Finding Yoda

February 10, 2020 | Outdoors

A shelter dog named Yoda spends 12 nights in the Montana mountains, and is rescued with the help of the onX Hunt App.

January in Montana can be brutal. Days are short and gray; the sun barely peeking over the horizon just after 8AM and then setting around 5PM. Temperatures swing at random, often driven lower by a significant wind chill. Snow falls then melts, and is soon replaced by even more of the white stuff. For skiers and snowsports lovers, it’s a veritable winter paradise. For a shelter dog out on his own in the mountains surrounding Missoula, it can be downright deadly.

Heeler mix Yoda is no stranger to hard times. Currently awaiting adoption at Missoula’s Humane Society of Western Montana, he came from a so-called “animal sanctuary” where he was held in tight quarters with 80 other dogs and 40 cats. After being rescued from his crowded situation, Yoda was carefully cared for in an undisclosed location for 18 months before being transferred to the Humane Society of Western Montana. There, while awaiting adoption, Yoda worked on his innate fearfulness and shyness with the careful help of shelter staff and volunteers.

Certified professional dog trainer Mariah Scheskie describes Yoda as “fearful” and “a pretty special guy.” She notes he needs particular housing with multiple fences, as he can be considered a “flight risk” due to his troubled past. But despite it all, he’s slowly learning to enjoy people.

Yoda the dog gets plenty of cuddles and walks at the Humane Society of Western Montana.

“He’s great at the shelter,” Mariah notes. “He enjoys it. He sees tons of people and goes on walks.”

Yoda was fostered to an area home in January but escaped, leaving Mariah and other Missoula-area volunteers with a conundrum. Yoda had escaped into the mountains surrounding Missoula, an area that is home to a healthy population of predators. Mountain lions, in particular, are a constant concern. The winter weather was also a factor: a shelter dog, on his own in the Montana mountains, seemingly didn’t stand much of a chance.

Mariah’s first hope was a random phone call from a hiker who had seen Yoda while trekking the trails behind her house. She had been unable to get close to Yoda, but the sighting at least provided a position of reference. Mariah met the woman, who explained the sighting location and promptly pulled up the onX Hunt App, where she had recorded her hiking path using the Tracks feature. Mariah took a snapshot of the track and then got the Hunt App the next day, quickly zeroing in on where the hiker had traveled and finding intersecting trails in the area for varied access.

Screenshot of an onX Hunt App Track used to help find Yoda the missing shelter dog.

Now with a concrete sighting location Mariah rallied her hiking friends, and soon a posse was combing the mountains, looking for tracks and any signs of Yoda. Everyone was armed with the Hunt App and marked any dog print or predator sightings with Waypoints and then shared them with Mariah. Predators were doubly a concern, as the team had set humane traps and were baiting them with food, hoping to lure Yoda into a safe capture. Mariah kept local wildlife professionals’ numbers on speed-dial in case the team caught something they didn’t want to catch.

“We had to hike in. Pull the trap up, and pull a cart up with us,” Mariah notes. The trap site was nearly three miles from the nearest road, making for a round trip of six miles. Some people went up twice a day, putting out food and setting the trap during day and checking at night.”

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Mariah also deployed a new cellular camera, hoping for sightings and an easier way to monitor sections of the trail, but a fierce windstorm affected the camera’s ability to transmit data.

The team continued to work the old-fashioned way—looking for tracks. Every night the team would assess the day’s Waypoints and Tracks, studying the terrain and any patterns in Yoda’s movement. There’s a science to safely recapturing a fearful dog.

“Catching fearful dogs is very different from catching your own dog,” shares Mariah. The key to catching a fearful dog is to establish a feeding pattern / routine near the area with the trap. Keep them coming for several days so they develop a routine—you want the dog to associate the sound of people coming and leaving with snacks and food. We bungee the door open and let them go in and out for a few days, then when we’re feeling like the pattern is really reliable, we go ahead and set the trap.

“In Yoda’s case, there was a time crunch; the night before we caught him it was 0 degrees, so everyone felt the crunch. The wildlife professionals were quite concerned about predators in the area as well.”

All in all, Yoda was in the mountains for 12 nights before he was safely captured in the trap. He’d been missing for an entire week before the hiker first sighted him and called Mariah; the team then spent five days hiking up mountains, searching for tracks and carefully setting traps. It was a long process; one requiring patience, perseverance and long hours in the mountains. And while it was the volunteers’ effort that eventually saw Yoda safely recaptured, the team was grateful to have the Hunt App with them in the mountains.

Images of volunteers safely recapturing Yoda the missing shelter dog in the mountains near Missoula, Montana.

“It really was a lifesaver,” Mariah commented. “When we started, I had no idea where we were going. It really was a helpful tool, especially when our cameras were down.” Most people on the rescue team didn’t have the App. “It’s not just for hunting!” Mariah shared with a laugh.

Yoda is now back at the Humane Society of Western Montana enjoying full meals, a cozy place to sleep and nice long walks with volunteers. It’s taken a few days to recover from his impromptu adventure, but he’s in good hands and is quickly returning to his normal, healthy self. He’s awaiting adoption with the right person in the perfect home—one with plenty of well-fenced space to roam.

Header Image: Sitka Tran