A Tahoe woman, struggling for housing, helps lost pets get home

In the middle of February, a 30-pound dog named Canela ran into the forest that…

In the middle of February, a 30-pound dog named Canela ran into the forest that edges a neighborhood in Lake Tahoe — and disappeared.

Pet owners often think of Tahoe as a dog’s paradise. There are mountain trails to run. Forests to smell. Lakes to swim. In Tahoe, dogs are as much a part of the lifestyle as a ski pass and an A-frame. But pets don’t always stay close to home or their owners. 

For all sorts of reasons — a dog escapes in a hole in a fence, it gets startled by another animal and runs away, wind might blow a gate open, a kid opens a door and the dogs run out, it sniffs its way into the forest and gets disoriented, it gets scared from loud noises like lightning and fireworks, or there are always those irresponsible pet owners — dogs in Tahoe get lost on a near daily basis in the spring, summer and fall. The missing pet signs follow.

Canela was the bright spot in the pandemic for Jonathan Burk, her human, a registered nurse in the Bay Area who works in a hospital. That day in February when Canela went missing, Burk and his boyfriend canceled their ski plans and spent hours walking in the woods, looking for paw prints, shouting her name, on the verge of tears. The more time that passed, the more desperate Burk felt. 

The next morning, Burk went online and found a volunteer who specializes in dog search and rescues in Lake Tahoe and beyond. Her name is Wendy Jones. He called her right away.

“Wendy got, like, incredibly involved immediately,” he told me. When I spoke to Burk on the phone in August, he told me that Jones is the “sweetest person.” He called her an angel. But the first time he spoke with Jones, he got a lecture: “She was so intense. She was like, ‘You’re doing everything wrong.’”

It’s early on a Saturday morning in the middle of a heat wave in July, and I am sitting in the backseat of a van that’s covered in dog hair, with leashes and empty water bowls at my feet. Jones is in the front passenger seat, talking very fast into her iPhone. Heidi Nelson, the co-founder of an animal rescue service, is driving. We are heading down an arrow-straight highway that cuts across the sagebrush desert in Nevada, just on the other side of the mountains from Lake Tahoe. Our destination is a boondocked campsite, where a small fluffy white dog named Baby was last seen before it ran away a week ago.

Jones, 52, is a lifelong Tahoe resident. She has two dogs, a big one named Molli and a little one named Buddy. She describes herself as a personal caregiver. She works at the homes of elderly or disabled people and her career has been in the medical and criminal justice industries. Occasionally, she also makes money by working backstage security for concerts. 

But her true passion is animals. Every single hour she’s not working she spends volunteering for her animal search and rescue service, TLC 4 Furry Friends, which she runs under her nonprofit, Tahoe Paws

I first heard of Jones when my friends’ dog, Goldie, went missing in June. Goldie is a shaggy blonde-haired mutt with pointy ears and clear blue eyes. She was 9 months old when she ran into the woods behind my friends’ house on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe and got lost. 

“The nights were the worst,” Jill Kadota, one of Goldie’s humans, told me this week. Taylor Tomlinson, Kadota’s fiance, is Goldie’s other human. “Just to go to bed and think about her being lost, sleeping somewhere, not knowing where she was.”

Late that first night after Goldie went missing, Kadota and Tomlinson called Jones. 

“After that, we were in contact with her constantly,” Kadota said. 

Goldie, a 9-month-old puppy, went missing in Tahoe in June. Wendy Jones, an animal search and rescue specialist, helped find Goldie and bring her home.

Goldie, a 9-month-old puppy, went missing in Tahoe in June. Wendy Jones, an animal search and rescue specialist, helped find Goldie and bring her home.

Courtesy of Jill Kadota

At any given time, Jones is working on a dozen missing animal cases, she told me. Summer is the busiest time of year; it’s the peak season for tourism. But Jones also told me about a cat who went missing in Emerald Bay over Christmas, and Burk’s dog ran off in the snow in February. It happens all year long.

Jones has been working animal search and rescue and emergency response for 25 or 30 years. She responds to car accidents and wildfires — most recently, the Tamarack Fire — to help victims recover their animals. She guides and supports animal search and rescues across the globe. But most of the time, she’s working with out-of-towners who come to the Sierra Nevada region and lose their pets on their visit. (It’s mostly tourists, but not always. She told me about some longtime Tahoe residents who have lost their pets, too.) 

Jones grew up in Zephyr Cove. She raised her son here (he’s now 31). She told me that when she gets overwhelmed from her volunteer work rescuing animals, she’ll go down to the lake and paddle out on the water to calm down. Tahoe is the center of her life. It’s where she goes to rejuvenate herself. But living in Tahoe is getting harder and harder. 

Jones is among the growing number of Tahoe residents and longtime locals who no longer can afford the cost of housing here. 

She has floated from one unstable housing situation to the next for years, unable to find a secure, reliable and permanent place to live that she can afford. Along the way, she’s run into many old and run down houses that charge overpriced rents and terrible landlords that are not responsive. Most recently, she had to move out of a place in April and she has not been able to find a permanent home to live in since. 

“It’s hard. It’s hard on me. I’m exhausted. I’m stressed,” Jones said. “And I have no place to go. I’m commuting and living in s—tholes, couch-surfing, my dogs are completely stressed out and anxious. And I’m still trying to hold myself together to be professional and compassionate, to support all these people through hell. I’m not just a dog search and rescue specialist and community response team. I’m a therapist for these people. I support them for 24 hours a day.”

Occasionally, donations come in to her nonprofit. But donations aren’t enough to cover the expenses of the equipment and supplies for the animal rescues. Because the nonprofit doesn’t have money coming in, Jones pays for rescue expenses out of her pocket — including the motion-sensored cameras, batteries, website costs, the humane traps, food for the animals, gas to commute all over the Tahoe Basin, training and more. She’s on the verge of shutting down her nonprofit. Jones knows what she’s good at. That’s finding lost animals. She also knows what she’s not good at and doesn’t have time for. That’s business and marketing on social media.

She rarely sleeps. Most nights, she’s monitoring at least six cameras that she’s set up wherever animals are missing, and people call her at all hours of the night. When her phone is not ringing, thoughts of the animals she’s searching for run at a constant pace through her mind. She’s not just financially invested. It’s emotional, too.

“I just care more about animals than anything,” Jones said. “Anything besides my child.”

In the van, Jones is speaking on her phone with a ranger at Sugar Pine Point State Park on Tahoe’s West Shore. The ranger had just seen a dog that had been missing for two weeks. During a family camping trip, the dog was on a walk when it got attacked by another dog in the campground, and it escaped its collar and ran away. Its owners don’t live in Tahoe and they left after their camping trip to go back home, so Jones put her phone number on the missing pet flyers — something she’ll do only as a last resort.

“I’m on another dog search in the middle of Nevada,” Jones tells the state parks ranger. “If you can keep an eye out for her — just do not call her. Do not call her. Do not call her.”

This is one of the cardinal rules of Jones’ method to finding lost dogs: Never call their name. 

“Survival mode is fear, fight or flight,” Jones tells me in the van. When a dog bolts, adrenaline takes over and it’s like a switch flips on in their brains. When dogs are in survival mode, their sole focus is on staying alive, safe and running from anything they perceive as a threat. Everything is a predator to them, Jones said. Often, when a dog is in this state of mind, they won’t recognize their owner. They won’t recognize their name. They just run. 

“The only time they stop is to take a little rest if it’s a safe place to hunker down, or if there is water or a food source,” Jones said. It takes several days or even a week for them to get tired and settle down, she noted. But even then, if a person approaches them, a dog in survival mode will most likely run away.

A missing pet flyer for a dog that Wendy Jones has been searching for. The search has been ongoing for several weeks. 

A missing pet flyer for a dog that Wendy Jones has been searching for. The search has been ongoing for several weeks. 

Courtesy of Wendy Jones

At first, her directions can seem counterintuitive — don’t call the pet’s name and don’t run after it. But if a pet owner doesn’t follow her instructions, she says she’ll wish them luck and part ways. She won’t waste her time working with people who don’t follow the plan. She knows her method works to bring pets home, and she has little tolerance for wasted time. But mostly, the people she works with understand that, in order to get their pet back, they need to do what she says. On first impression, Jones comes off as tough and abrasive, but underneath, she has an overwhelming passion and deep love for dogs, cats and all animals. (She’s also a volunteer with local rescue teams to save bears, coyotes, raccoons and other wildlife.) She told me several times that she works this hard for the animals, more than the people.

When Goldie was missing, Kadota and Tomlinson said they spent the entire first night combing through the woods and shouting her name, which is what every pet owner I spoke with did at first. It’s our human instinct to go searching for lost pets, but Jones also says this is the worst thing you can do. She instructs her clients to stay put. She doesn’t want them spreading their scent or chasing their dog because that will only push the animal away further. 

At one point, Kadota and Tomlinson saw Goldie while they were driving through their neighborhood. Kadota slammed on the brakes and got out of the car slowly. But when Goldie saw her and Tomlinson, she paused for a split second before she bolted back into the forest and down a hill covered in manzanita bushes.

“We witnessed firsthand that Goldie was in survival mode,” Tomlinson said. “Like, she didn’t recognize us. She didn’t see who we were. So that was the pivotal moment for us.”

From then on, Kadota and Tomlinson followed every instruction Jones gave them.

“I have so many stories of little dogs that have lasted 13 days, or 14 or 16 or 18 days,” Jones said. “I have so many amazing stories. Unfortunately, not all of them are united. Some things happen. But I am very successful. It’s a passion. I know what I’m doing.”

Key to Jones’ success is her method, which involves a very precise set of directions and also a process that adapts as the search unfolds. When Goldie was missing, Jones spent hours on the phone with Kadota and Tomlinson, guiding them every step of the way and shaping a plan to rescue their dog. 

“Every step, yeah, was a little hard to take in because it did all feel counterintuitive and because she was so intense about it,” Burk said, when he was working with Jones to find Canela. “But then everything made so much sense as we went on.”

As a nurse, Burk said he can relate to Jones when she’s in a position where she has to tell people feeling big emotions, in the middle of a crisis, things they don’t want to hear or listen to. 

“That’s always where her underlying emotion was coming from,” Burk said. “She’s so invested. She puts so much work into every single rescue, and she’s had people not follow her directions and then have things go wrong. She’s an animal lover herself. She gets so much from it. But she also takes on so much.”

Jonathan Burk hugs his dog, Canela, after they were reunited in Lake Tahoe last winter. Canela was missing for three days. 

Jonathan Burk hugs his dog, Canela, after they were reunited in Lake Tahoe last winter. Canela was missing for three days. 

Courtesy of Jonathan Burk

Jones makes flyers for pet owners with a photo of the missing dog and their phone number, but not the pet’s name. She drives all over the Tahoe Basin to set up humane traps that are designed to shut the door when an animal walks in them. She sets up cameras to keep watch. 

But she does not charge for her services. She is a volunteer. Kadota and Tomlinson said she never mentioned a cost, even though she was driving long miles to get to them and handing them supplies to use in their rescue.

“It’s not about the human, it’s about the animal,” Jones said. 

She is adamant that she helps missing animals as a volunteer-based service, through her nonprofit, so that money would never interfere or stop her from doing the work. All she asked in return, Kadota said, was that they follow her instructions.

“I am very independent,” Jones said. “I don’t like to charge, and I don’t like to ask. I don’t like to promote. I don’t even like to tell people they can donate. I don’t ever, ever, ever do that. But I’m at the point where I am, basically, homeless.”

In the van, Nelson pulls off the highway and drives up a dirt road surrounded by sagebrush, parking next to a muddy watering hole where Jones suspected the missing white fluffy dog was getting water. The van belongs to Heidi Nelson, who co-founded a nonprofit called Animal Rescue Relay that rescues dogs, cats, even a goat or two from kill shelters and adopts them into homes. Nelson often volunteers to help Jones on dog searches.  

“[Jones] thinks like a dog,” Nelson told me. She meant this in the best way possible. 

“She understands fight or flight mode,” Nelson said. “I honestly don’t know if it’s because she’s in that mode a lot, herself, with her housing situation. She gets it. She’s on edge. She gets that.” 

Goldie was missing for more than a week when a neighbor spotted her in their backyard. That’s when Jones set up another one of the humane traps with a door that’s designed to automatically shut when an animal walks in. She set up a camera to keep watch. Then they waited. 

Several days later, Jones called Tomlinson just before 5 a.m. In the middle of the night, her camera sent her a photo with a figure in the trap. She thought it was Goldie. Tomlinson woke up Kadota and her mom, and the three of them walked down to the trap, holding out hope that they’d find their dog. 

“It’s hard to describe the feeling,” Tomlinson said. “But I’ll never forget showing up there and walking toward the trap.”

It was Goldie. At first, she didn’t recognize her humans. But then, Kadota’s mom put her hands close to the kennel’s edge, and the scent immediately triggered something in Goldie that helped her recognize the humans standing near her were not a threat. They were her family.

“It was like a flip switched in her mind,” Tomlinson said. “Like she snapped out of it, like a different animal.”

Kadota says she was in shock when they finally found Goldie. Their dog had survived in the forest for 12 days. Goldie lost 10 pounds while she was out in the wilderness and when she came home, she slept for nearly two days. But after that, she was back to her normal self. 

“We were really hanging our last hope on [Jones],” Kadota said. “She was right. All the things that Wendy had been telling us the whole time, she was right about all of it.”

Three days after Canela had gone missing, Burk reunited with his pet, too. He followed Jones’ instructions: posted flyers, stayed close to where she was last seen. Just as a storm was blowing in, someone called Burk, reporting that they’d seen Canela. Soon after, Burk was sitting in the middle of the street, waiting for her to recognize him. Eventually she came within arm’s reach and Burk scooped her up in his arms.

“I cannot deal with how much this dog means to me,” Burk said. “I’m just so grateful to Wendy because she’s right. We would have been doing everything wrong and we would have been totally clueless.”

A couple weeks after I spent a morning with Jones in the sagebrush desert, I called her again. Unfortunately, the fluffy white dog, Baby, was still missing, and as of this week, she still hasn’t been found. But the dog at the campground at Sugar Pine Point had been found and reunited with its family. And Jones told me about yet another successful rescue, this time it was a 13-pound Chihuahua that had been missing for 32 days.

“It was a happy reunion,”  Jones told me. 

The joy she expressed was short-lived. She immediately dove right into the next case, telling me about a rescue she’s currently working on. Her work never stops.

For more information about animal search and rescue services, visit TahoePaws.org or call (775) 721-DOGS (3647).