WALLA WALLA -- Lora Lee Pernick received an unusual Mother's Day gift about a week ahead of time this year. The story behind the sweetest of presents began nine months earlier, however.
Last July, Pernick and her husband were on their way to Seattle in the family camper when they stopped in Pasco for supplies, the Walla Walla woman said. Her dog Sally was along for the ride, as always -- Pernick has owned the husky-shepherd mix since Sally's puppy days.
At the box store where the Pernicks had stopped, Lora Lee had gone inside to shop when her husband decided he needed something from the camper. Sally chose that moment to bolt.
"It was dark outside and he left the door open. Out she went," Lora Lee explained.
Sally was gone into the night, far from home in four-legged miles.
Pernick feared the worst. Sally was born with a shy disposition and Pernick felt the pup would never approach strangers who might try to rescue her, she said. "I was very worried she would starve to death."
The family advertised online and in every newspaper in the region they could think of. They followed up on each tip and the reported glimpses of Sally in fields and orchards around the Tri-Cities.
"But there was never a Sally when I went to look."
After three months she began the process of letting go, Lora Lee said. "It is expensive to do that much advertising. I had contacted every shelter, every rescue group. I sent them all pictures. She wasn't found dead or anything."
As if Sally had disappeared into a black hole -- "I had to leave it at that."
Fast forward to late April.
Jody Buttice was driving down Isaacs Avenue six weeks ago when she saw a dog in the field across from a restaurant. "Just standing there, looking lost," she remembered.
Buttice tried to coax the pooch before it ran off, to no avail.
She took the extra step of calling Walla Walla's animal control officer, Sallie McCullough, who had received notice of other sightings of this stray dog.
She hears about 50 or so lost dogs a month, the officer estimated. "Too many to keep track of in my head."
When asked about setting a trap for the elusive animal, she explained the task was made improbable by the canine's constant roving over a "large" area, McCullough said. She had glimpsed this stray herself but could never get near it. "I did think 'Someone owns that dog. Somebody is missing that dog.'"
She advised Buttice to try feeding the stray, which was wearing a collar and part of a leash.
Buttice, who teaches preschool and nurtures by nature, was happy to try.
She spotted the same dog two weeks ago, she said. "She was at Lions Park digging through the garbage. I tried to call her ... she just looked lost."
Same action, same result -- it was time to add some incentive.
"I bought a burger at McDonald's. I called her and she wouldn't come so I finally just threw the burger."
As she drove off, Buttice could see that the dog was eating the meat, she said.
On another day, she lobbed a second hamburger toward the stray, who again gobbled it up as soon as Buttice had left the spot.
They say the third time's a charm and Buttice was at No. 3. "I got out of my car and threw a biscuit. She ate it and didn't run away this time. So I sat down on the ground and talked to her."
Tossing out kibble and bits of biscuit, Buttice kept up a steady stream of quiet reassurance while the dog inched closer and closer.
"I finally got down to my last bit of food and she ate it out of my hand."
Buttice grabbed the frayed leash, but her new fan was so skittish, she worried about being bit, so the woman dropped the strap. Still she talked to the dog, she said.
Although free to go, the stray did not run off this time. "She did this little happy circle around me and doing ... what I would call playful barks. And I talked to her and she talked back. It was crazy but good crazy."
Again the pooch danced close enough for Buttice to snatch up the leash. Then the dog refused to move with her to the car, Buttice said.
Not knowing if she would get bit, Buttice picked the animal up and plunked her into the vehicle. With that, the dog instantly relaxed, as if she understood this marked an end.
Actually it was the point of renewal, but no one knew that at the moment. Buttice delivered the "skinny, poor thing" to the Blue Mountain Humane Society, only because she knew her husband would never agree to add to the three dogs already at home, she said. "I planned to keep tabs on her. I wasn't just going to leave her at the pound."
Meanwhile, the teacher could see rabies tags on the dog's collar, but no name tag. "I didn't think they would ever find the owner.
Neither did McCullough. "People do rescues all over the nation, but without ID, (pets) never get back to their rightful owner."
But this was everyone's lucky day. This pet turned out to be licensed, which costs $15 in the city of Walla Walla.
And that license revealed the dog was the long-lost Sally.
Her girl was "very thin" when Pernick responded to McCullough's call and arrived to see if this Sally was the real deal. ""At first when I went to the Humane society, she acted like didn't know me. But then she got to sniffing me and then she knew me."
McCullough had heard about Pernick's loss last summer, but with so many months in between, would have never made the connection, the animal control officer said. "It's an amazing distance for the dog to have made it from Pasco back to Walla Walla and only blocks from where it lived."
The Pernicks' story highlights the importance of licensing and micro chipping pets, who get stolen or lost, she pointed out.
Sally is now following her human mother from room to room and bolting her food "like she hasn't eaten in a trillion years," Lora Lee said.
She remains grateful for Buttice's care and compassion, she added. If people will learn from the example and feed a stray a "little bit," it could lead to happy endings like hers, Pernick noted.
She considers Sally to be like her child, the happy pet owner said -- Mother's Day can't get any better at her house.