The old methods of detective work are still the best. Nothing beats house-to-house inquiries for collecting clues and local information.
But, these days, the reaction I get on the doorstep is a bit different from that of my days in the police.
One morning, a young woman in a dressing gown gaped at me when she answered the door. Then she dashed to the foot of her stairs and yelled: ‘Kids! Get up! You’ll never believe who’s here.’
My canine marvel Molly was about a year old when I took her on. Her previous owners couldn’t cope with her seemingly limitless energy and need for constant stimulation — if she’s bored, she’s trouble
Two children in pyjamas tumbled downstairs and shouted in unison: ‘It’s Molly the naughty dog!’
My cocker spaniel Molly is something of a national celebrity, thanks to an appearance on ITV’s This Morning, where she wreaked havoc and licked presenter Holly Willoughby’s feet.
But to me, and a lot of relieved animal-lovers, Molly is a true celebrity for a much better reason — her incredible nose is unbeatable for sniffing out lost pets.
That day in East Sussex, we were on the trail of a beautiful pedigree Bengal puss called Phoenix, owned by a lady who worked for Cats Protection and whose name happened to be Cat.
Cat was beside herself with worry. Phoenix had vanished without trace four days earlier. ‘He’s trapped somewhere, I know it,’ she wept. ‘I’m so scared he’s not going to survive.’
The next few months were a learning curve for both of us. I loved to see Molly’s delight at the end of a successful search. She would leap high in the air, doing what I called ‘super-jumps’
I agreed he could be trapped, though privately I was concerned that he might have been killed or accidentally driven away in a vehicle by an unwitting stranger. Believe me, it happens.
I decided to employ a Catherine wheel search, starting from Cat’s home and spiralling outwards.
Before we left, I took a sample of Phoenix’s scent for Molly, collecting a handful of hair from his blanket and putting it in a jam jar. I then held the jar to Molly’s nose and gave her the command: ‘Toma.’ (It’s a Spanish word that means ‘take’ and was chosen because she is very unlikely to hear it when she isn’t working.) Instantly, she was on the alert.
Searching is her favourite occupation — one she can follow tirelessly for hours. Some dogs can sniff out explosives or drugs; mine can detect lost pets.
Her reward is the joy of the hunt, as well as a handful of her favourite treats when she is successful — black pudding pellets.
As it happened, the family who were so thrilled to see Molly on their doorstep knew Phoenix: ‘He’s a gorgeous little thing,’ said the mother. ‘He usually crawls under my privet hedge and sits there for an hour, but we haven’t seen him since the weekend.’
Other neighbours made similar reports. At No 12, Phoenix was known for sitting in the garden, eyeing their bird table, and he liked to sun himself on the patio at No 25.
Molly learned detection skills at a scent recognition school, run by the charity Medical Detection Dogs, in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. But the idea for my business was much older than Molly. The seed had been planted when I was a child, growing up near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, in the Seventies
However, Molly wasn’t giving me any indication that he’d been there recently. But then, as we walked down a lane past a big property with a high wall, Molly’s trot quickened and her tail-wagging increased. We were on the scent.
I rang the entry- phone and, with some difficulty, persuaded a member of staff to let us into the grounds. She was dressed in cook’s whites and warned me her employers were due home that evening from a cruise holiday. ‘I’ll get the sack if they find out I let anyone in,’ she said.
Thanking her, I let Molly off the lead.
She shot across the lawn like a cannonball, leaping acrobatically, arching her back, gauging the scent source.
My heart thumped as she veered off to the side of the garden, heading for a brick-built garage. As I opened the building’s giant double doors, the smell of cat was strong enough for me to register it myself.
Molly crouched, quivering — her signal that she had found the missing animal.
Molly wasn’t giving me any indication that Phoenix had been there recently. But then, as we walked down a lane past a big property with a high wall, Molly’s trot quickened and her tail-wagging increased. We were on the scent
I couldn’t see him at first in the gloom and clutter, but then I heard a mew and saw a dusty old golf bag shift slightly. Inside it, I found a hungry and frightened Phoenix.
My canine marvel Molly was about a year old when I took her on. Her previous owners couldn’t cope with her seemingly limitless energy and need for constant stimulation — if she’s bored, she’s trouble. Things get broken as she literally bounces off the walls.
But the idea for my business was much older than Molly. The seed had been planted when I was a child, growing up near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, in the Seventies.
My mother’s motto was ‘every dog deserves a second chance’ and she couldn’t resist taking in rescue pets.
One was Gemini, a silver-and-white shih tzu who was so clever he could recognise the names of all his toys when we called them out. He was best friends with Mitzy, our confident and very affectionate two-year-old tortoiseshell cat.
These furry friends would often snuggle up together in Gemini’s fleecy dog bed.
But then, one wintry Saturday in November, Mitzy vanished.
We organised a search, first of the garden, then of the neighbourhood. The next day, we drew up ‘missing cat’ posters and attached them to trees and lamp-posts. No one reported having seen Mitzy.
Over the next few days, Gemini was distraught. He ran about the sitting room, the kitchen and the hall, scratching at the carpets and looking woebegone. He was missing Mitzy, too, we all agreed.
It was on the Thursday evening, five days after Mitzy disappeared, that I heard a miaow. Gemini was pacing and scrabbling frantically. At that moment, we realised — the cat must be under the floorboards.
None of us had made the connection, but that previous Saturday, Dad had been repairing some water pipes in the kitchen, which had involved taking up the floorboards.
Mitzy must have slipped into the gap below the floor before he nailed the boards back down.
Chaos ensued for the next hour as an agitated Mitzy scampered in various directions under the floor, while Gemini gave chase above.
One morning, a young woman in a dressing gown gaped at me when she answered the door. Then she dashed to the foot of her stairs and yelled: ‘Kids! Get up! You’ll never believe who’s here’
Eventually, the cat took refuge in a dead end and stayed still long enough for us to get the boards up with a claw hammer. We had found her — scared but safe.
The whole episode made a deep impression on me. And that’s how it came to be that, the best part of four decades later, after 11 years in the Royal Navy and another 14 in the police, followed by a successful career as a private detective, I took Molly the sniffer dog out on her first mission to find a lost cat.
It was February 2017 when my assistant Sam at UKPD (that’s UK Pet Detectives) took a call from an anxious young couple in St Albans, Hertfordshire.
Their black-and-white rescue moggy, Rusty, small with copper streaks and a fluffy tail, had been missing since Friday.
Her absence had been spotted because she had failed to turn up for her favourite weekly treat of fresh steamed fish. Her owners, Tim and Jasmine, had spent the weekend searching desperately, but no one had seen Rusty.
This was the first chance for Molly to employ the detection skills she had learnt at a scent recognition school, run by the charity Medical Detection Dogs, in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. That evening, I spent an hour on the phone to Tim, searching for background triggers that might have caused Rusty to run away.
He drew a blank: ‘The lady who lives opposite died last week,’ he said, ‘but otherwise, nothing changes round here.’
It was February 2017 when my assistant Sam at UKPD (that’s UK Pet Detectives) took a call from an anxious young couple in St Albans, Hertfordshire. Their black-and-white rescue moggy, Rusty, small with copper streaks and a fluffy tail, had been missing since Friday
The next morning, Molly and I set off at 5am. My first step was to collect a jarful of Rusty’s hair. Then I strapped on Molly’s harness and gave her the jar to sniff.
A long morning’s search turned up no clues. We took regular breaks, with bowls of water for Molly — I didn’t want her to suffer from scenting fatigue, also known as ‘nose blindness’.
I was starting to think that this could be a case of ‘accidental transportation’. But who could accidentally drive off with a cat and not notice?
‘Your neighbour who died,’ I said. When was that?’ Tim thought it must have been Friday . . . the same day that Rusty disappeared.
And the body had been removed by a private ambulance, a minibus with blacked-out windows, which had stood in the road with its rear doors open for quite some time.
Checking this lead was simple. I rang the local GP surgery and learned the woman’s body had been taken to a funeral home around a mile away.
When I rang the home, the receptionist said they’d heard no reports of stray cats, but added that the best amateur detectives in the village were the ladies who ran the local Post Office: ‘If there’s any news or gossip flying around, they will know about it.’
She wasn’t wrong. The women behind the Post Office counter took a shine to the pictures of Rusty, not to mention the cat’s handsome 6ft owner Tim.
Miraculously, while we were talking, an elderly gent took a look at our missing cat posters and said he’d seen that very animal on his garden fence that morning.
Time for Molly to do her stuff.
After the man showed us into his garden, I gave Molly the scent and the ‘toma’ command. At once, she went into the ‘down’ position — lying flat, still and silent, her front paws outstretched and her back paws tucked under her body, with her head upright.
She was quivering with excitement in anticipation of her victory and the reward to come.
One middle-aged couple, Trevor and Pamela, contacted me after their Patterdale terrier, Cola, scarpered when workmen left a door open at their home in Hampstead, North London
I couldn’t see a cat, but the wind was blowing from the west and, facing that way, I saw a summerhouse in the next garden.
I had a feeling we were close. Sure enough, once we were next door, Molly gave the ‘down’ signal again, right by the summerhouse. And inside we found Rusty.
The assembled neighbours gave us a round of applause. Molly had put on quite a show.
The next few months were a learning curve for both of us. I loved to see Molly’s delight at the end of a successful search. She would leap high in the air, doing what I called ‘super-jumps’.
Sometimes, however, we found things we weren’t looking for.
One middle-aged couple, Trevor and Pamela, contacted me after their Patterdale terrier, Cola, scarpered when workmen left a door open at their home in Hampstead, North London.
‘He’s gone off chasing foxes,’ sighed Trevor. ‘It’s hardwired into his DNA.’ That sounded plausible.
Patterdales were bred to flush out foxes from their earths — but there was always a danger that, as the dogs burrowed into the holes, the soil could collapse and trap them.
Molly was trained primarily to find cats, but I was optimistic that her skills would also work with a missing dog.
We gathered some of Cola’s fur and set to work.
On Hampstead Heath, there were dozens of foxholes. I allowed Molly to ‘run with her nose’, giving minimal direction as she sniffed and searched.
After around three hours, she dived into a wooded glade. Then she stopped and looked up at me, puzzled. She had detected something odd, but wasn’t sure what. All I could see were dead leaves.
Then she started digging, raking up the soil around her and thrusting her nose into the deepening hole. I watched with amusement and interest, until her muddy head emerged with a grubby velvet bag between her teeth.
It was about the size of a hot water bottle — and, inside, I found a collection of jewellery, including necklaces, rings and bracelets. We handed it in to the police.
Before we could resume our search, the phone rang. Cola had returned home on his own, filthy and exhausted, but otherwise none the worse for wear.
In Brixton, South London, Molly came up against a problem during her search for a marmalade cat called Columbus, who had gone exploring and not come back.
Columbus was not an ‘only cat’ — he shared a family home with three other felines, which meant getting a fur sample that was exclusively his proved difficult.
We did our best, though, and set off in search.
The neighbouring streets were a warren of houses and shops, yards and lock-up businesses, with criss-crossing roads and a railway line. This was going to be quite a challenge.
However, we hit a promising lead when, after two hours, we visited a care home for senior citizens. Molly became animated as we walked up the driveway. I approached a nurse who, as luck would have it, was a cat-lover and invited us to search the grounds.
While we were looking, I met Gracie, a tiny woman with white hair, a beret that matched her purple coat and spectacles with lenses so thick they gave her an almost cartoonish look.
The old methods of detective work are still the best. Nothing beats house-to-house inquiries for collecting clues and local information. But, these days, the reaction I get on the doorstep is a bit different from that of my days in the police
She immediately took to Molly and explained that, because the residents were not allowed pets, she had started putting out cat food for the foxes and hedgehogs.
As we chatted, Molly suddenly shot to the end of the garden and started to snuffle feverishly around a hole in a fence panel. Moving closer, I could see wisps of ginger hair on the splintered wood.
We could safely say Columbus woz ’ere.
I asked Gracie if she would mind keeping an eye out that evening and was somewhat taken aback to see her eyes filling with tears.
‘How very kind of you to ask,’ she said. ‘It’s nice to feel wanted, for a change. You tend to feel a bit invisible when you get past 90.’
At around 9.45 that evening, a tired and hungry marmalade cat crept through the hole in the fence, padded over to the plate of whitebait left out for him by Gracie and began to gobble it up.
At the same time, the elderly lady sitting by her bedroom window squinted through her spectacles and picked up the phone. She dialled the number on the note she clutched in her hand.
A couple of days later, I had a call from the nurse who had allowed me to search the gardens. ‘I must tell you about Gracie,’ she said with a chuckle.
‘She’s been so happy since her adventure. She’s telling all the residents that she helped to solve Operation Columbus.’
Adapted from Molly And Me by Colin Butcher (Michael Joseph, £12.99).
©Colin Butcher 2019. To order a copy for £10.39 (20 per cent discount), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. p&p is free on orders over £15.
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