NORTH KINGSTOWN — When Trooper Dan O’Neil finally caught up with his K9 partner Ruby in a neighbor’s back yard early Tuesday morning near Goddard Park, hours after she’d gone missing, Ruby had her tail and her ears down.
She knew she had gotten herself into a little bit of trouble.
Her daring and inexplicable escape from O’Neil’s fenced-in yard had prompted an outpouring of concern and a mobilization of volunteers Monday night. They scoured the Warwick-East Greenwich border area to find her in the sort of operation that she usually leads — snout first.
But all was well that ended well: O’Neil was ecstatic to be reunited with Ruby, and even more aware than usual that while Ruby is a working dog, she is still a dog.
“With the big hug I gave her when we put her back into the car, she was very happy to be home,” said O’Neil at a press conference at the Wickford Barracks, as Ruby barked hello at the reporters, sniffed their microphones and flopped around on the ground.
Ruby is one of more than a dozen dogs that the Rhode Island State Police use for various operations, like detecting drugs or bombs. She specializes in search and rescue missions; on Monday night into Tuesday, she was sought and rescued.
O’Neil said he let Ruby and his new puppy, a 6-month-old white Swiss shepherd, play in the fenced-in back yard while he put up Christmas decorations in the front yard at about 10 a.m. He was off duty at the time. The new puppy then came around to the front yard — without Ruby. Ruby was gone, somehow escaping from the eight-foot-high stockade fencing.
It was the first time in their eight years together that something like this has ever happened, O’Neil said.
At about 1 a.m. Tuesday, a neighbor called the state police to report Ruby was in his back yard. O’Neil responded himself.
By the time she got back home, Ruby was in perfectly good health. In fact, she didn’t seem to miss a beat. Later Tuesday she was going to do a demonstration for some local kids of what the collie and Australian shepherd mix is capable of.
It’s the sort of work that Ruby does when she is wearing the badge-adorned collar. Ruby gained national attention when she helped find a boy who had gone missing in Glocester, potentially saving his life.
The hero pooch flew across the country, appeared on television shows, kicked up her paws in a fancy hotel. The life of luxury had humble canine beginnings: She was a shelter dog who was adopted and returned five times until those who cared for her realized that someone should put all that energy to work.
But when the police collar isn’t on, she’s been a cherished member of O’Neil’s family, so the hours that she was missing were particularly difficult for him.
Acting State Police Captain Chris Schram said O’Neil would not face discipline over the incident. He said the police would likely review O’Neil’s fence, and would also try to figure out whether they should outfit all police dogs with microchips or GPS collars that make them easier to track. Not all state police dogs have microchips. Ruby does not have one.
Schram said everyone who searched for the dog was on duty or volunteering, so the search didn’t cost the taxpayers anything. The incident won’t interfere with Ruby’s ability to get back to work, Schram said.
Threats to police animals tend to receive concern and attention on the level of threats to police officers themselves — perhaps, police officials will sometimes joke, even more so.
“They don’t ask for anything in return,” O’Neil said. “They go out there every day and they try to make a difference in the world…All they want in return is a good home and love.”