Lifestyle & Human Interest

Real Life 'Homeward Bound': Puppy Survives Full Month Alone in Wilderness


The Chaffin family set out for a nice hike on Capitol Creek Ditch Trail in Colorado on June 18. Of course, there were four-legged members of the family tagging along, too, and one of those was 9-month-old Bella, an 8-pound cockapoo owned by Betsy and Jim Chaffin.

At some point during the hike, Betsy and Jim’s grandson ran ahead with the three dogs. When they paused some distance away, Bella turned around and went back.

The grandson figured she must have spotted her owners, but when they caught up to him, the tiny white pup wasn’t with them.

“We never thought she’d leave the trail,” Betsy said, according to The Aspen Times.

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So began a four-week search that involved dozens of posters, constant calls to local dog-related businesses, a tent set up in the wilderness with Bella’s items, a tracking dog and even a pet psychic.

When Betsy and Jim realized Bella was nowhere to be found, they were gutted. They spent the rest of that day searching for her, and returned the next day to continue.

Their search was made all the more important because the local fauna were notorious hunters. The area was known for its foxes, coyotes, mountain lions and bears — any of which would find a domesticated toy dog an easy meal.

Days went by as the dog’s owners did everything they could think of to locate their dog and make the locals aware of her disappearance. They posted signs, put messages out over radio and searched high and low.

“You just feel so guilty,” Betsy explained. “We just figured a coyote got Bella.”

But on day 10, the Chaffins were given a ray of hope. A hiker had spotted a small, white dog fitting Bella’s description while on the trail. The dog wouldn’t come to him, but at least the Chaffins knew Bella was still out there.

The fact that Bella had made it over a week on her own in the wild gave the family the hope they needed.

“We think she went into survival mode where she did nothing but hide, eat and drink,” Betsy said.

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The couple had also contacted ReRe Baker, a former animal safety and control deputy with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, who echoed the sentiment.

“She said, ‘If this little dog has survived 10 days in the wilderness, she has a will to live,'” Betsy recalled.

Through the director of the Aspen Animal Shelter, Seth Sachson, Betsy and Jim also got into contact with a pet-tracking dog service and a pet psychic.

“We said by cracky, we’re going to pull out all the stops,” Betsy said.

Knowing that dogs are often drawn home by their noses, the couple also set up a tent near the trail, stocking it with familiar-smelling items and placing personal belongings near the trail in the hopes that it would catch Bella’s attention.

“One thing became obvious,” Jim said. “We weren’t going to find Bella until Bella wanted to be found.”

Finally, on July 17, a worker at a nearby ranch who’d spotted the lost posters also spotted a tiny, matted white dog at the side of the road. When he stopped to try to pick it up, it growled and ran off.

Eventually, he was able to sweet-talk it into his care, and then called the number on its identification tag. Within an hour, Bella and her owners were reunited.

The little dog was even littler than she’d been when she disappeared. She’d lost half her weight, coming in at a mere four pounds.

Her white hair was dirty and matted. She’d been stuck with two porcupine quills. She was skittish, tired and hungry.

After a trip to the vet’s for a clean-up, health check and fluids, the pup is home doing a lot of sleeping and eating frequent, small meals to slowly bulk her back up.

“It’s a bit of a miracle,” Betsy said.

The couple wrote an email to inform the followers of Bella’s story that she’d been found at last.

“How does any dog survive in the White River National Forest for a month, much less an 8-pound, 10-month-old little cockapoo?” they wrote. “There was plenty of water between the creek and the rains. Was she eating grasses, cow pies, an occasional varmint? This is a drainage populated by coyotes, fox, mountain lion and bear — how did she manage to hide? What stories Bella could tell but will never be told.”

The Chaffins are elated to have their puppy back in their care, but also say that one of the greatest takeaways from the whole misadventure was something unexpected.

“The thing that really touched us was the outpouring of support,” Jim said. “One of the real gifts was the connections to the community.”

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