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After extensive search for missing dogs, a joyous reunion for Northland family

On the second day after his dogs went missing, after a search by plane was called off because of icing, Chris Verhel nearly gave up hope. "When I knew we couldn't fly, my heart just dropped," Verhel said on Saturday. "That was my last hope." His ...

Missing dog
Chris Verhel is reunited with his 9-month-old therapy dog, Onyx. Onyx and the Verhels’ other dog, Hemi, went missing on Dec. 31, spurring a large search. (Photo by Jodi Verhel)
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On  the second day after his dogs went missing, after a search by plane was called off because of icing, Chris Verhel nearly gave up hope.

“When I knew we couldn’t fly, my heart just dropped,” Verhel said on Saturday. “That was my last hope.”

His dogs had other ideas.

Verhel’s hope had become increasingly dim since New Year’s Eve, when Hemi, a 4-year-old Doberman pinscher, and Onyx, a 9-month-old German shepherd, disappeared from the backyard of the Verhels’ Canosia Township home.

The dogs, both males, have been inseparable since Onyx joined the family in May, said Verhel’s wife, Jodi.

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 Onyx has a special role: as therapy dog-in-training for Chris, a Duluth police officer on medical leave after being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.

When Chris put the dogs out on Dec. 31, Hemi was on a 30-foot lead line. Onyx wasn’t tied up because he always stays close to Hemi when the dogs are outside, the Verhels said.

When Chris returned after 10 or 15 minutes, both dogs and the 30-foot cable were gone.

The Verhels began a search, soon aided by friends. It was getting dark, and they were getting worried.

“I don’t know what the temperature was,” Chris Verhel said. “For a Doberman, it was cold.”

“We could barely sleep that night,” Jodi Verhel said.

They doubted their short-haired Doberman could have survived the night.

“We’ve got wolves out here, and coyotes,” Chris said. “We’ve got all these elements that are against us.”

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On New Year’s Day, family members came, working their way through the thick marshland near the Verhels’ home. A neighbor offered Chris Verhel use of his four-wheeler. Advice and encouragement poured in through the Lost Dogs Minnesota page on Facebook.

Soon, more help came. Marcia Becker, a colleague of Verhel’s when she was a dog handler with the Duluth police, continues to train search and rescue dogs and is a member of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad. She contacted Rick Slatten, the squad’s captain, who sent an email to squad members inviting anyone interested to participate in the informal mission.

Bill Townsend arrived on New Year’s Day, along with fellow squad members Katie Olson and Stephanie Sikkink.

“This guy, he looked like he was straight out of Survivor Man,” Chris Verhel said of Townsend. “When he goes, ‘I’m from the St. Louis County Rescue Squad,’ I just about fell off the four-wheeler.”

The rescue squad members searched into the night.

But the prospects were looking more and more dubious.

“It was hard for me to believe that they were still alive,” Chris Verhel said of his dogs. “It’s one of those things where you just stare out the window, praying.”

Townsend returned at 7 a.m. on Friday to continue the hunt. Becker arrived later in the morning. Chris Verhel already had headed to the Richard I. Bong Airport in Superior with a friend who is a pilot for the hoped-for aerial search.

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At about the moment the flight was called off, Chris Verhel got a call from a neighbor who had seen a German shepherd running along the road, heading toward the Verhels’ house.

Verhel’s sister, Chelsea Verhel, who was with Chris, called home, where Jodi answered. They’d just started talking when the Verhels’ 10-year-old daughter, Aveya, spotted Onyx out the window.

“My daughter looks out and says, ‘Oh my God. Onyx! Onyx! Onyx is home,’ ” Jodi Verhel related.

After Chris returned home to a joyful reunion with Onyx, Chris and Chelsea Verhel along with Townsend and Becker looked for Hemi, with Onyx on a leash. They were aided by the footprints Onyx had left in a light dusting of snow, Becker said on Saturday.

A little before 2 p.m., they found Hemi.

“We were able to follow (the tracks) three-quarters to a mile back into the woods where we found the Doberman with his cable all tangled up in brush,” Becker said. “It looked like they had been bedding down in some brush and trees.”

The Verhels reported on Saturday that their dogs were in good health, but tired.

It wasn’t typical work for the Rescue Squad, Becker said, but it made for good training.

Besides, she said, “We’re all kind of animal lovers. … I can just imagine how heartbroken I’d be (if my dog were lost), and I’d want people to come and help me.” 

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