For months, anyone driving down Asbury Avenue in Evanston could see a giant sign stuck in Chuck Duff’s yard, emblazoned with a photo of his tan and white spaniel, Sparky.
“LOST DOG,” the sign proclaimed. “Last seen near Asbury and Lee.”
That sign—along with lots of paper flyers and a handful of kind strangers—eventually helped Duff reunite with his 12-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel more than four months after the dog went missing.
Sparky, who Duff had owned since he was a puppy, escaped from the yard during a violent storm April 14. He had apparently gone out the dog door Duff installed, and was wearing no tags—a common practice in his house, Duff says, since spaniels aren’t known for running away.
“He probably went out and then one of those big thunderclaps happened and he just got disoriented because he doesn’t like thunder,” says Duff.
When he realized Sparky wasn’t in his kennel, Duff went out to look for him. He searched and searched that night, and the next day, and the next, gradually extending his net around the neighborhood.
Eventually, Duff got the idea to post the sign in his front yard. He designed it in Photoshop and included Sparky’s photo, some details of his appearance and Duff’s contact information. Then he printed it on a thick piece of cardboard, sprayed it with polyurethane and stuck it in his yard.
His neighbors, his friends and his students at the Thai Bodywork School of Thai Massage he founded in Evanston were all on the lookout, too. But as time dragged on and no real leads emerged, Duff began to doubt that he and Sparky would ever be reunited.
“I had a feeling that he was fine, but by three months, with a sign out front and nobody calling me, I started to give up,” Duff says.
Then he got a call from a woman in Edgewater who had seen Duff’s sign. She told him she owned Cavalier spaniels herself and had met an older Cavalier in the city who was tan and white colored and small for the breed—just like Sparky.
“She said…he had been found at Howard and Western,” says Duff. “The minute she said that, I had goose bumps.”
Asbury Avenue turns into Western Avenue in the city, and Duff’s home is just about a mile north of Howard Street. It really sounded like Sparky—now the challenge was tracking down whoever might be taking care of his dog.
Duff drove down to Edgewater again and again to canvas the neighborhood, stopping at parks where people walked their dogs and asking everyone if they had seen a dog like Sparky.
Once, he talked to a man who said his dogs had just played with a spaniel matching Sparky’s description—but the family with the dog had already left.
Duff began to wonder if the people who had taken his dog in might not want to give him back. He worried he might drive them into hiding if he put up too many flyers in the neighborhood.
“Then I just decided, I’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. Duff went up and down Broadway Avenue, covering it with flyers with Sparky’s name. That’s where the family that took him eventually recognized the dog last Sunday.
“My daughter started crying when she saw the flyer, because we told her all the time, if we found the owner, we would give him back,” says Carolina Serrano, who cared for Sparky along with her husband and 7-year-old daughter.
“We tried to tell her, it’s the right thing for him, it’s the right thing to do,” Serrano says.
The day after they saw the sign, her husband called Duff and told him he believed he had his dog.
“I just kind of fell apart, because I knew it was him,” says Duff. “He was very nice, and he said he’d taken really good care of him.”
A few days later, Duff went to the dry cleaners where Serrano works to pick him up. She put him up on the counter, and Sparky walked toward Duff, then walked back to the Serranos.
“Then he came over a minute later and started licking my face,” says Duff.
Sparky went to sleep right away in the car on the way home, then slept some more when he arrived. But the next day, he seemed to have settled back into his usual routine, accompanying Duff to the studio and sleeping in his usual cabinet there.
Meanwhile, Serrano says she is hoping her family will get another dog. Her husband had given Sparky the name Firulais, and Serrano took him to work at the dry cleaner, where he slept in the back room. She took him for short walks while on break, and her family brought him to picnics and took him to the park on weekends.
“I would like to do that with another dog,” she says.
Her daughter is all for it, she adds—Serrano just has to convince her husband.