Theoden Janes

This dog jumped from a car and disappeared for 9 months. How did he find his way home?

Dog is reunited with his owners after jumping out the car window months ago

Rocky the boxer returned to his family after being lost for 9 months.
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Rocky the boxer returned to his family after being lost for 9 months.

Devodie Arnett was shaking his head as he stood off to the side of Reames Road in northeast Charlotte, struggling to make sense of what had just happened and agonizing over the nature of the phone call he was about to make.

Minutes earlier, all seemed OK: He’d been driving south away from the Banfield Pet Hospital inside PetSmart at Perimeter Woods, where he’d taken his and his wife Vannessa’s 2-year-old boxer Rocky for a routine preventative care checkup — including a teeth cleaning that required anesthesia.

Devodie knew riding in the car made Rocky anxious even on a good day, and was struck by the sense that Rocky needed some air. So he put the rear driver’s-side window down as they headed back home. But Rocky was still a little discombobulated.

Maybe that’s why, for the first and only time the Arnetts can remember, Rocky’s paw landed squarely on the power window switch. Maybe that’s why, when the tinted glass rolled all the way down, Rocky leapt from Devodie’s white Ranger Rover while the vehicle was traveling close to 30 mph.

And maybe that’s why — when Devodie slammed on his brakes, turned around, got out and started calling for him — Rocky seemed to want to ignore everything except for the extremely dense woods behind the row of small houses along Silver Garden Lane.

Devodie tried to follow him into the brush, but the thickness of it made both maneuverability and visibility difficult. Within about 60 seconds, the dog was gone.

So he gritted his teeth, unlocked his cellphone, dialed and held his breath.

‘If you want something bad enough...’

As he explained to his wife what had happened, “I felt like someone just ripped my heart out,” recalls Vannessa, who was attending a meeting of her motorcycle club when she answered the call. “I immediately started crying. And I said, ‘You gotta find him!’ You know, telling him, ‘Why did you do that? You knew he has anxiety? Why did you let the window down?’

“The drive was maybe seven minutes from where I was. It might have took me three minutes to get there.”

This was sometime between 3 and 4 on the afternoon of Sunday, June 24, of last year. Vannessa says they searched and called for him until after the sky went completely dark at around 9 p.m.

Over the course of the next nine months, she says that she returned every day to the area where Rocky disappeared — which is about 4-1/2 miles from their home — hoping to stumble upon someone who may have seen him, or hoping to catch a glimpse of him, just hoping for any sort of fresh clue at all.

Every day? For nine months?

“Every day,” she says, without hesitating.

Devodie Arnett cocks his head and gives her a sidelong glance.

“This is my first time hearing that,” he says. “I didn’t know she continued to do it every day. ... If you want something bad enough, you’ll do that.”

Vannessa Arnett works as a kindergarten teacher and an in-home care provider; Devodie Arnett is a former Army drill sergeant who works in law enforcement. Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

But it wasn’t just Vannessa’s perseverance that led to the discovery on March 27 that Rocky had been struggling to get by less than a mile away from where he disappeared.

It was actually another family’s similarly months-long campaign that ultimately helped reunite Rocky with his owners.

‘He was skin and bones’

What Rocky was up to, where exactly he was living and how he was managing to find food between the end of June and September (and for much of the autumn of last year) is a mystery.

All Jeremy and Stephanie Auker can say is that, when this stray boxer first showed his face in their cul-de-sac during the month of September “he was skin and bones,” Jeremy says. “You could see every bone in his back.”

They were shocked by his appearance, but also had no idea of his temperament, so they were concerned about the potential for interactions with their Labs, Eave and Lucia — as well as their children Emersyn, 10, Carsyn, 7, and Anson, 5 — since the yard behind their house is not fenced in.

Weeks passed before they saw him again, but in mid-fall, maybe late October or early November, the still-famished-looking dog would become a regular loiterer.

The Aukers started setting bowls of food and water out on their back patio. While the dog didn’t necessarily want to trust this gesture, he was desperate to fill his belly. And as long as whoever put the food out for him would retreat back into the house, the dog would warily approach the house.

If the tiniest thing freaked him out — like, say, if someone opened the sliding glass door — he would bolt, even if he had his face in the food. But as long as everything was cool, the dog would finish every morsel before wandering back off into the woods.

Virtually every day, he’d return in the morning, for breakfast. Then he’d come back in the late afternoon, for dinner.

Things continued like this virtually for months, with one key exception being a four-day stretch around Thanksgiving when they left to spend the holiday with family in Virginia. (“I remember thinking, ‘I hope he doesn’t stop coming,’” Stephanie Auker says.)

Rocky stands outside of the Aukers’ back door. Courtesy of Vannessa Arnett

Feeding and trying to connect with “Buddy,” as the Aukers started calling him, had become part of their routine. Over time, he began letting Stephanie sit on the opposite end of the patio from where he would eat.

In late January or early February, they say, he first acceded to being touched. After about a month or so of feedings that were accompanied by “Buddy” doing lots of sniffing and the Aukers doing progressively more petting, Jeremy thought it was worth trying to bring him inside the house to see what would happen.

“We were still pretty convinced that he was a homeless dog,” says Jeremy Auker, adding that they were afraid to call Animal Control over concerns that he might go unclaimed. “We were pretty invested at that point, so we had the expectation of just making him part of the family.”

Sounds about right for a family that welcomes visitors with a doormat that reads: “Dogs Welcome. People Tolerated.”

‘One day, he’ll be back’

The Arnetts are equally big dog people.

There are of course photos adorning the walls of their house that feature them with their 24-year-old twin sons, Shakir and Akil, but there are also studio portraits of Devodie and Vannessa posing with Rocky and their older boxer, Ali.

In an urn above the fireplace are the cremains of their late female boxer, China, who died of cancer eight years ago.

Vannessa is — they both admit — more attached to Rocky and Ali than Devodie is. Not that he’s not attached to them. She’s just ferociously attached to them. And she was in this case ferociously hopeful.

So: “That first day, I prayed,” she says. “I said, ‘Lord, if he was meant to come home, let me not give up.’ ... And in my heart, I knew right then and there that I would get Rocky back.”

But she didn’t just sit back and wait for her prayer to be answered.

One of the posters made by Vanessa Arnett. Courtesy of Vanessa Arnett

She made flyers and taped them to utility poles and street signs up and down Reames Road, from the Denny’s at Sunset Road all the way to the Perimeter Woods shopping district across from Northlake Mall.

She posted lost-dog notices on as many websites and in as many Facebook groups as she could think of, and combed through found-dog notices with equal attention to detail. She chased leads to places as far-flung as Concord, Matthews, Rock Hill and Gastonia. She became a regular at animal shelters all over Charlotte.

She walked the neighborhood he’d disappeared in, and the one on the other side of the woods, and the one across the street and a couple of other ones, too. She knocked on doors and searched for clues while carrying one of his favorite toys — a little mouse squeaky toy that was missing its squeaker.

Although she came up empty at every turn, Vannessa persisted. Every single day.

“One day, he’ll be back,” Vannessa kept telling her husband and their sons. “You guys wait and see. You watch.”

They waited. They watched. And finally, they decided that maybe she needed a little help moving on. So on Christmas morning, Devodie surprised her with a new dog: an American bully puppy.

“She liked the dog, but she always said she still wanted her dog back,” he says. “She was like, ‘When we find Rocky, we’re just gonna have three dogs.’”

‘Oh, you want to come in?’

By late March, the Aukers thought they were just gonna have three dogs, too.

On Monday, March 25 — six months after they first laid eyes on “Buddy” — Stephanie was sitting on the uncovered patio petting him when it started sprinkling. But when she stood up and reached for the handle of the sliding glass door, she was surprised to see “Buddy” take a couple of steps toward the house.

“Oh, you want to come in?” she said to him. In the previous few weeks, her husband Jeremy had gently led him inside by the collar (which had no ID tags on it, they would learn) a handful of times, a few feet into the kitchen, just to see how “Buddy” would react; “Buddy” always reacted by scooting back out onto the patio.

He could have finally decided that these people did have his best interests at heart. Or maybe he’d just had enough of being an outdoor dog.

Because a few seconds later, when the rain started coming down harder, he trotted right on through the open door.

Carsyn and Anson Auker with Rocky / “Buddy.” Courtesy of Stephanie Auker

It was the day the Aukers had always hoped would come, and really, probably, the day “Buddy” had always hoped he’d be brave enough for. Once he made that leap, the once-anxious pup seemed to almost completely relax. He lounged on the living-room sofa while nuzzled up against their older Lab, Eave. He climbed on Jeremy and Stephanie’s laps, and would let the kids climb on him.

And on Monday and Tuesday night, he snored loudly while sleeping between Jeremy and Stephanie. They were perhaps the best nights of sleep he’d had in nine months.

They had agreed that if they were going to try to keep “Buddy” permanently, he’d first need to be examined by a vet, and they say they planned to have the dog scanned for a microchip at that time.

Originally, they were going to take care of all that when they got to the weekend. But something was gnawing at Jeremy.

“It never really occurred to me to search online (for lost-dog posts) before,” he says. “It was really after the first night he stayed with us, because he did so well staying in the house, that something in my gut just told me that he had been an inside dog.”

So on Wednesday, he Googled “missing boxer Charlotte North Carolina.” After sifting through five or six websites, he found a notice posted by someone who’d lost a boxer near Reames Road on June 28, 2018.

So — like Devodie Arnett had done nearly nine months earlier — Jeremy Auker gritted his teeth, unlocked his cellphone, dialed and held his breath.

‘I was completely split, 50-50’

“I just kind of came across a post here about a missing boxer dog off of Reames Road, and this was the phone number that was listed to contact the owner,” Vannessa Arnett heard the voice say in the voice mail. “Possibly may have found the dog ...”

She took a deep breath, trying not to get too excited; she’d received leads like this before.

But after this particular tipster texted her a photo of the boxer, and after she had a chance to compare it with the dozens of photos of Rocky she had on her phone, and after she sent the photo to her sons so they could confirm for her what she could feel in her heart was true, she could feel her broken heart mending.

The Arnetts had indeed microchipped Rocky, and knew the only way to be sure was for the Aukers to take this dog they had to get scanned.

Jeremy, who was stuck at work till 9 p.m. that Wednesday, called Stephanie and filled her in. Their eyes swollen from crying, she and the three kids loaded “Buddy” into their car to take him to get scanned. He was almost instantly anxious.

The Aukers head to PetSmart to get Rocky’s / “Buddy’s” microchip scanned. Courtesy of Stephanie Auker

They had no way of knowing that this was his first time in a car since he jumped out of Devodie Arnett’s Range Rover; that they would drive past the exact spot where he disappeared; and that they would end up at the last place he’d seen since his disappearance — the Banfield Pet Hospital inside PetSmart at Perimeter Woods.

As they waited for the results of the scan, Stephanie Auker tried to hold it together.

“I was completely split like 50-50,” she says. Even though Jeremy had shared the Arnetts’ post with her, as well as the photo of their dog that Vannessa Arnett had sent to her husband, and even though she says she knew what the results were going to show, a part of her hoped there was a way they could keep this dog.

“But the other half of me kept thinking about his family, and how happy (they would be). ... I just kept thinking, how I would feel if my dog had been missing that long?”

‘Come see us anytime’

Just a few short hours later, all five Aukers and all four Arnetts were meeting in the parking lot of a preschool just south of that PetSmart. It was after 9:30 at night, but Vannessa Arnett had waited nine months for her Rocky to come home, and she couldn’t wait another day.

There were so many tears. Vannessa cried because she was so happy. Emersyn, Carsyn and Anson Auker cried because they were so sad. They didn’t want “Buddy” — now Rocky — to go.

Vannessa stopped loving on her long-lost boxer for a moment to turn to the kids. She knelt down beside them and said, “You can come see us anytime. We can have a play date anytime you want to. You can call me, or text me, and I can send you pictures.”

There were hugs all around. And then everyone piled back into their cars and headed back down Reames Road, back past the spot where Rocky jumped, back past the neighborhoods Vannessa had driven by every day for nine months — and by the way, every day for those nine months, she’d driven within about 400 feet of the Aukers’ house.

As they drove, questions lingered.

Where had Rocky been when he wasn’t hanging around the Aukers’, and how was he finding food and water before they started leaving it out for him? How did he cope, say, with Hurricane Florence in September and Hurricane Michael in October? Why, as the Aukers observed, did he never show up looking wet or muddy, even after a rain? Had he been staying inside somewhere else for a time?

They’ll probably never know.

But on this night, only one thing mattered: Rocky was finally heading home.