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Meet the pet detective who helps people find their lost dogs — for free

The secret to her success? Rotisserie chicken, dirty underwear and bed linen.
Babs Fry, a realtor in San Diego, helps reunite people with their lost pets, particularly dogs. While most cases are local, some involve missing animals in other states or even other countries, like Canada and Australia.
Babs Fry, a realtor in San Diego, helps reunite people with their lost pets, particularly dogs. While most cases are local, some involve missing animals in other states or even other countries, like Canada and Australia.Courtesy of Babs Fry/ Darlene Horn
/ Source: TODAY

Rotisserie chicken and a “pet recovery specialist” have played a critical role in reuniting many Southern California residents with their lost dogs.

Take the case of Doctor, a mixed-breed dog who escaped from a pet sitter’s home just 20 minutes after Darlene and Paul Horn dropped him off. They were packing for a trip to Alaska when they got the call that their 6-year-old pup had gone missing.

“As a childless couple, we consider Doctor pretty much our family,” Darlene Horn, 45, told TODAY.

Darlene Horn high fives her dog, Doctor.
Darlene Horn and her husband consider their dog, Doctor, a member of the family. They take him on vacations when possible, like this cross-country trip to Maine.Courtesy of Darlene Horn

Panicked, she reached out to Babs Fry, who is well known in San Diego for volunteering to help reunite owners with lost pets, particularly dogs. Fry shares photos, videos and stories of dogs lost and found on her Facebook page.

The pet recovery specialist recommended they split up: One should wait at the pet sitter’s house in case Doctor returned, the other at their own home — with all doors open and the lights on. Meanwhile, they spread the news about Doctor on the neighborhood social network site Nextdoor as well as Facebook and Twitter (and canceled their trip to Alaska).

Doctor smiles at his owners after being found.
Doctor smiles at his family immediately after being reunited. The 6-year-old dog had been missing for 88 hours.Courtesy of Darlene Horn

Several days later, two neighbors reported seeing Doctor in a nearby canyon. Fry suggested the Horns use her not-so-secret weapon: rotisserie chicken. So Paul Horn spread a blanket near the last place where Doctor was seen and opened the package of chicken, releasing the aroma into the air. He sat quietly and, instead of screaming the dog’s name to keep from scaring him, jingled the belt that usually meant it was time for a walk.

Minutes later, Doctor was in his arms, wagging like crazy. The couple was, of course, overjoyed.

“It had been 88 hours,” Horn said. “He had lost 3 pounds, but he was happy.”

Fry refused payment for her services and instead asked the Horns to “pay it forward” by helping others with lost pets.

“I’ve taken it to heart because this is priceless,” Horn said.

For five years, Fry, a 49-year-old realtor, has been helping people like the Horns because she can relate to the desperation of losing a dog. The longtime rescue advocate had fostered about 200 dogs when a particularly fearful pooch named Prada ran away after just 12 hours in her care. Thanks to advice from a friend who had experience finding lost dogs, she reunited with Prada a week later.

“It was nothing short of a miracle,” Fry told TODAY. “It made me a believer.”

Now Fry offers free phone consultations to “pretty much anyone” who calls about a lost dog; she fields about six calls a day. Most people are local, but some live out of state or in other countries, like Canada and Australia.

Babs Fry holds Shelby, a dog missing for 28 days in the woods.
"Pet recovery specialist" Babs Fry holds Shelby, a dog who ran away on a camping trip when scared by Fourth of July fireworks. Shelby survived in the woods for 28 days before being reunited with her owner thanks to help from Fry.Courtesy of Babs Fry

The No. 1 mistake she says people make when a dog goes missing is immediately looking for it, which spreads the owner’s scent around town.

“Rather than returning back to where that dog thinks it’s going to find you, it’s on a wild-goose chase looking for you where you’ve been looking for it,” she said.

Another common mistake is calling for the dog since they’re typically in “fight or flight” mode, she said.

“So your dog gets frightened and is hiding in a bush with you screaming its name,” she said. “It's in the bush going, ‘Oh my God, Mom's here, too. I’d better stay right here because I have no idea what's out there. But if she is scared, I’d better be really frightened.’"

Babs Fry hugs a dog named Lilah.
Babs Fry hugs a dog named Lilah after releasing her from a humane trap last May. Lilah was lost for three days along a busy Southern California freeway before Fry reunited her with her owner.Courtesy of Babs Fry

While every situation is different, as a general rule, Fry advises establishing a safe place for the dog to return to and creating a PR campaign using posters and social media.

Because dogs’ sense of smell is so strong, she often suggests owners lead their pets to a humane trap near the last place the dog was seen with rotisserie chicken, dirty underwear and/or used bedsheets.

“Smell is everything,” she said. “When dogs are out on their own — or even when they’re on their leash with their owners — they’ve got their nose to the ground or in the air.”

Fry, who is working to establish a nonprofit called A Way Home for Animals in order to help more people and pets, hopes the public will stop trying to capture lost or loose dogs they see on roadsides. She said often a dog will get scared while being chased and run into traffic, risking injury or death. It’s better to stop and report the sighting on social media sites for lost pets, according to Fry.

“Reporting is crucial because those are the leads that get people back to their dogs or people like me, the leads that I need to help an owner do the right things,” she said.

After countless experiences with lost dogs, Fry is awed by their resilience and survival instincts — as well as their capacity for trust and unconditional love.

“You can never underestimate them,” she said. “They’re pretty amazing.”

Babs Fry offers free phone consultations for people with lost pets at 619-249-2221.