FRESNO — When Scott Hancock and Jason Freeman left their Tower District home for a short trip to the store in September 2009, they did something out of character: They left Zoe, their miniature dachshund, in the back yard to enjoy the day.
When the couple returned, they found the back gate open and Zoe's collar on the driveway.
Hancock and Freeman feared the worse that Zoe had been stolen, taken for dog fighting or abused in another way.
"You hope and pray that she wasn't going through that," Hancock said.
On Friday, almost four years after Zoe's disappearance, Hancock received a startling phone call.
A woman on her morning jog in Turlock found Zoe and took her to Monte Vista Small Animal Hospital, where the staff scanned her microchip and contacted Hancock.
"I almost went into kind of this disbelief for a few minutes," Hancock said.
Then he called Freeman who initially didn't believe Hancock and thought he was joking to go pick her up. They knew immediately that the dog was theirs by seeing her familiar wobble, which she has had since a spinal surgery in 2008.
"This dog has been through a lot," Hancock said.
They took Zoe to the vet, who said she looked good aside from being a little dehydrated from roaming around Turlock.
How Zoe traveled more than 80 miles from home is still a mystery, but Hancock and Freeman said they believe she was stolen, then sold because it was obvious that she was well taken care of.
"Our hearts break for them," Hancock said of whoever cared for her in Turlock. "We would love to meet them and thank them for taking care of her." Initial heartbreak Right after Zoe went missing, Hancock and Freeman checked pounds and shelters every day and posted fliers for a year.
When last September rolled around again, they came to terms that they weren't going to find Zoe. In her absence, they fostered another miniature dachshund for six months, Zeus, and adopted Gabby, a 3-year-old miniature dachshund.
Now Gabby, who Freeman said has become the queen of the household since her adoption in December 2009, has to get used to her new playmate, Zoe, now 6 years old.
"There's been a couple of snarls," Freeman said with a chuckle and added that the dogs are becoming fast friends.
Zoe is a lot more clingy than she used to be and doesn't let Freeman or Hancock out of her sight.
"She just wants to snuggle and cuddle," Freeman said.
She is also now house-broken, and has a little more gray on her muzzle, but she is still the same Zoe, Hancock said.
Key lesson Freeman said it's important to get pets microchipped and keep the information current.
This was the first time the couple used the animal-finding technology, but they wouldn't have gotten Zoe back if it wasn't for the chip, Hancock said.
"We always make sure our animals are chipped," Hancock said.
Thalia Arenas, a humane educator with the Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said that microchipping is beneficial because it is permanently under the skin. Identification tags can fall off.
"It can help with pet theft, animals that are lost or animals that are found deceased," she said.
It is especially helpful during Fourth of July, when many dogs run from their homes scared because of fireworks, she said.
The length of time the CCSPCA will hold a dog is doubled when the animal is microchipped.
Arenas also suggested embroidering the neck band on the animal, getting a GPS collar or one with a QR code, a type of barcode that can be scanned and read with a smartphone.
"People have been getting crafty creating ways to help find animals," Arenas said.
Even though the microchip proved to work and return Zoe home, Hancock and Freeman are a lot more protective of their dogs.
"If the dogs are in the backyard, we're with them," Hancock said.
Where's Fido? Ways to retrieve a pet besides the traditional fliers:
Have a microchip injected into the pet at a local animal hospital or veterinary office.
Buy a GPS tag for the collar; most have smart phone alerts when the animals leaves the property along with its current location.
Register on websites such as www.petamber alert.com, which notifies shelters and veterinary offices, and contacts businesses near where the pet was last seen.
Buy a collar with a QR code that contains vaccination, medication and contact information to be scanned with a smart phone by anyone who finds the animal.