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Missing Hazel: How the internet got Hannah Riley her dog back

When an 11-pound papillon went missing in Atlanta, strangers from around the world stepped in to aid in the search.
Courtesy Hannah Riley

On March 17, Hannah Riley got the phone call no dog owner wants to receive: Her beloved dog, Hazel, was missing — and Riley was out of the country, unable to help. 

“I just kept repeating, ‘Sorry, you lost my dog?’” Riley, a 35-year-old media professional, tells TODAY.com. 

Riley adopted Hazel, an 11-pound papillon, from the Atlanta Humane Center six years ago when she first moved to the city. She credits the dog with helping her through a divorce two years ago. “I know I will love other dogs in my life and I have before her, but Hazel is a special one.” she says. 

Hazel went missing while in the the care of Saint Francis Veterinary Specialists and Emergency, an emergency vet care facility. Hazel initially wound up at the vet after getting into her petsitter’s supply of legal weed gummies, and the petsitter “did the responsible thing,” per Riley, by bringing her to the vet.

Riley learned, in a breach of protocol, a worker took Hazel outside without a leash in a non fenced-in area, where she then ran off. Riley flew home to Atlanta the day after she got the news that Hazel went missing. Once she got back, Riley says she visited the vet with a police officer and demanded to see the footage of Hazel’s escape. The vet barred Riley from viewing said footage, however the police officer with her was able to view the tape.

Hazel is a "house cat," according to Riley.
Hazel is a "house cat," according to Riley.Courtesy Hannah Riley

“I will never know the full story,” Riley says. 

In a statement given to TODAY.com, Thrive Pet Healthcare said, “We are incredibly appreciative of everyone who has volunteered their time to search for Hazel and kept her in their thoughts during this difficult time. Even more importantly, we are humbled to have been given an opportunity to partner with Hazel’s family in her search to return home. We are available and will provide Hazel’s family with any necessary support that they will allow during this reunion and in the future.”

After looking at the “melange of highways” surrounding the veterinary office, Riley remembers thinking to herself, “I’m not going to see her again.”

“This is my absolute nightmare. A dog who’s tripping, probably can’t see well, not walking straight, and has a catheter in her leg. Could not have worse conditions, I think, for surviving an escape like that,” Riley continues.

And while it's possible that Riley wouldn’t have seen Hazel again — the internet stepped in. What followed was an outpouring of support, as internet strangers, Atlanta locals and Riley’s network of friends began their search for the missing pup.

Riley credits her “good fortune” in her background as an organizer and a communications professional for helping rally attention around her cause.

Help, she says, took different forms. By the time Riley and her partner Alejandro were able to return to Atlanta the day after Hazel went missing, her friends had papered missing signs around the city. A friend in Boston sent over a spreadsheet with a list of every shelter in Atlanta. Robin Allgood, a professional dog hunter who has recovered lost dogs in the past, even showed up to help.  

“I can’t tell you the number of texts or DMS that I got from people in Atlanta, who I’ll probably never meet, just saying, ‘Hey, I just wanted you to know, here’s the area that I searched tonight. Just the most incredibly moving show of generosity from strangers,” she says. 

Online, people rallied around Riley’s updates. On Twitter, the word “Hazel” was trending. Searches spiked on Google for “Hazel missing dog.” Her story was covered by a local publication.

Then, there was the work Riley did independently. She took the week off of work to try and track down Hazel’s whereabouts, parsing through an onslaught of leads, tips and random phone calls, up to 15 a day. Riley learned that a man had rescued Hazel from highway traffic, then handed her to a woman he thought was the owner. From there, Hazel went missing yet again. 

Each time Riley's phone rang, she felt hope. But with publicity brought bad intentions. “People would call and they’d be like, ‘I found your dog.’ And then they’d fake bark. It got to me at the time. I was like, ‘Why would you spend your precious energy trolling?’”

She took comfort not from the thought that Hazel was alive — by Wednesday, she thought she had died — but in the actions of strangers. “I felt like so many people were sharing in my sadness ... the global hug that I was feeling was actually one of the only things that that did comfort me,” she says. 

Riley credits the internet’s amplification with her story’s ultimately happy ending: An unlikely reunion with Hazel five days later. 

Hazel at the vet's office after being rescued.
Hazel at the vet's office after being rescued.Courtesy Hannah Riley

At 6:45 p.m. on a Friday, Riley received a text from an unknown number.

“I could see in the little preview, ‘Hi, Hannah. I think I found your dog,’” she remembers. She had received photos of brown and white dogs before, but they weren’t Hazel. This was.

After getting the text, Riley says she screamed.  “My boyfriend heard the scream and was like, ‘Oh my god, they found her dead,’ and my mom heard the scream and was like, ‘Oh my god, they found her alive.'”

Hazel turned up on a family’s doorstep in Decatur, Georgia, just under a mile and a half from the vet facility. Thinking she was the neighbor’s dog, the homeowner tried to shoo her away. Instead, Hazel walked into the house and made herself at home. Confused, the homeowner eventually remembered the article she had read about Hazel's disappearance and put the pieces together.

When Riley finally reunited with Hazel, the pup was three pounds lighter and armed with adventure stories Riley will never fully know.

“She’s elderly. She has a heart murmur. She’s tiny. She doesn’t have very good vision. Her skill set is looking really cute and being very sweet ... I cannot believe she survived for five nights out there ... I underestimated her,” she says.

Once Hazel was safely home, Riley shared the good news with the internet who had been following along. Riley says people shared in her joy just as they had shared in her anxiety. 

“I can’t tell you the number of people who were like, ‘Oh, I sobbed when I saw it.’ To be able to give a story to people that makes them cry happy tears — what an honor (it is) to remind them that there are some real wins in the world,” she says. “I hope people feel like they are sharing in the joy, because they’re such a huge part of why Hazel is back home.”