Here in New England: Hank, a Well-Traveled Dog
There are stories that belong to a place as much as landscape or houses or the people who walk its streets. Through the years, the stories take root and burrow into the fabric of the town. This is such a story. Let’s tell it now before memories become clouded and it slips, as surely it will, in 20 or 30 or 40 years, into local folklore.
The place — Northfield, Massachusetts — lies just south of the New Hampshire border, at the northern edge of the Pioneer Valley. It’s a town without a stoplight, whose graceful 19th-century homes sweep along Main Street until they reach the green expanse of Northfield Mount Hermon School.
A venerable New England prep school, it split its students across two campuses — here in Northfield and at Mount Hermon a few miles to the southwest. But after the 2004-05 academic year, the school tightened its belt and moved everyone to Mount Hermon. The Northfield campus went on the market, leaving it all but deserted.
One family remained, living in a handsome faculty house. Richard Wood is the school’s chief financial officer. He and his wife, Marianne, have three sons (two grown); their youngest, Sam, was living with them and studying at the school. Marianne loved taking Fletcher, the family’s yellow Lab, on long jaunts to nearby wilderness preserves. And this is how, on a fall day in 2005, she found the dog she would call Hank.
“We were climbing Pisgah Mountain,” she remembers, “and I saw this dog. He was emaciated, almost skeleton-like, with these long legs. His left leg quivered whenever he lifted it. I was horrified how thin he was. But I thought, What a gorgeous face. And he was so full of joy. Fletcher was happy to have a buddy. He had no identification. I thought he’d never survive snowfall. All the way to the top, I was looking for people he might belong to. I was happy I didn’t see anyone; I was in love with him. We hiked down together and I brought him home. The dog warden said there were no reports of a missing dog. If no one claimed him in 10 days, we could keep him. The vet said he didn’t know how long he had been without food, but he had torn ligaments in his leg that needed to be repaired. We said yes. He was just so happy and well behaved. He never, ever barked. I counted down the days. After 10 days we registered him. He was ours. We named him for Hank the Cowdog, which we had always read to the kids.”
At first, Hank refused to accept the boundaries of the Woods’ yard, though it stretched nearly the size of a football field. There was so much tempting land to explore. An invisible fence trainer came. Assured that Hank would now stick with Fletcher, Marianne left a back door ajar whenever the family was out, so the dogs could come in and out. That’s how it was on July 11, 2006, with her husband out of town, Sam at the library, and Marianne visiting friends. A sudden and violent thunderstorm swept over Northfield. Driving home, Marianne fretted because Hank was terrified of thunder. When she arrived at 9:30, she found Fletcher, but no Hank. “I knew he had bolted in fear, so he’d be running and running.”
She called for him all night. The next morning, she made posters of Hank and started taking them to nearby stores. “It only takes one time to go look for a dog,” Marianne says, “to realize how ‘needle in the haystack’ it is.” By coincidence, the Woods’ son Jonathan came home from Afghanistan on two weeks’ leave. He drew a perimeter map of where Hank might be over a 20-mile radius. Marianne called it “a perimeter of hope,” and they set out with posters and nails. Hank’s photo stared at people from every gas station, corner store, telephone pole. Police from neighboring towns kept an eye out. Hank’s photo ran in newspapers in Keene, New Hampshire, about 20 miles north; Greenfield, to the south; and Brattleboro, Vermont, to the west. UPS and FedEx drivers said they’d look. Pizza delivery boys slipped photos of Hank into the boxes. A man who drove newspapers to 350 homes put Hank’s poster in each of the mailboxes. Marianne stopped every construction truck she found and handed the workers Hank’s poster. A Winchester, New Hampshire, radio station kept telling its listeners to help find Hank. “It seemed everyone was looking for him,” Marianne says.
The calls came. Hank was traveling far and fast. A postal worker saw him north of Four Corners in Richmond, a local landmark about 12 miles away. A woman called from Richmond. Hank had been in her yard. But she had always feared dogs, so she didn’t approach him. She said, “He just lay down on the side of the road, wet and lost.”