she also ran the River Place trail numerous times looking for Belle last week. “(I) was living in the neighborhood and telling everybody about (Belle missing). It’s amazing how many people were looking for her. Everybody knew. Everybody knew.”

She said the community celebrates fundraisers in the neighborhood but, this time, River Place was working together to look for “a celebrity animal.”

“The entire tribe of River Place started looking for my dog every day,” Melissa said. “Every single day, (residents) brought us cookies, food, offered us to sleep at their house.”

Stefani Hickey said she noticed the post about Belle being missing around April 11 and went to Woodlands Park to see if she might spot the missing pooch. The River Place resident said she belongs to websites that focus on lost pets and tries to help find them.

“I was reading that other people were out searching for (Belle),” Hickey said. “I went to Woodlands Park one morning with a can of tuna fish. It’s never what I’ve used before (to attract a missing pet). (Other searchers) were talking about smells or good food to attract her and I thought, ‘well, why not use tuna fish because it has such a strong smell?’”

She then drove through the neighborhood’s streets, up service roads, checked internet posts—all in the hopes she might locate the retriever.

“I don’t have children so when I hear about a lost dog, I think that’s one of my purposes on earth—to help people find them,” Hickey said.

On April 11, Melissa said she and Lila tried to lure Belle into the open by putting peanut butter on trail leaves leading out of the park, a last ditch effort that was intended to get the pet to safety.

Early on the morning of April 12, Belle was finally seen by a few joggers on Big View, at the bottom of the trail, Melissa said, with one resident sending a videotape of the missing dog to her, tracking her whereabouts to an area culvert.

“We were super thankful for that (video) because it kind of told us she was alive and well,” Melissa said. “It gave us the extra push to keep looking.”

Brent spent one night in the park until midnight before coming home and then returned to the park at 5:30 a.m. the next morning to resume his search for Belle, she said.

The Harrells also hired Dog Gone Detectives, a Dallas-based company that conducts searches for missing pets using a dog trained in search and rescue techniques, to comb the River Place trail and neighborhood using Belle’s scent, Melissa said.

But, the saga of the missing canine did not come to an end until the morning of April 17.

“For the record, I didn’t find Belle; Leo found Belle,” Sherman Burrows said of his 10-year-old Golden Retriever.

Burrows heard his dog barking and, when he went to check on Leo, found him playing with another dog on his back porch on Big View, he said. Burrows had been out of town during the neighborhood’s search for Belle and only returned home the night before, unaware about the lost dog until he received a group text regarding the situation, he said.

“So it was kind of a coincidence but I had a suspicion it was (Belle),” Burrows said. “I wasn’t aware of how much effort had been put into her rescue.”

Burrows contacted Brent and texted him a photo of Belle to confirm it was his dog.

“He was pretty emotional,” Burrows said of Brent when he arrived at his home. “He had assumed the dog was not going to be found.”

Within 20 minutes of Belle being located, Melissa contacted Hickey to apprise her of the happy ending.

“I think it’s such a heartwarming story,” Hickey said. “With all of the stuff that’s going wrong in the world, it was one of those things that brought so many people together. It sounds stupid to say but you could care less what their political persuasion was or anything. Everybody was joined together for one purpose. It is just a good feeling in these days we live in.”

As for Leo, well, Burrows said he took care of him.

“(Leo) got a reward, treats,” Burrows said. “He knew he did good. He had that look that he just did something right.”

After nine days of wandering the trails of River Place, Belle is reunited with her owners including 13-year-old Lila Harrell.

A photo of Belle prior to her River Place hike in April where she got spooked and disappeared for 9 days. Hunt Harrell, 16, and the rest of the family is happy to have their pet back home.

Belle plays in Sherman Burrows’ home after being found in his front yard. Courtesy Sherman Burrows