by Laura Bednar
Bath residents Tom and Tamara Slopek have refuted the stereotype of a “dog catcher” by practicing a humane method of recovering lost dogs and reuniting them with their owners.
The couple became involved in dog recovery through JJ’s Ruff Roads, a nonprofit lost dog search and rescue organization. Tamara said she met JJ’s founder Ramona Hartleben during a lost dog search five years ago. After learning how volunteers humanely trap lost and stray dogs, Tom and Tamara decided to get involved.
“It’s something we found in retirement,” Tom said. “It keeps us in shape and keeps our minds sharp.”
Hartleben taught them the proper way to approach and humanely trap a dog.
“This is a science,” said Tom.
Dogs feel frightened when they are lost, and people make the mistake of chasing them, clapping or yelling, driving the animals further away.
The recovery process begins when Tom or Tamara receive a notification about a lost dog. People find the Slopeks through word of mouth or business card postings. At times, JJ’s Ruff Roads relays a lost dog case to them.
Tamara said she makes an informational packet about the dog, including when it went missing, circumstances behind the escape, the dog’s demeanor and if it is chipped. When meeting with the owners, Tom said, “We sell hope when we get on scene.”
Tamara added that they calm people, explain the trapping process and tell owners what’s expected of them.
“We really need the owner’s cooperation,” Tamara said.
After receiving calls about sightings, she and Tom can narrow down the dog’s location. Tom said the best way to get the word out about lost dogs is “put up old-fashioned posters on a telephone pole.” Tamara said they should be fluorescent in color with a photo of the dog, a phone number and a reminder not to chase the animal.
Once they know where the dog was last seen, Tamara and Tom survey the area and set up a cage containing food and a camera. When there is movement in the area, the camera takes a photo and sends it to their phones.
Tamara said they wait two or three times after seeing the dog before moving forward for trapping. This gives the dog time to feel comfortable, and they can monitor its demeanor. By the third time the dog returns, Tamara and Tom are on site and have the cage set to close and lock when the dog enters.
It’s no ordinary kibble that entices the dog to enter. “We use high value food like rotisserie chicken,” said Tom.
Tamara said after missing for three days, a dog will earnestly look for food and once fed, won’t wander far from the food source.
She recalled a case when the cage failed to close completely after hitting the dog’s behind and he escaped. She lured him back with a trail of food bits until she had him eating out of her hand. To avoid intimidating the dog, it is best to stay low to the ground and not look at the dog directly, according to Tamara.
When they home in on the dog’s location, Tom said silence is key. “We don’t tell anyone where we are,” he said. “We don’t want anyone around when we’re trapping.”
Their specialty is recovering newly adopted dogs that want to escape to somewhere quiet. “It takes dogs a long time to adjust to a new home,” Tamara said.
The couple has trapped 25 dogs in two years of volunteering. Some were as close as Crown Point Ecology Center and some as far as Carroll County; they mainly cover Summit and Medina counties. Their shortest recovery time was one day and the longest six months.
Last year, Tom said a German Shepherd, gone for 18 days, had been seen on state Route 18. The dog was found in a collapsed shed on an abandoned farm and refused to come out. In this extreme circumstance, Tom crawled into the shed with a “snappy snare,” or lasso at the end of a stick that gently tightens around the dog’s neck, and led him out.
“It’s joyous to call the owner when the dog is found,” Tamara said.
The couple grew up with dogs and has a Whippet named Devo. In addition to recovering dogs, Tom and Tamara are volunteer dog walkers with One of A Kind Pet Rescue in Akron and have an education and fundraising booth at Pet Expo and Paw Fest events.
Those interested in becoming dog recovery specialists can email Hartleben from JJ’s Ruff Roads at Ramona@jjsruffroads.org or Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org. ∞