A Breckenridge man’s dog ran off after his wife died. It survived 5 weeks in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains before being rescued by a hiker.
The smallest of 6 dogs at the Breckenridge homestead, Riley nonetheless is the, "Alpha dog" and "boss of the house," according to the dog's owner
New to Breckenridge, Zach Hackett was exploring on the trails on Peak 4 behind his new apartment last month when he heard a single, “Yip.”
If not for that small cry, Hackett probably never would have spotted Riley, a 9-year-old sheltie that somehow survived five weeks through Colorado’s wintry conditions. But there, off trail where Hackett had just happened to wander, the small black-and-white dog sat among the downed trees, emaciated and hardly able to move.
“He had no energy when I found him. He knew he was in trouble. He knew he needed to be rescued,” Hackett said. “So that little ‘yip’ was the only exertion of energy he had that night. It was a, ‘Hey, save me.'”
In steep, timber-laden terrain above 12,000 feet and having crossed the Blue River to reach the trailhead, Hackett knew it wouldn’t be any easy task to get the dog home — but he also felt he had no other choice.
“He was in rough shape, so I knew right away he needed to be rescued. I didn’t have to question that,” Hackett said. “I’m the type of person I really care about everyone, no matter who you are — all living things.”
So, he wrapped Riley in a windbreaker, not so much to warm him up but to provide a feeling of comfort, as he made the two-hour trek down the mountain, where snow in places was still several feet deep.
“Someone told me someone else might have left him,” he said. “That never would have even crossed my mind. For me, it’s not, ‘Do I save him?’ It’s, ‘How do I do it?'”
When Riley was eventually reunited with her owner, Mike Krugman, several days later, Krugman had only one word that he felt could adequately describe how the dog had lived for so long alone in the cold: “a miracle.”
Krugman lives on 36 acres of fenced-in land just north of Breckenridge, so he thought nothing of it when he let Riley — one of six dogs in the house — out at the end of the night, as he does most nights.
Usually, Riley will walk to the end of the asphalt or to the barn and then come back. But he didn’t come back that cold April night.
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Despite being the smallest of the six, Riley has always been the “Alpha dog” and “boss of the house,” Krugman said, nipping at the larger collies then darting away before they could bite back.
Really, Riley was his wife’s dog, Krugman explained, and would sleep on her pillow every night, playing a little game where he would sit up and then fall over backward onto the pillow before bed.
When his wife, Pam, died in January, Riley felt her absence as much as anyone, he said.
“It was a shock to the dog that Pam was no longer here,” Krugman said. “She was here one day, and then she’s not. I think he’s still adjusting, expecting her to walk in, but it isn’t going to happen.”
Once he realized that Riley had run off, Krugman searched the property inside out, day and night.
After a few days of looking, Krugman called Summit Lost Pet Rescue, a group of local volunteers dedicated to finding lost pets. The group, which has conducted hundreds of rescues and has a success rate near 90%, jumped into action. Soon, volunteers were doing a grid search across his entire snow-covered property and posting fliers for the missing dog as far away as Swan Mountain Road.
“Pam would take him walking outside the fence. She would take him down the road,” Krugman said. “Maybe he thought she was out there somewhere.”
Brandon Ciullo, a cofounder of the pet rescue group, said Krugman searched relentlessly for days. With about six days with no sightings, Ciullo set up a camera near Krugman’s property. Still nothing.
At one point, there was a sighting of a black-and-white dog crossing Colorado Highway 9 near the Frisco Adventure Park and St. Anthony Summit Hospital. Volunteers fanned out and found the dog — as well as another missing dog — but it wasn’t Riley, Krugman said.
Pretty quickly, the trail went cold.
“We have numerous volunteers that spend hours and hours out there,” Ciullo said. “Unfortunately when the case goes cold and other cases come in, that’s when we kind of rely on the public.”
As the weeks went by with no sightings, Krugman started to assume the worst. Between the incessant winter weather and predators, including mountain lions that had been recently sighted near Peak 7, he thought there was no way Riley could have survived so long.
Still, Summit Lost Pet Rescue never gave up, he said.
“The search and rescue group, they held out hope all the way,” Krugman said. “They were still looking for him until he was found. This wasn’t something you look for a few days and that’s it. We were still getting calls two to three weeks later and getting locations and looking.”
Coincidence and community
Hackett, a Michigan native, found himself uprooted during the pandemic and has since been moving around the country, trying to find a place to call home. Then, six months ago he moved to Summit County.
“Instantly, I realized I’m not going anywhere,” Hackett said. “I finally found my home.”
After wrapping up a winter job with Vail Resorts, Hackett moved into a new apartment in Breckenridge. The property backs right up to the mountains, he said, so naturally he had to explore it.
On May 14, exactly five weeks and one day after Riley escaped on April 8, Hackett was up in the mountain for the first time. He had crossed a narrow section of the Blue River that flows between his apartment and the mountain and had been meandering on and off the trails, dodging puddles and large piles of slushy snow.
“I kept looking for these different routes and shortcuts and basically every time I tried to go somewhere there was too much water, too much snow,” Hackett said. “It was just so random that I ended up there. It was random that I just decided to hike that day. I was kind of just wandering.”
Around 7:15 p.m., when Riley had determined he should just head back the way he came before it got dark, he heard the “yip.”
For two hours, Hackett trekked downhill, the dog in his arms, through snow and sticks, wearing nothing but tennis shoes. The whole time, he said, he worried about dropping Riley and kept whispering to him in a soothing voice.
“I tried to just always have a calm voice to just convey the energy of ‘hang on just a little longer, you’re not dying tonight buddy,'” Hackett said. “It was helping me as well as helping him.”
After scrambling down the mountain, somehow managing not to drop the dog, Hackett still had to cross the Blue River — which had begun to swell with spring runoff — to get back to his apartment.
There were few spots where the water wasn’t raging or where it wouldn’t be too wide or deep to cross, Hackett said, but he eventually found a spot where he thought he could make it. After pulling on some knee-high waders and with a stick in one hand and Riley in the other, he stepped into the river.
“I had it in my head that the only way to safely get down before it was pitch black dark was to go back across the Blue River,” Hackett said. “I was so nervous that I set him down and regrouped myself. I was so nervous because if I fell it would be a really bad situation.”
Not only did Hackett fear for his own safety, but Riley was exhausted. If the dog somehow fell in, there was no way he could save himself. Somehow, though, the two made it across and back to the apartment.
Knowing the closest emergency veterinarian would be in Denver, Hackett decided to care for Riley through the night and reassess in the morning. He took Riley into his bathroom, filled the tub with warm water and, with scissors and baby wipes, began to clean his matted fur.
After he was cleaner and warm, Hackett bundled Riley in warm towels and blankets and checked on him on and off through the night.
The next day, he brought Riley to the Breckenridge Animal Clinic. The dog, once about 24 pounds, weighed just more than 12, according to Krugman, and spent the next three days connected to an IV infusion pump.
“It’s a miracle he got found,” Krugman said. “I don’t think he would have lasted another day based on the condition he was in.”
Ciullo, the cofounder of Summit Lost Pet Rescue, noted that especially when a dog has been missing for a long time, members of the public such as Hackett, who report a lost dog or help rescue one, are often a lost pet’s last hope.
“Zach is the real hero,” Ciullo said. “Because this showcases how a bystander, just a normal citizen who noticed something out of place and took action, saved a dog’s life.”
For his part, Hackett is happy the whole situation introduced him to a neighbor — Krugman — who lives just 2 miles away but who he may never have met otherwise. Since the rescue, Hackett has become friends with Krugman and checked in on Riley twice.
Meanwhile back at Krugman’s homestead, Riley has “totally recovered and is back to being the Alpha dog now,” he said. With Riley running off so soon after his wife’s death, Krugman wondered whether she might have been what protected the dog for so long and against all odds.
“He was definitely her dog. For the first week or two, he was really not happy about not having her around,” Krugman said. “So, someone was probably looking out for him and I would say it was probably her.”
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