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In Holland, a lost dog that rallied a whole community finds a happy ending

Carhartt is a caramel-colored puppy with a shaggy coat and fluffy bangs that flop over his big, black eyes. He’s about the size of a 10-pound bag of potatoes and acts the same when you pick him up, letting his tiny Shih Tzu body melt into your arms like dead weight. His snout is a deep brown, along with his droopy ears. He’s got a long tail, which he holds slightly above the ground when he prances about. And right now, Carhartt looks ridiculous.

“Sit down, peg leg,” chides Jeff Heitman, Carhartt’s owner. “You’re going to get your cast dirty.”

Carhartt’s hobbling around the driveway of Heitman’s home in South Wales, trying to maintain a playful gait while lugging around a plaster cast that makes his right hind leg look 4 inches longer than it actually is. His spirits are high. He must be aware of his newfound celebrity.

Before a rainy day in early June, Carhartt was just a normal, rambunctious 1-year-old dog, but in a week’s time, everyone in Holland knew his name.

Carhartt, a tiny Shih Tzu, wears his plaster cast. (Emilee Lindner/Special to The News)

Heitman was visiting his 90-year-old aunt on Garfield and Park streets in the town of Holland on June 4, when a crack of thunder spooked Carhartt and his charcoal-furred brother Coleman into the woods at about 8 p.m. Heitman called for the dogs to come back, as they usually do when they hear his voice, but only Coleman came trotting out of the trees. 

Heitman called again for Carhartt. And again. He went after Carhartt, looking all around for the scared pup. It was getting darker, and the rain clouds blocked any remaining sunlight.

“I looked for him all night long,” said Heitman, 27. “I was looking in people’s garages, under their porch steps, under their pool deck. I figured someone would call the cops, but nobody did.”

Soon, Carhartt gained “lost dog” status. His googly-eyed mug appeared on flyers around town – the Holland Pharmacy, the Zider Zee restaurant and other places. He was in Facebook posts written by Heitman and ex-girlfriend Lindsey Rickettson, who shares custody of Carhartt and Coleman. One post got shared more than 600 times, with a few others in the hundreds as well.

“Every time I drive thru Holland I drive slow and look. Praying you find the sweetheart soon,” one person commented. “Everybody is looking,” wrote another person. Many others shared their own experiences: “When Sox went missing, it was for 2 whole days... But it was thanks to our awesome community that we found him. That same community is gonna help you find Carhartt. I’m sure of it.”

Even Coleman suspected something was wrong. “He knew,” Heitman says. “He was looking for him all the time. He was sad about it.”

Since Heitman never does anything small (he owns his own semi-trucking and building demolition businesses), he didn’t stop at flyers and Facebook statuses. Rickettson printed up vinyl signs to stake on the side of Route 16 between Holland and South Wales, along with an 8-foot-tall billboard with their phone numbers printed in large, red block lettering.

With daily commuters taking Route 16 to go to work, along with truckers on through trips, everyone who drove through Holland knew who Carhartt was. The sign even got the attention of a retired dog psychic, who called Heitman and offered her services free of charge.

“She’s like, ‘He’s 5 to 10 miles away,’ ” Heitman recalled, “ ‘and he’s with somebody. I can see that he’s confused and I can see he’s going around in circles. And somebody has him and he’s safe.’” Heitman’s not really into psychics, but he said, “I was open to any option. I didn’t care. At least it gave [me] something.”

About halfway through the week, days after Carhartt dashed off, Heitman got another call – this time from someone who thought they saw the dog near a barn on Holland Glenwood Road. He drove there immediately. But after searching and calling Carhartt's name, there was no sign of the dog – only the observation that a bowl of cat food had gone missing.

•••

At 9:15 a.m. Sunday, June 11, Andrea Lewis was trudging through dewy grass to turn on her pool heater when a tan mound of fur caught her eye about 100 feet away. Knowing that her backyard has been a playground for coyote and fox, she didn’t know what to expect when she approached the creature with caution. Her husband, who wasn’t too far away, joined her, and together they wondered out loud with disbelief, “Could that be Carhartt?”

Sure enough, Carhartt, muddy and wet, lifted his weak head, exposing an innocent face that had been plastered on posters all week. Remembering seeing those posters and hearing people talking about the dog around the area, Lewis’ husband, also named Jeff, drove a minute into town, grabbing a flyer to get Heitman’s number.

Eerily enough, the Lewises had just laid one of their old Shih Tzus to rest in the backyard a few days prior to finding Carhartt. They grabbed some of their dog treats and got Carhartt to crawl toward them. He gobbled them up hungrily.

Fifteen minutes after dialing Heitman’s number, Heitman pulled into their driveway, only a quarter mile from the barn on Holland Glenwood Road. Eagerly, he walked to the back of the house to see Carhartt curled up in the grass.

“I had to get five feet close to him and then he recognized me,” Heitman remembers, smirking as if he’s holding back a larger smile. “Yeah, he was all excited. He was bitin’.”

(Photo courtesy of Jill Zientek)

A photo taken by Lewis’ cousin Jill Zientek that Sunday shows Heitman looking lovingly at his pup as the morning sun beats down through a blue sky. Carhartt’s wrapped in a lime green beach towel, looking disheveled but relieved. It’s a photo that got shared triumphantly around Facebook – the happy ending to a sad story.

Carhartt was less than a mile from where he was lost, but he had to cross busy Route 16, either by bridge or by following the east branch of the Cazenovia Creek underneath.

Taken to the veterinarian immediately after his rescue, Carhartt was diagnosed with a fractured leg (Heitman guesses it might be from a horse kick in the barn) and an ear infection. After his doctor’s appointment, Heitman took him back to the place where the dog first took off – to visit his aunt again, who was anticipating Carhartt’s return.

Coleman was elated to see his brother, too, getting protective of him now whenever Heitman’s cat Mikey comes around.

•••

Heitman gets a towel from his garage and lays it down for Carhartt like he’s some sort of pampered prince. The dog ignores it and keeps frolicking with Coleman, stopping to bark at someone who pulled over on the side of the road.

“He’s crazy,” Heitman said shyly, when asked about what he loves about his canine. “He loves to snuggle and he’s definitely goofy.”

Heitman said he wanted to thank the town of Holland and Rickettson. He scoops up Carhartt, who sits loyally in his arms. His paws hang down limp, along with the oversized cast. Carhartt looks at home.

After his incredible journey, in this moment, it doesn’t seem like the dog will ever run off again. That is, until he gets his cast off. He’s got fans to meet.

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