Eighteen months, $30,000, and a coma: How two lacking canines shattered, then rebuilt, one couple’s lives

You might have seen the signs along the road, or found a leaflet in your mailbox: Two small dogs, very much loved, possibly separated and both at large.

Dice and Wee Dog vanished into the Otago hills about 18 months ago. Their owners, Louisa Andrew and Alan Funnell, started looking within minutes, and have not stopped since.

They’ve combed coastlines at 1am in the morning, and followed vague tip-offs and half remembered sightings across the country; they have rounded the South Island several times over, hit dead ends, turned down work, abandoned hobbies, gone broke, torn themselves apart.

The scale of the search for Dice and Wee Dog has few parallels in New Zealand. Not just for dogs, but for anything – human or otherwise.

Hundreds of signs have been affixed to roadsides, from Whangarei to Invercargill. A dedicated Facebook community drew more than 20,000 followers. Andrew and Funnell have appeared on prime-time television, in local newspapers, and on international radio; A banner with the dogs’ names once trailed behind a plane as it soared over Auckland.

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The search has cost Andrew and Funnell more than $30,000. They stopped eating and sleeping. After months of non-stop searching, Andrew fell into a brief coma after contracting encephalitis, which she attributed to stress and fatigue. A few weeks later, they were victims of an extortion plot.

It all became too much. They ran themselves ragged; they wondered if they’d survive long enough to find their dogs.

But then, everything changed. The dogs, still missing, put their humans back together.

Dice, left, is a small black poodle. Wee Dog is a Fox Terrier-cross.

LOUISA ANDREW/SUPPLIED

Dice, left, is a small black poodle. Wee Dog is a Fox Terrier-cross.

It had been a miserable week, raining non-stop, when Dice and Wee Dog disappeared on October 17, 2019.

Dice is a black poodle. He is 10 years old and about 36cm tall. Wee Dog is a black and white Fox terrier-cross, four years old, about 30cm tall. Both are likely smaller than you imagine.

They were last seen together, on a small farm on the Otago peninsula, about 20 minutes north of central Dunedin.

They vanished during a 90-second window of inattention. Andrew, an equine dentist, had popped home between jobs to feed the chickens.

“We’d had a week of rain,” she recalls.

“The dogs hadn’t had much exercise because it was that rain that just doesn’t stop for days. So, they were crazy that day, and I thought I’d shoot home quickly between jobs and feed the chooks and let the dogs run around.”

Although the farm is close to Dunedin, it feels distant; the road trails the rocky spine of extinct volcanoes, pockmarked with bush gullies and timeworn relics of old Dunedin, Larnach Castle and retired gun emplacements and a crumbling lime kiln lodged into the hillside.

After letting the dogs out, Andrew went into a shed to get wheat for the chickens, leaving the two dogs alone.

She returned about 90 seconds later, possibly sooner. They were already gone.

“I was pretty worried straight away, actually. I spent the rest of the day calling for them,” she says.

“I rang Alan and cancelled my work because I wasn’t leaving.”

They combed the bush gullies and the clifftops, digging out rabbit holes and tearing through gorse. A day became a week. They dropped leaflets and spoke to local farmers.

A week became a month. They stopped working and searched all day, every day.

They had a tip about a dog barking near Taiaroa Head, at the tip of the peninsula more than 10km away. By the time Andrew and Funnell heard about it, it was night; the pair ventured out anyway, at 1am, calling for Dice and Wee Dog in the empty darkness.

“We really trawled this place,” Funnell, a professional gardener, says.

“We dug out any rabbit holes, we searched big bits of bush. We talked to the neighbours and the cockies that might shoot dogs – we could understand that, if [the dogs] were chasing sheep – but they are used to sheep.”

Andrew points out it wasn’t a busy time on farms – it was after lambing, “and I would have heard shots anyway”.

They assembled a search party from volunteers, who spent weekends trawling the peninsula. No luck.

Even animal psychics joined the search. They telepathically peered through the cosmos, trying to summon the dogs home; there was no response, telepathically or otherwise, from Dice and Wee Dog who had simply vanished into the steep pasture, gone like the moa that once grazed those hills.

“We didn’t sleep, we were stressed out and spontaneously bursting into tears. We were not eating or sleeping properly,” Andrew says.

“We did everything we could.”

Hundreds of signs featuring Dice and Wee Dog have appeared all over the country.

ALDEN WILLIAMS/Stuff

Hundreds of signs featuring Dice and Wee Dog have appeared all over the country.

Far from Dunedin, in Hanmer Springs, Sandy Winter keeps Dice and Wee Dog signs in her car.

She is one of the thousands of people who have become invested in the hunt for the missing dogs, keeping the search alive.

She became aware of the situation early on. After a few weeks, Andrew and Funnell had set up a public page on Facebook.

It was shared into online communities devoted to finding lost pets, tapping Dice and Wee Dog into a network of animal lovers devoted to helping reunite humans with their pets.

“If I could help with every lost dog, I would,” Winter says.

“But for some reason, Dice and Weed resonated with me because of Alan and Louisa’s determination … The lengths they’ve gone to are extraordinary.”

It has inspired a lot of people. There are people like Winter around the country, on-call to respond to Dice and Wee Dog sightings.

In the early days, it was up to Andrew and Funnell to respond to tips. They now have a national, decentralised network of first responders. Once, a person reported seeing two dogs walking along a roadside in a small town on the West Coast. Within 10 minutes, half a dozen people had jumped into their cars to investigate.

The search has led Winter to take time off work. She has door knocked, contacted vets, and offered to negotiate a pickup for Dice and Wee Dog, should someone try to return them.

“I’ve spent many days on the road, driving around talking to people, putting signs up,” she says.

“I believe they are still alive. I think if something had happened, we would probably know by now.

“I’m full of hope, just like they [Andrew and Funnell] are, that they’ll be returned.”

A sign in Rangitata.

ALDEN WILLIAMS/Stuff

A sign in Rangitata.

It’s strange to become known solely for intensely missing your pets. As they’ve searched for Dice and Wee Dog, Andrew and Funnell have had to contend with the complexities of human nature, and the range of attitudes people have towards animals.

“We’ve learned a heck of a lot in this journey about people,” Funnell says.

Most people are supportive. Some people have lost a pet themselves, and see the search for Dice and Wee Dog as a parallel to the bottomless love they feel for their own missing animal. Some regret not looking harder for their missing pets; they cultivate that pain for many years afterwards.

For that reason, the Dice and Wee Dog community is like a form of group therapy. Commenters on the page talk about their own lost pets; the pain of losing them, the unresolved grief of not knowing if they are still alive. It is a place of boundless empathy. Dice and Wee Dog are not just any missing pets, they are all missing pets.

To supporters, the extreme lengths taken to find Dice and Wee Dog are not strange, or abnormal; it is the only rational response to losing a loved one.

”I love my two dogs, and I feel like giving up is abnormal,” Andrew says.

“To me, the normal thing would be to persevere and keep going until you find them, but you’d be surprised how many people think it’s the other way around.

“We’ve found so many people just like us. Before that, I wouldn’t have realised so many people felt the same way, so it has been just amazing to see that there are actually thousands of people who do.”

Many such people can be found in other online communities dedicated to missing pets.

The New Zealand Lost Pet Register has 67,000 followers, and is run by a team of 17 volunteers. Its Facebook page is viewed around 650,000 times a week. Many thousands of pets have been posted as missing since the community formed, from cats and dogs, to goats, birds, pigs, and alpacas.

The page can be an emotional rollercoaster. Post after post of missing animals, with pleas from their desperate owners.

Cinnamon the cockatiel, her owner’s “best friend”, missing in Timaru; two one-month-old puppies, possibly stolen in Tauranga, “need to be with Mum”; Tama the cat, missed by three kids, gone for two years in Taranaki.

“People cope in different ways,” says Leanne Simpkin, who manages the page.

“Some never give up. Others never give up on the thought of their furbaby making it home, but stop the active search. Often, this is because, mentally, it is just too tough for them to keep going when they keep turning up dead ends or no sightings.”

For the most part, animals posted on the page are found. They are destined for the page’s “Reunited” photo album, a joyful collection of pets who found their way home.

Some, like Dice and Wee Dog, become long-term fixtures in the “Unresolved” album. It doesn’t mean they will always stay there.

“There are a lot of people that are still looking and hoping that their pets will make it back to them after years of being missing, and it does happen,” Simpkin says.

The search has triggered other emotions, too. Among the support is a smattering of negativity, telling Andrew and Funnell to give up, to accept the dogs are gone and not coming back.

This can go to extreme lengths. The many signs around the country have started disappearing, in part due to vandalism. One billboard was tarnished with the word DEAD in yellow spray-paint; another lasted only a few minutes before it was torn down. Because it is too expensive to replace them, there are far fewer signs than there once was.

One vandal, in a hand-written letter to a property owner hosting a sign, described the signs as visual pollution – they said the search for the dogs was un-Kiwi and that Andrew and Funnell needed to get over it.

The pair get mean comments on their Facebook page, telling them to stop wasting their energy. They are asked indignantly why they don’t use the resources to find missing people.

Last week, the Facebook page was hacked, and Andrew and Funnell were removed as administrators. They’ve had to start a new page. Not only has the search itself been a slog; at times, the response to it has been, too.

“Initially we got dragged down by the negative stuff,” Andrew says.

“It’s hard not to. It’s really difficult to keep going, more than people realise … You really just have to rely on what’s inside yourself, because most people around you will be like, oh, come on, just give it up, which is hard.”

A vandalised Dice and Wee Dog sign.

LOUISA ANDREW/Stuff

A vandalised Dice and Wee Dog sign.

‘Keep alive, look for dogs’

At its heart, this is a classic cold case. What happened to Dice and Wee Dog?

There are many theories about what happened, but none which elegantly tie together all the loose scraps of information into a satisfying bow.

Broadly speaking, there are two basic theories.

The first is the Freedom Camper hypothesis, favoured by Andrew and Funnell.

Andrew suspects the dogs took off in chase of a rabbit, which had been lurking around the shed. Their early searches had focussed south, at the back of their property; but in this scenario, the dogs fled north, in delirious pursuit of a rabbit, onto neighbouring land.

The dogs are lost, confused. They end up near the main drag, busy with tourists. The road leads to the albatross centre and a little blue penguin colony, bang-for-your-buck birdlife irresistible to visitors travelling on the cheap.

The unaccompanied dogs are picked up by freedom campers; perhaps the campers try to find the dogs’ humans, but give up and take them on their travels.

The theory is bolstered by numerous eye-witness sightings, some not long after the disappearance.

After their first TV appearance, a month after the dogs vanished, Andrew and Funnell were contacted by a council worker. He had been mowing the lawns at a freedom camping site a couple of weeks earlier when he saw two dogs tied-up near a dirty, off-white campervan. Neither dog had a collar, and they were tied with rope.

It struck the man as unusual. Who travels with dogs without collars and a lead? When he saw Dice and Wee Dog on TV, he made the connection; they looked like the dogs he’d seen.

Not long after, there was a similar sighting in Waitati, north of Dunedin; a shop owner reported seeing two dogs in the back of an off-white van, which she swore was Dice and Wee Dog. A few days later, a similar sighting south of Oamaru; two dogs, without collars, tied to a van with rope.

What if the travellers, before leaving the country, gave the dogs to someone else, oblivious to the nationwide dog hunt? It sounds strange, but it does happen.

30022021 photo Alden Williams

Missing dogs Dice and Weed. Owners, Alan Funnell, left, and Louisa Andrew.

ALDEN WILLIAMS/Stuff

30022021 photo Alden Williams

Missing dogs Dice and Weed. Owners, Alan Funnell, left, and Louisa Andrew.

Perhaps that recipient is elderly, and doesn’t travel enough to have seen a sign; perhaps they don’t watch television at 7pm, or read the local newspaper. Perhaps they do all those things, know the dogs are desperately wanted, but do not care, or feel too attached to the dogs to give them up.

The second hypothesis is the obvious one. Dice and Wee Dog were victims of misadventure.

They disappeared in harsh land, dotted with thick bush and surrounded by steep cliffs.

Early on, it seemed the most plausible option: “We just assumed, like most people would, that they got stuck somewhere,” Andrew says.

But they searched, and searched, and searched. For one dog to die without a trace is plausible; two is slightly harder to fathom.

Would the dogs have tumbled down the same rabbit hole, or fallen off the same cliff? Were they separated, and came to a different demise, quickly, without noise, somewhere no searchers would find them for a year and a half?

It’s plausible. But until they are found, the dogs exist in the liminal space between life and death; and for their humans, the search will not stop until they have confirmation, one way or the other.

“We’re putting so much time and effort into this, and we’ve decided to sacrifice everything else to see this through,” Andrew says.

Alan Funnell has devoted his life to finding the lost dogs.

ALDEN WILLIAMS/Stuff

Alan Funnell has devoted his life to finding the lost dogs.

About seven months after the dogs vanished, Andrew had a dream.

She was out in the paddocks near the farm, calling for the missing dogs. She heard Dice bark, and he emerged from the night. She bent down to give him a cuddle; despite his ageing bones, he leapt into her arms.

Where was Wee Dog? She wasn’t there. Andrew woke up. It was 3am; She did not go back to sleep.

It happened at a low point, both physically and emotionally. In a video uploaded around that time, Louisa talked frankly about her declining emotional health.

“You just have these days where the pain, the pressure, and the frustration builds to a level you just can’t sustain,” she said, through tears.

“You just want it to be over. You just want them to be home, and it’s so frustrating to go around in circles and not get anywhere.”

A couple of months earlier, she had been hospitalised with encephalitis, inflammation of the brain. It was severe; she had a seizure in the hospital, and spent several days comatose in intensive care. She believes it was made worse by stress and fatigue.

Weeks after she left hospital, someone claimed to have found the dogs. They demanded money. At first, Andrew and Funnell were convinced it was legitimate, but it was not – it was an extortion plot.

“It was horrific,” Andrew says.

“You think, this is the moment. And things were still so painful in that moment. We were still not eating or sleeping, and pushing ourselves to the brink trying to do emails and send out flyers and reply to people and follow up on sightings.

“I think we just cooked ourselves.”

In her Facebook posts, she referred to a tragedy from her past, the suicide of her teenaged brother. The pain of losing the dogs was similar, she says.

Funnell, too, was sliding. He had searched relentlessly, with gruelling physical work; he would spend weekends away, putting up signs in far-flung parts of the country.

His mission, as he described it, was to “keep alive, look for dogs”.

One day, he broke: “He was so angry, and he kicked this bucket and smashed it,” Andrew says.

“He was so angry, I’ve never seen him like this before or since. And I thought, gee, are we even going to survive the bloody dogs?”

They were two people who had long ago found respite in animals. Pets can be emotionally anchoring; they seem immune to the world’s problems. But with Dice and Wee Dog still missing, that comfort, too, was disappearing.

Louisa Andrew.

ALDEN WILLIAMS/Stuff

Louisa Andrew.

In the middle of last year, everything changed.

Andrew and Funnell came to a realisation: They accepted the dogs were gone. At the same time, Covid-19 forced them to slow their relentless pace.

“Lockdown was a bit of a saviour, because we couldn’t do anything, so we had to get some rest,” Andrew says.

“And it saved the situation, really.”

Her dream was a turning point. At first, it had been troubling – but in retrospect, it let her accept the dogs were gone, and allow her to believe they would come back.

“We accepted the dogs were gone, and I think we had been fighting against that, and it was causing so much pain,” she says.

“Ever since then, we’ve been coming into this better and better space. We’re better equipped now for this than even before they went missing.”

After lockdown, they returned to their search, their mental health in excellent order.

Many of the billboards are gone – either blown over or vandalised – so they’re focussing on leaflet drops.

Before it was hacked, the Facebook page had accumulated more than 20,000 followers. They’ve started a new page, and hope to reclaim the old one. It already has more than 1000 followers.

Instead of dwelling in the darkness, they focus on the light. Both believe the dogs are still out there, and could be found at any time: “All it takes is one person,” Funnell says. Just one person to see a leaflet, or a sign, or a story in the media, and recognise the dogs.

Until then, they regularly fantasise about their reunion with Dice and Wee Dog.

Dice is older, fluffier, but the same gentle dog he was when he was a puppy. Wee Dog is as bouncy and playful as she was when she vanished. It’s like no time has passed at all.

If Dice and Wee Dog are found, the community they’d built would be dedicated to finding other dogs, a platform for those like themselves who never, ever let go.

“I’d have to be dead to give up,” Andrew says.

“I would quit on myself, I would quit on other things in my life, but when it comes to animals, I would never quit in a million years.

“We could go on forever, and that’s the growth for us. It’s amazing what these two dogs have brought about.”