When Zoe the blue heeler went missing in Shoreline last winter, loose in the snow near Interstate 5, her desperate owners knew what they had to do.

They immediately posted a photo of their cuddly cattle dog on a giant Facebook group called “Lost Dogs of King County WA,” where people like volunteer moderator Lily Burns were waiting to help.

“It was like as soon as we pressed ‘enter’ on the computer, she was there,” recalled Zoe’s owner, Laurel Gray, who was “absolutely panicked” about the dog surviving the cold and avoiding I-5, a roaring death trap.

A self-employed graphic designer, Burns is one of the Facebook group’s unlikely patron saints of lost dogs. She dispenses advice to owners, alerts them to sightings by strangers, deletes inappropriate comments and sometimes leaves her Redmond apartment to track pets through the streets.

That’s part of what makes the Lost Dogs group, run by Burns with two other animal lovers, a bright spot in a social media universe where sniping and trolling can seem like the norm. Even the Seattle area’s animal control officers and animal shelters have come to rely the group’s 33,000 members because there are more lost dogs than they can quickly handle.

Dogs like Zoe, whom Gray raised with her husband, Tom, and son, Ethan. Zoe bolted from Ethan’s yard on New Year’s Eve, probably frightened by fireworks. The family knew about the Lost Dogs group because they had once encountered someone else’s stray. Now it was their turn to seek help.

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Burns was ready: She gets involved in thousands of cases each year, compelled by her own experiences with the healing power that dogs possess.

“I can honestly say I’m more comfortable with dogs than with people,” the volunteer explained. “I don’t think there are any bad dogs.”

Making matches

Many members of the Lost Dogs group join to find a particular dog and then stay because they like the group’s positive energy, said Kathy Pickart, a Kent retiree who got reunited with her Shih Tzu, Sidney.

“You follow these stories,” Pickart said. “You are definitely hooked.”

Since finding her terrier-poodle mix named Buddy with crowdsourced help, Kent nurse Tahmia DelReal has twice assisted other strays, she said.

Elisa Engel thought her dog Doug was gone for good when he escaped in Normandy Park, but members of the Lost Dogs group worked to track him down in Delridge, 10 miles away. “It was miraculous,” she said.

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Burns joined the Lost Dogs group because she understands how scary it can be to lose a pet. When her twin dogs were younger, one slipped her harness during a walk and sped away. The Chihuahua mix, named Zoey, was scooped up only 20 minutes later. But those minutes were characterized by “shock, terror, dread … that I would never never see her again,” she said.

The distressing episode led Burns to take extra precautions and learn more about dog behavior. For example, lost dogs tend to run away when someone chases them or calls out to them by name, even when it’s their beloved owner. Setting treats out and waiting calmly works better, Burns said.

Not long after joining the Lost Dogs group, Burns began sharing tips with other members and started a record-keeping system. She takes screenshots of the posts, noting breed and owner information so she can later “make matches” between reports about lost dogs and strays. The person who started the group, James Branson, asked Burns to become a moderator.

Branson is a canine guardian angel in his own right: He owns a company that uses specially trained dogs to search for pets, and he heads a nonprofit called Useless Bay Sanctuary that rescues strays. He traverses the Puget Sound region when dogs go missing, while Burns is more active on Facebook.

Most days, she jumps online by 8 a.m. to start scrolling the Lost Dogs page. The King County group is her base, but there are similar groups dedicated to lost dogs in other Puget Sound jurisdictions that she also checks regularly.

“She helps lost dogs every day because she is good at it, and because she can’t not help,” Branson wrote in June when he made a fundraiser for Burns, leading members of the group to donate more than $10,000.

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“Huge help

At Regional Animal Services of King County, which contracts with 24 cities and operates an animal shelter in Kent, “our goal is to always get animals reunited with people,” said Tim Anderson, the agency’s lead sergeant.

“We do a great job, but we don’t want people’s pets if we can help it,” due to limited shelter space and because each animal costs taxpayers, he said.

The county’s eight animal control officers work seven days a week in the suburbs, and the Seattle Animal Shelter separately employs 12 officers to cover the city. But they can’t catch every stray dog everywhere.

That’s why the officers sometimes advise callers to use social media networks like the Lost Dogs group. When strays arrive at the county’s shelter, staff members check the Lost Dogs group and similar sites to see whether they can make matches, Anderson said. The online groups and the people who are able to reunite pets with their owners directly are “a huge help to us,” he added.

The county also maintains its own webpages for lost-and-found pets.

“We encourage people to always file a report with us” about lost-and-found pets, in addition to posting to social media, Anderson said.

Dogs should wear license tags and should be microchipped, so that if they go missing and get caught, a shelter or veterinarian can identify the owner, said Esteban Rodriguez, director of the Seattle Animal Shelter.

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The county does not euthanize pets to clear shelter space, Anderson noted, but space is getting tighter. Stray dog intakes, which dropped in 2020 and 2021, after the COVID-19 pandemic began and many people adopted pets, are now surging as people “return to work and get back to the norm,” he said.

Burns has noticed a change in the Lost Dogs group, as well.

“We used to have 12 posts a day,” she said. “Now we have about 30.”

Up in Shoreline, with Zoe out alone in the snow, the hours were ticking by. Even when dogs have microchips, like Zoe did, they can be hard to catch.

Burns urged the Grays to post on multiple neighborhood apps and to include the words “Do not chase” on the lost dog signs they were making. She and other group members reported sightings here and there, as Zoe ranged between 145h Street and 185th Street, somehow crossing I-5.

She accepted some food from “a guy at 185th and Corliss.” She slept on someone’s porch for a while. She was spotted on Ring cameras. When the Grays showed up to a park where Zoe had been seen, there were strangers already searching, having learned about the case online.

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“People we’d never met,” Gray said, “out there looking for her.”

More than two days after Zoe was lost, neighbors helped find her in a random backyard. She was stinky and her paws were bloody, but she was alive.

“My son and I were in the car and we were both crying,” Gray said, crediting Burns and Branson, who with other members have transformed the Lost Dogs group from a virtual message board into an actual, caring community.

“Which is tremendous,” Gray remarked. “You don’t see that a lot.”

This coverage is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.