ABERDEEN -- Rachel Swearingen's eyes softened as she watched her 18-month-old black and tan Doberman, Shoney, roll happily on the living room floor. "It's so good to have her back," she said.
The 32-year-old Aberdeen resident never expected to see her dog again after it vanished from her yard on Good Friday, starting an eleven-week ordeal.
But the nightmare ended earlier this month when the art of tattooing, telecommunications technology and a child's innocent disclosure led to a dramatic rescue less than a mile from home, possibly saving Shoney from one of the dog-theft rings said to operate in Harford County.
When the dog disappeared March 28, Mrs. Swearingen, her family and friends scoured the neighborhood, plastered the area with signs, advertised in newspapers and reported the loss to police. They visited kennels that advertised Doberman litters hoping to find Shoney, but with no luck.
Apparently resigned to the loss of one dog, they bought another, Dalton, a 15-week-old Doberman they saw at one of the kennels. "He helped me a lot," Mrs. Swearingen said.
At last, a break came that told the family Shoney was still alive.
A man called U.S. FOUND Pet Registry & Recovery Service June 7 saying he had found a tattooed Doberman and asking about a reward. He told Pat Weiskopf, who established the registry in 1988 at her Jarrettsville kennel, that he found the dog wandering around during Easter weekend.
But the man hung up when she asked for identification, and he refused to let her send a registry agent to collect the animal, she said.
Three days later, the man called again. Mrs. Weiskopf gave him Mrs. Swearingen's number but said the reward was only $15. "He said his kids were attached to the dog and for that he'd keep it," she recalled.
The man hung up again without identifying himself, but this time Mrs. Weiskopf asked MCI, her long distance company, to trace the call.
Requests for such information normally are answered on a customer's monthly bill, explained Stephanie Rich, a customer service representative. But in this case, she asked Mike Schlegle, a company investigator, to check out the call.
Mr. Schlegel traced it through MCI's computer and relayed the information to Mrs. Swearingen June 12. She called the Harford County Sheriff, who sent deputy Steve Wagner to her house within an hour.
"He was very stern with me," Mrs. Swearingen recounted. "He made me show proof that it was my dog and that I could identify it."
Satisfied by the documents, Deputy Wagner and the Swearingens went to the address provided by the phone company.
They found an elderly man outside throwing a ball with some children and a young German shepherd, Mrs. Swearingen said. A Doberman played nearby, but "it wasn't my dog," she said.
"I thought maybe we had the wrong place," she continued. But then, the little girl piped up, "We have more Dobermans in the house." A boy appeared in the door; Deputy Wagner told him to get the dogs.
"He went in and brought out my dog," Mrs. Swearingen said. "He knew which dog we were looking for. He only brought out the one dog so I don't know about the others. And without tattoos you can't tell," she said.
A man Mrs. Swearingen identified as the one who called U.S. FOUND emerged from the house but refused to discuss the dog.
"He was very defiant," she recalled. But he must have known something about the dog, or he wouldn't have known to call the pet recovery agency.
Deputy Wagner, who took the man's identification for the record, said no charges were filed because he had no evidence of theft.
And the Swearingens have their dog back.
The rescue demonstrates the importance of pet registries, Mrs. Weiskopf said, especially considering the growing numbers of reports of animal thefts.
According to Pat Billings, managing director of the Harford County Humane Society, investigators have received reports of several animal theft rings in the county, but they have confirmed the existence of only one.
That ring, based in the Edgewood area, obtains animals either through outright theft or by answering pet give-away ads in newspapers, Ms. Billings said. But they manage to stay one step ahead of the authorities, she added, apparently by using a police radio monitor.
Mrs. Weiskopf, who has been operating her service since 1988, said she has listed between 550 and 600 dogs. Eleven of them have been lost and recovered through their tattoos, she said. But the Swearingen case is the only one involving a possible
Each tattooed animal receives a brass tag reading, "Alert. I'm Tattooed. Call 1-800-USFOUND." A tattoo -- on the skin of the inner thigh -- is the only sure way, Mrs. Weiskopf said, because thieves have been known to mutilate animals tattooed on ears or lips.
Ordinary ownership tags also are not enough, Mrs. Weiskopf said, because thieves remove them immediately. Even tattooing social security numbers, birth dates or initials won't work unless they are registered with a third party.
Mrs. Weiskopf said she devised a computerized code that can be traced even if one or more of the digits becomes illegible. Then, she recruited veterinarians, kennel owners and Humane Society officials in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. She says she would like to expand the registry nationwide.
Dr. Jean Bogarty, of Hickory, the vet who tattooed Shoney; and Deputy Wagner urged dog owners to have their pets tattooed.
"It's a method of permanently identifying an animal," Dr. Bogarty explained.
Information on the tattooing program is available from U.S. FOUND Pet Registry & Recovery Service, Inc., P.O. Box 251, Jarrettsville, MD 21084. The telephone is (301) 838-8078.