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Brokenhearted: Boomer the retriever's journey to Oso in search of his master

In 1961, Scottish author Sheila Burnford wrote The Incredible Journey. The heartwarming and sometimes tragic book tells the story of three pets – a yellow Labrador Retriever, an Old English Bull Terrier, and a Domestic Short Hair seal point-colored cat – who travel more than 300 miles to find their owners. The book was made into a movie by Walt Disney in 1963, and practically overnight, a classic was born. Ever so often a story appears supporting the theory that pets can and do travel to successfully find their chosen people. And sometimes there is an added element of drama, such as when Husky Zander walked through the dangerous streets of New York to find his ill owner in the hospital back in 2012 or when an abused Shepherd mix named Nubs trailed a Marine he loved seventy miles to the base where the man had been transferred. In Iraq. Through a war zone.

Boomer at Arlington Veterinary Hospital after walking to Oso and spending days searching for his deceased master. The growth on his forepaw has since been removed.
Photo by: Arlington Veterinary Hospital/Facebook

“The greatest fear dogs know is the fear that you will not come back when you go out the door without them.” (Stanley Coren)

When a mudslide hit the little mountain town of Oso, Washington, on March 22nd, 2014, dozens of lives were instantly snuffed out. Search-and-rescue (SAR) workers have not had many moments of triumph or happiness, and when they noticed an elderly retriever mix stumbling through the wreckage, they thought they’d found a displaced pet. The SAR teams were thrilled and managed to catch the injured dog, who was coated with mud and covered in a multitude of cuts and scrapes. But their joy changed to shock when the dog’s current owner appeared.
Boomer the retriever mix had been owned by one of the deceased in Oso. The man had given Boomer to his sister prior to the landslide, and missed him terribly. Even so, the old dog had not made a habit of running away. But after the mudslide, he disappeared from the woman’s home. Miles later, and showing extensive physical proof of the ordeal he’d been through, Boomer began to search the mud and debris for his lost master. For an estimated three days he sniffed and pawed through the muck, hoping for a sign.

SAR volunteers took Boomer to Arlington Veterinary Hospital where Dr. Krystal Grant began the task of hydrating him and treating his trek-related injuries. The SAR rescuers also left the dehydrated dog at the clinic with not one but three blankets to keep him warm and comfortable during his stay. Everyone was amazed to discover the elderly dog was not a displaced pet, but a dog on a mission. So how did Boomer know that the man he had spent years with, the man he loved to the depths of his doggy heart, was in trouble? What could have possibly motivated him to run away after the mudslide, walk several miles, and attempt to locate his then-deceased master?

Some dog lovers like to think their dogs have a sort of sixth sense, even going so far as claiming their dog senses the supernatural. From a more logic-based standpoint, though, it is both true and scientifically provable that dogs have far keener senses overall than humans do. Their impressive scenting ability enables some dogs to find cancer or signal their owners of an upcoming diabetic event. There are even service dogs for people suffering from epilepsy. And, of course, there is a clear surge in the use of service dogs for emotional needs. Veterans with PTSD are perhaps one of the greatest benefactors of the canine ability to quickly deduce an increase in mental anguish. Many dogs are extra-sensitive to the way their people feel and behave, offering quiet comfort or upbeat cheer as needed. With that in mind, perhaps Boomer noticed his “new” owner’s heartache following the mudslide and decided it meant his master was in trouble. Maybe the deceased man’s sister even said her brother’s name in an agonized tone within Boomer’s hearing.Add to that the well-documented ability of dogs to sense earthquakes and other natural disasters, and it is quite believable that Boomer had an excellent idea what was happening.

Estimates have put the tawny-haired dog’s age around fifteen, which is quite elderly for a retriever, although as a mixed-breed longevity is a bit more common. During his stay at Arlington Veterinary Hospital, he has become something of a doggy celebrity, being featured on local news channels and written up by countless writers (including, of course, this one). Dr. Grant, Boomer’s current guardian angel, has always done her best to help pets in need. She offered extensive help to the SAR dogs working the mudslide, making it clear she was willing to work after hours and on weekends. Arlington is close to Oso, but significantly larger, and the clinic is one of the best-equipped in the immediate area. Dr. Grant has a heart for helping pets in need and is caring for Boomer above and beyond. In addition to treating the injuries incurred on his very own incredibly journey, she removed a growth on his right forepaw. The growth was in serious need of removal and had to have caused him discomfort on a daily basis, let alone during a brokenhearted miles-long hike.

On April 5th, Boomer went home with his late master’s sister. Dr. Grant made sure he left with all three of the blankets gifted to him by his SAR rescuers as well as a bag of goodies from the staff. Thanks to the SAR volunteers who made the effort to catch and care for the dog, he’s able to return home alive and in improved health. And, of course, if not for the efforts of the veterinarian and her hard-working techs, his story could have ended quite differently. Instead, Boomer is going home presumably in even better shape than he left in.

Our dogs love us unconditionally. Their loyalty and good nature knows no bounds. There are stories of dogs who have walked as many as five hundred, seven hundred, and, yes, twelve hundred miles to find their beloved people. Dogs provide more than just a happy furry face to come home to. When your heart is broken, your dog provides the comfort you need to dry your tears and move forward. Veterans suffering from PTSD credit their service dogs with helping them finally sleep through the night, improve social skills, and, yes, find the will to live. And if you doubt your dog’s love, just think of Boomer. Fifteen years old, with all the stiff, aching joints to go along with it, trudging through rain and hail to search for his lost master, and still he walked. He was bruised, cut, dehydrated, and probably in more pain from his advanced arthritis than anyone realized due to the canine tendency for high pain tolerance. And yet he reached Oso, saw the aftermath, and began to wander, hoping for some sign of his master. That is love. That is loyalty. And that is what dogs are all about.

“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” (Josh Billings)

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