You could call it a microchip miracle.
A Gainesville family who lost their dog five years ago was recently reunited with their pet, thanks to an identification device implanted under his skin.
The first weekend in June, Audrey Gomez got a call from someone at Fulton County Animal Services, informing her that they had her golden retriever, Rusty.
"I was surprised," she said. "I didn’t think we would ever get him back."
Audrey Gomez and her husband Albeiro purchased Rusty from a pet shop seven years ago, when they were living in Powder Springs. They were told that the puppy had been microchipped, but they didn’t give it much thought.
Two years later, the family moved to Douglasville. They had only been in their new house a couple of weeks when Rusty, who was unfamiliar with the neighborhood, disappeared.
"We put fliers around, advertised for a reward. No one called," Gomez said.
At the time, their son Andrew was 6 years old, and Gomez was pregnant with their second son, Anthony. After a while, the family gave up hope of ever seeing Rusty again.
But for some reason Gomez hung on to the registration documents she had signed when they bought Rusty.
"I was going to throw away those papers, but a friend told me to keep them, just in case," she said.
About 18 months ago, the Gomez family moved to the Gainesville area. They were thinking about getting another pet, and a friend gave them a pair of puppies, two female miniature dachshunds.
The hyperactive little dogs are a lot of fun, said Gomez, but she missed Rusty’s calm, sweet demeanor.
In early June, someone in College Park called Fulton County Animal Services to report a stray golden retriever running loose. When the dog was brought in to the county animal shelter on Marietta Boulevard, an employee waved an electronic scanner over him to check for the presence of a microchip.
Scanning is now done routinely on every animal brought in to most shelters in metro Atlanta, including in Hall County. In the vast majority of cases, the scanner doesn’t find a chip. But when Rusty was scanned, the test came up positive.
This allowed the Fulton shelter to contact the microchip company, which tapped into its database to find information on the dog’s owner. Though the Gomez family had moved, the database still had the phone number for Audrey Gomez’s workplace.
On Sunday afternoon, June 8, the family drove down to Atlanta to meet their long-lost dog.
"He recognized us," Gomez said. "He still knew his name. He remembered the obedience commands he learned when he was a puppy."
If Rusty could talk, he’d probably have quite a story to tell. No one will ever know exactly how or where he spent the past five years. But it was obvious that someone had been taking care of him. He wasn’t underweight, and his coat wasn’t matted.
Just to be sure, Gomez took him to a veterinarian the following day for a thorough checkup. She said he’s doing well for a dog his age, and he’s learning to get along with the dachshunds.
"They were a little jealous at first. Now they chase him around," she said.
Rusty’s safe return was made possible by the American Kennel Club’s Companion Animal Recovery program, one of several national microchip registries.
Daisy Okas, spokeswoman for the AKC, said Rusty’s story is unusual, but not unheard of. "We’ve had several cases where a dog was lost for years," she said.
Okas said there are still a lot of misconceptions about microchipping. "People think it’s like a GPS or something," she said.
But the idea is catching on, especially since many breeders and humane societies are including microchipping in the price of adopting an animal. Typically the painless procedure costs $40 or $50, plus an enrollment fee, though some vets offer discounts.
Jere Alexander, director of Fulton County Animal Services, said microchipping is a wise investment.
"It seems crazy not to microchip your animal, because they can’t tell you where they live (if they get lost)," she said.
Alexander said the Fulton shelter has returned microchipped pets to their owners before. "But usually it’s a matter of days or weeks, never after five years had passed," she said. "We’ve not seen anything like that before. Everybody was kind of shocked."
To Gomez, it’s amazing to watch Rusty interact with her youngest son Anthony, who wasn’t even born when Rusty disappeared.
"He’s such a friendly dog. We’re so happy to have him again," she said. "He’s a good boy."