Strangers help lost dog make cross-country trip home

Professional BMX rider Eric Hough has an entire network of complete strangers to thank for an unexpected but long dreamed of reunion with the four-legged friend who disappeared from his home three years ago.

Smoke on the sixth leg of his journey from Florida to California. (Photo credit: Bring Smoke Home Facebook)

When Hough adopted Smoke, an American Pit Bull Terrier named for his smoke-grey colored fur, he and his new dog developed a strong friendship. From the start, it seemed Smoke was meant to be a part of the family, joining Hough and his Chihuahua at a large five bedroom Echo Park, Calif., house.

“For whatever reason, that dog and me bonded real fast and it was our family,” Hough tells ABC News.

About four months after adopting Smoke, tragedy struck. To make some extra cash, Hough rented out rooms in his home, but one female tenant had been creating big problems for some time. Hough decided the problem tenant had to go. But on the same day the woman was evicted, Smoke disappeared. After searching high and low for his missing dog, Hough assumed his disgruntled former tenant had stolen the dog. Desperate for answers, Hough contacted the police.

After three long years with no sign of Smoke’s whereabouts, Hough had all but given up hope that he would ever see his dog again. Whether lost or stolen, the broken-hearted BMXer thought Smoke was long gone. But it turns out fate — and a dedicated group of rescue volunteers—had other ideas.

On June 6, authorities caught a stray dog roaming the streets of Cocoa, Fla., a grey Pit Bull with a sweet face and a story no one could have guessed. Police dropped the dog off at the Brevard Animal Services shelter. When shelter staff scanned the Pittie for a microchip, they discovered the dog’s name and his owner’s name. But when Brevard Animal Services tried to contact Hough at the numbers listed, they were no longer in service. In the three years since Smoke’s disappearance, Hough had moved, and shelter staff wondered if they would ever be able to get in contact with Smoke’s owner.

That’s where real-life pet detective and Missing Pet Partnership volunteer Ryan Gamache comes in. Gamache heard Smoke’s story and knew he had to do something to help the big guy get home to his family.

“I love those hard cases, so I picked it up,” Gamache explains. The seasoned detective got to work, using every resource possible to track down Eric Hough. “It took quite a bit of effort to find Eric,” Gamache says, “and then it was even harder to get him to sit down and listen.”

Gamache couldn’t get Hough on the phone directly, so he tried to get ahold of people who knew the BMX star.

“When they started contacting me, it was through my sponsors and friends,” Hough says, explaining he was skeptical. “I’m like, immediately thinking they’re trying to get information for identity theft.”

Hough’s sponsors persisted, telling Hough that the calls were about a missing dog. His Chihuahua was safe at home, so that could only mean one thing. He agreed to speak with Gamache just to be sure.

“I was like, ‘Oh, wow. This is about me. Wait is this about the Pit Bull?” Hough remembers muttering through the shock. After all the uncertainty, and three long years, was it actually possible Smoke could finally come home? “And it suddenly just came back. I was, like, two seconds away from losing the opportunity to ever get him back again,” a grateful Hough says.

But how would Hough and Smoke reunite? Hough still lived in California, and Smoke was waiting at that shelter in Florida. The cross-country trip would have cost Hough nearly $2,500, and while Hough was more than ready to shell out the dough to see his dog again, a nonprofit organization called Kindred Hearts decided to step in.

Kindred Hearts is a network of volunteers who transport rescue animals throughout the country. When they heard Smoke’s story they were glad to lend a hand — and some wheels. Volunteers from coast to coast mobilized, dividing Smoke’s journey into a four day, 30-leg trip that would cover the 2,500 miles between Florida and Hough’s California home. The group was set to depart Thursday, July 4, and arrive at Hough’s home late Sunday evening.

“People from all over the country that I’ve never met are doing all the driving for him,” said Kindred Hearts representative and trip organizer Heather McNally. “It’s almost addicting. Once you do it once, you just want to do another. It feels so good to be able to help a dog.”

Each Kindred Hearts driver took a different one-and-a-half hour leg of the voyage, and some even offered to stay with the lovable Pittie in motels overnight. Ryan Gamache, the pet detective who took Smoke’s case, even offered to drive Smoke part of the way.

“It’s inspiring to watch,” Gamache says of the Kindred Hearts efforts. He couldn’t resist being a part of the happy reunion he helped make possible. “A lot of our cases don’t always have happy endings,” the detective explains.

Hough says he has two pieces of advice for all pet owners, and for those who are searching for their own missing furry friends.

“Always use microchips with your pets, and never give up hope,” Hough tells CBS News Los Angeles, “we did it, we brought Smoke home.”

Sources: ABC News, CBS News Los Angeles