Dog tracker helps families reunite with runaway pets

JAMUL, California — Seven years ago, Babs Fry was devastated when a pregnant terrier mix she was raising at her Jamul ranch disappeared without a trace.

Then she received an email from a professional pet tracker with some unusual dog recovery tips that blew Fry away.

“I lost a dog and I was very scared and didn’t think anyone could catch her. Then I got a call from this woman and I thought she was crazy. But actually, 10 days later, this dog was trapped in my driveway.”

That was the start of a major life change for Fry, a longtime real estate agent who now dedicates her energies to her new nonprofit, A Way Home for Dogs. The organization offers free tracking and recovery advice and services to locate lost family dogs as well as strays.

Since beginning tracker and trapper training seven years ago, Fry estimates she has helped recover hundreds, if not thousands, of dogs throughout Southern California and beyond. Her unconventional recovery advice has also been featured on the César Millán TV network’s website and in the New York Post.

Fry jokes that she devotes “48 hours a day” to canine recovery and takes up to 50 calls a day from pet owners seeking advice from countries as far away as Canada, Australia and England. She said she usually juggles about six cases at a time. On Fry’s Facebook page (facebook.com/awayhomefordogs), she posts videos and stories of successful recovery at least two to three times a week. The main times of rest are after the holidays on July 4th and on New Year’s Eve, when the fireworks scare many dogs.

Rita Rodriguez, from Point Loma, has volunteered for Fry for the past four years. She helps care for the strays and rescued animals that Fry is rehabilitating and giving them new homes, and she sometimes accompanies Fry on tracking missions. She said Fry does everything to help people, regardless of the hours or the financial cost to them.

“It’s not a job for her, it’s something she does 24/7. She takes calls in the middle of the night,” Rodriguez said. “She is very committed to helping these animals. Babs has a big, beautiful heart. your heart is real I love that about her.”

In about 90 percent of the cases she takes on, Fry only speaks to pet owners over the phone to create a customized recovery plan for their dog based on their individual breed, temperament, past behaviors and the way they are cared for has been lost. In the other 10 percent of cases, Fry goes into the field herself, often sleeping in her truck for days at a time, and using field cameras, fried chicken, clothing with familiar scents, and humane trapping cages to rescue dogs. Most of their salvage missions last three to five days, but some can last a month or more.

That was the case a year ago this week with a 1-year-old Vizsla named Penny, who escaped from a boarding house in Valley Center while her owners, Mike and Mandy Colafrancesco of San Marcos, were out of town on vacation. The Colafrancescos were amazed at Fry’s tireless devotion to them and her ability to track down Penny after she had been missing for 34 days. The couple was also frustrated that Fry refused to accept any payment – even a canned drink or gas money – for her services. Instead, the Colafrancescos — Mike is a San Diego Fire Department Captain and Mandy is an emergency room nurse at Palomar Health — repaid Penny’s rescuers by paying the expenses and filing the paperwork for Fry’s new nonprofit (awayhomefordogs.com).

“She’s a pretty incredible person, but she has a hard time accepting people’s generosity,” said Mike Colafrancesco. “We hope that through an official non-profit organization she can receive donations and build something so that she can help others.”

Fry said her lifelong love of all animals drives her to track dogs.

“Honestly, I’ve always gotten on better with animals than with people,” Fry said. “I joined animal rescue as soon as I was old enough and when I discovered tracking I realized I had a gift, a passion and a talent.”

Fry owes her dog rescue expertise to two local experts in the field who offered to mentor her and allowed her to accompany her on her missions, Laura Ann Bidinger who was the pet detective who tracked down Fry’s terrier mix, and Mike Noon.

Fry said the number one piece of advice she gives to desperate pet owners is to counteract their urges to search for their dogs. Contacting dog shelters, posting flyers, and sharing photos and information on social media can alert an entire community to dog sightings. Also, driving around looking for a dog will spread the owner’s scent and could confuse a dog.

Fry also advises people against using techniques they read about online to find and capture their dogs. She said chasing or yelling at a frightened, escaped dog could distract him from his journey home, and failure to use a trap cage properly usually ensures a dog never enters a cage the second time around.

“Usually if it’s a human idea, it’s a bad idea,” Fry said. “We fear for our dog’s life and feel guilty that something happened to him. And by the way, none of this does anything to keep your dog safe.”

Fry said to successfully track and catch a dog, she learned to think like a dog. House dogs will, of course, try to find their way home by following a scent, but they travel as the crow flies, not on roads or sidewalks, so searching by car won’t work. Lost dogs are also trapped in a “fight-or-flight” mindset, so they’re likely to run away from everyone they see, including their owners.

She also appeals to dog owners not to give up hope. Dogs are animals and possess the instinct to survive, even in the face of violent storms, desert heat, freezing conditions and without easy access to food and water. Predators like coyotes can be dangerous, but Fry said the longer a dog is lost in the wild, the more survival skills it learns.

“You won’t starve. They will hunt, they will forage, and they will eat dead animals,” she said. “They’re not biologically engineered to kick the bucket or die of dehydration.”

Colafrancesco said he and his wife gradually lost hope of ever seeing Penny again when Fry — who had passed out flyers, followed leads and slept nights in her truck at Valley Center — captured video of Penny on a field camera 28 days later had disapeared. Five days later, Fry was able to lure Penny into a trapping cage containing a blanket bearing the scent of the family’s other dog, Penny’s brother Truman. Penny lost nearly half her body weight during her 34-day odyssey, but was otherwise healthy.

“Babs has a sixth sense for animals, which is creepy,” Colafrancesco said. “What she does is amazing. Call it a miracle or luck, but without Bab’s intervention we wouldn’t have our dog today.”

Although Fry generally works alone to take calls and perform recoveries, she has a team of about 10 volunteers, including Rodriguez. She is also supported by her husband Derek Fry, an executive at a helicopter rental company based in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. The Frys own a 50-acre ranch in Texas where they hope to one day open an animal shelter. But right now she’s totally focused on A Way Home for Dogs.

She’s grateful to the Colafrancescos for starting the nonprofit because virtually all of her recovery costs — including gas, cooked chickens and equipment, and food and job training for stray dogs who have suffered trauma — come out of her own pocket. With donations, she will be able to track down and rescue even more dogs.

“I never had the desire to set up my own rescue organization on my own,” she said. “I just wanted to help these dogs and all the people who are missing them.”

Babs Fry pets dogs that are in a space designated for socializing on January 5, 2022 in Jamul, California. Fry helps people find their lost dogs after her own pet ran away. She started a non-profit organization called A Way Home For Dogs.

Babs Fry pets Don Juan on January 5, 2022 in Jamul, California.