It was a sad day last month when Sparky the dog ran away during his regular outing near Fort Funston. While frolicking off leash with a group of dog buddies, the 11-year-old Australian shepherd got separated from his walker and quickly disappeared into the underbrush.
Sparky was gone in an instant.
Bryan Mason’s 7-year-old son, Hank, was in tears. Mason and Holly Reeves, his fiancee and Sparky’s original owner, decided they were going to go all out.
“Sparky,” Mason wrote in an e-mail, “is family. As I plan to marry Holly, I want her to know what kind of commitment I have to her. As I try to help Hank grow into a man, I want to lead by example. This is what a man does. A man cries, and keeps taping things to light posts until somebody calls.”
So it’s a familiar story: Dog lost, flyers printed up, owners search areas where their pet might be.
But Mason took this dog search to a new level. He used an interactive Google map, a Facebook page, some workers from the personal errand service TaskRabbit, and 6 1/2 gallons of urine. (More about that in a moment.)
The Google map may the best example of the high-tech pet search.
“The map was just trying to keep everything straight,” he said. “Holly would get calls saying, ‘Oh yes, we saw the dog. He was here.’ So I started charting.”
Mason added pins to mark the location and time of each sighting, along with a description of what Sparky was doing, like when he was spotted near the 14th hole of the Olympic Club Golf Course at 10:30 on a Thursday morning.
Mason linked that data to a Facebook page titled Find Sparky Now and offered a $1,000 reward.
He also spent about $80 for a feature he hadn’t heard of, called a “post boost.” That’s a sponsored Facebook post that goes to geo-targeted users. So, in Mason’s case, his “help us look for Sparky” went to Facebook users in Daly City and the surrounding 5-mile area.
“That turned into 13,000 views,” Mason said, “which led to a total of 32,000 views.”
Mason and Reeves also used Facebook posts to organize search parties.
“We’d say we were all meeting at Fort Funston at 3 p.m.,” Mason said. “And people would always show up. Sometimes people I didn’t even know.”
They also went old school, with 2,500 flyers and 5,000 smaller handbills. But even that had a tech component. To get the word out, Mason went to TaskRabbit, which allows users to hire workers to complete everyday tasks. Mason had his TaskRabbits – at $20 an hour – put up flyers, and in the interest of fairness, hired them again to take down the flyers after Sparky was found.
Unfortunately, after the first four days, the trail went cold. Over the next four days there was still no sign of Sparky. Getting discouraged – particularly when bystanders felt compelled to remind them that dog-killing coyotes were in the area – Reeves and Mason hired a pet tracker.
They were told to collect “a bunch of urine from someone Sparky knows well, dilute it, and create a trail to a safe place.”
Which is how Mason and Reeves ended up with 6 1/2 gallons of urine – “We decided to call it ‘scent,’ ” Mason says – to lay down a 3 1/2-mile trail with squirt bottles.
But before they could create that trail, they were contacted by a woman who had spotted Sparky in her backyard. They rushed over, but he was gone. However, from their Google map tracking, they knew Sparky was most active early in the morning and just before dusk.
Sure enough, that evening he showed up again in the backyard. A search party was formed, and one of the dog walkers spotted him and offered him a treat.
“And Sparky said, ‘Sure,’ ” Mason says.
To thank the volunteers, the family posted a happy hour on Facebook, and more than 15 people showed up.
“Sparky bought all the drinks,” Mason said. “Because he was very grateful.”
He should be, since Mason spent about $1,000 finding him.
In all he was missing for 10 days. But now, after a little extra sleep and several treats, Sparky is delighted to be back home. So now that he’s settled in, is he more cautious when he’s off leash?
“We will never know,” Mason said. “Because he’s never coming off the leash again.”