NORTH MAHONING TOWNSHIP — All was well when Larry August packed up his car to travel south for a visit with his oldest son, who was about to ship off overseas in the service.
His dogs Cherokee and Duke were safely penned out back of his house along Route 119, with a neighbor set to feed and water them until August returned.
But before August ever reached his destination, the dogs had vanished from the pen.
Cherokee, a shepherd mix, turned up three days later and has been returned to him.
But August has ripped two pages from the calendar since he’s last seen Duke, a miniature pinscher, and he has maintained a persistent, ongoing search with some degree of faith that his dog is still out there.
It was Sept. 13 when August said goodbye to the dogs.
The neighbor alerted him to the dogs’ disappearance while August was on the road, bound for Louisiana.
Three days later, even before August had returned from his trip, Cherokee was discovered 45 miles away in West Wheatfield Township and was turned over to the Indiana County Humane Society, where he promptly was taken for treatment of a large, deep gash on his neck.
But Duke has remained elusive.
State police from the Punxsutawney station have investigated the incident, labeling it a case of animal cruelty, and reported at the outset that investigators had a suspect in mind for releasing the dogs. No one has been named or charged, and August declined to talk about who might be responsible for opening the gate.
In their initial report, troopers reported Duke might still be in northern Indiana County, or could be in the area where Cherokee turned up.
It’s that latter area along Mount Tabor Road in southeastern Indiana County, across highways, waterways, towns, forests and farms, where August believes Duke ended up and has been fending for himself for these last nine weeks.
Duke, a “min-pin” as August calls him, wouldn’t readily let a stranger approach him or take him in.
“Most miniature pinschers are known to be skittish,” August said. “They can be friendly and warm up to people but they typically are a one-person dog, and Duke was very much so … he’s all bark and no bite.
“He’s not a mean dog. If you knocked on the other side of a door, he would bark like crazy and you’d think he was vicious. But if you opened the door, he would run.”
That’s why August has gotten reports of sightings, but no catch yet.
Someone reported seeing a dog looking like Duke on Oct. 4 on the back porch of a house less than a mile from where Cherokee was found. Another spotted Duke on Oct. 12 near Fire Academy Road in Center Township.
After a lapse of several weeks, August got a report of another sighting late Saturday afternoon in the Lucernemines area.
“I’ve had a lot of cooperation from the folks in Lucerne, they’ve been very helpful,” August said. “Based on speaking with the mother and daughter who saw Duke, and after showing them some pictures, they feel very confident that they did see him.”
August has plastered posters all over the area between Brush Valley and Blairsville, where he believes Duke is lost. He has talked to the people living along Mount Tabor Road and Route 259, and asked them to spread the word.
He has approached complete strangers to plead for help.
“Help find Duke” posters have cropped up on bulletin boards in the Indiana area, and August has started a Facebook page to generate attention and, he hopes, more leads.
August said he’s consulted with a pet detective and animal rescue experts for advice on tailing his missing pinscher.
“These little animals … will revert to their animal instincts,” August said. “After they’ve been stray like this for a month they go back to almost a feral mode, they take a flight or flight survival instinct. They will be looking for shelter, food and water.
“He would most likely be somewhere where there are houses, trying to get out of the weather and either be tipping garbage cans for food ... or perhaps going near farms or where people might feed an outside cat or dog, and would be foraging for food.”
He said he has followed up on every call, every report, and some have turned out to be cases of mistaken identity. A few have been flat-out false reports.
But it’s the most credible sightings that have buoyed his hopes.
“This has taken my life over,” August said. “The last two months, every minute of the day has been taken over by ‘where is my dog?’”
But August said he has a realistic attitude.
“I believe he’s either still wandering around, looking for food, or that somebody has him and is completely unaware that we’re looking for him,” August said. “Or, someone has him and knows that we’re looking for him and doesn’t want to give him back.
“And of course there’s a third possibility, that he was hit by car or killed by a coyote. He could be dead. But what gave me hope is that three weeks later, we had a sighting. Four weeks later, we had a sighting.
Until there’s definite proof that Duke is not alive, August said, the experts told him he has to assume that he is out there.
“They said you have to make Duke a rock star. Get his name and picture out, get the word out,” August said. “Make him as popular as you can — that’s the only way you’re going to find him, which is what we’ve done. We’ve gone above and beyond that.
“The bottom line is we want to get our dog home. … Maybe people will be sympathetic, and if we touched the right person’s heart, we could either get more help with people looking or someone saying, ‘Yeah, I saw that dog.’ And we could have a happy ending to this story.”
Anyone who spots Duke can contact August through the Facebook page www.facebook.com/groups/helpfindDuke/ or by phone at (724) 464-4965.