Koda comes home: How a lost Vail pup found its way back to its owners
The rescue dog went missing near Piney Lake Ranch on June 24 then rescued itself by walking home
A happy ending. That’s what Connor Pankow kept convincing himself was behind every clue in the search for his dog Koda after the skittish, 8-month-old black lab mix jumped out of the window of his car on the way up to Piney Lake on June 24.
There were the bikers who’d said they’d seen Koda when Pankow and his wife, Ana, realized the dog was missing and started backtracking along Piney Lake Road that afternoon. There was the trail camera, on a stump at Piney River Ranch, that captured the dog running loose on June 25. And there was the groundswell of support from the Vail Valley community after the Pankows printed and distributed flyers, set up a Facebook page and kept running a daily item in the Vail Daily’s Town Talk section asking for help finding the dog.
“I had people texting me, telling me they were out looking for my dog — I don’t even know who they are,” said Pankow, a housekeeping manager for Vail Resorts at the Ritz Carlton Residences Vail. “I actually ran into a couple of them when my wife and I were driving around looking for him and the people are just the nicest people you could imagine, taking time out of their day to focus on somebody’s else’s problem. It was truly heartwarming to feel that from the community.”
But after 10 days of searching, including seven nights spent camping at Piney River Ranch, hoping Koda would pick up their scent, the Pankows were spent. They decided they needed a night in their bed at their Lion’s Ridge apartment in West Vail to recharge.
Wrote Pankow, in a Facebook post: “Ana and I are both physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted between work and constantly searching for our boy over the past 10 days and are taking our first break tonight for Luca (our other dog) as well as he is exhausted to. It pains us not to be out there tonight camping and looking for our boy, however ana will be back out there first thing tomorrow and I will head back out for camping again after work tomorrow. Thank you all again for the continued support and love through this most difficult of times for us!”
A rude awakening
Around 5 a.m., the next morning, Pankow said he was woken by his wife shaking him, telling him she thought she heard a dog crying outside.
“I was just like, you’re dreaming,” Pankow said. “I just rolled right over, went straight back to bed. My wife went downstairs with our other dog. She went right outside our building door, she looked around and all the sudden Koda just came out of nowhere from the righthand side and just jumped up on her and surprised her. She came straight upstairs and she was screaming, ‘It’s Koda! It’s Koda!’
“I just sprang out of bed, half-asleep still, and there he was.”
Yes, there Koda was, indeed — about five pounds lighter, with some tree sap on his fur and a few scrapes on his legs, with his leash still dragging behind him.
‘What kept us going’
Pankow said he estimates Koda probably traveled at least 15 miles to make it back to the couple’s West Vail apartment. That’s taking into consideration that the dog jumped out of the car window a few miles out from the ranch, was spotted there by the trail cam, and then wandered home.
Who knows? Going off a Google Map, it’s about 11 miles from Piney River Ranch to the couple’s West Vail apartment.
Pankow was effusive in his praise for the staff at the ranch, who he said “were endlessly helpful and supportive.”
He singled out a security guard who Pankow said told the couple: “Spend as much time as you want out here, look under the cabins, you can go into the employee area, look under their cabins. He said, ‘If anybody asks you what you’re doing, you can just tell them John said it was OK.’”
And, while Koda saved himself, Pankow said the dog’s disappearance led to the couple helping to rescue a man injured in a rollover accident on Red Sandstone Road on the morning after Koda went missing.
The couple was out looking for Koda around 5:30 in the morning on June 25, Pankow said, when they saw a truck they’d seen the night before down 40 yards or so in a gulley off the road.
“That night when we were putting the posters out, we had met the two gentlemen who had flipped the car the next morning,” Pankow said. “We went down there and found the one gentleman inside the car still alive. So, we then immediately called the police. And then we had gotten confirmation from the gentleman in the car that he didn’t know where one of his friends was that was in the car with him. I think it was later discovered that he had tried to go and get cell service to try and call the police.”
Call logs from the Vail Public Safety Communications Center confirm three calls around the same time that morning, all reporting the rollover accident. Both the Vail Police and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office responded, and an ambulance helped transport the injured man in the car to the hospital. The Colorado State Patrol took control of the incident and investigation.
“We gave our witness statements and whatnot, and we just went on looking for the dog,” Pankow said. “It’s kinda crazy how that all happened, but my parents, they just kept telling me, you know, maybe this all happened for a reason and we were meant to find the guy in the truck and that’s why we had lost our dog the night before. We really thought that the way everything was playing out that, in the end, it was going to have a happy ending.”
Pankow said what kept the couple going through it all was the well of support they found from their Facebook updates. That collective energy inspired them not to give up hope.
“It was just so empowering and amazing to feel that pull from the community and how much they wanted us to find our dog as much as we did,” Pankow said. “It was just one of those heartwarming stories that normally don’t have that happy ending but, in our case, we were lucky enough that it did.”
Those units are all deed-restricted, meaning that only people who work an annual average of 30 hours per week can live there. That keeps the apartments out of the short-term rental pool and available to local residents.