Stolen dreams: Bitterroot veterinarian reels after loss of prized dogs | Local News

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It took just 15 minutes for Teresa Petterson’s life to turn upside down.

The well-known Bitterroot veterinarian was trying to make every minute count on a recent Thursday morning before loading up her pack of dogs and heading into the Burnt Fork Veterinary office.

Petterson was in the middle of retrofitting a used ambulance into a traveling dog kennel that she planned to use as a base that she hoped would lead her to the world championship dryland dog racing finals this year. Her plans included a new business called Bitterroot Dog Powered Sports that would introduce people to new ways to enjoy their canine companions through skijoring, bikejoring, canicross and packing.

Joring is the Norwegian word for “pulling” or “driving.” A growing number of people are taking up dog-powered sports that occur both on snow and dirt. Petterson competed in six western states last year and was putting the finishing touches on the vehicle she planned to use to travel to the events this year.

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It was 9 am when she hurried to cut a couple of pieces of wood while her pack of five dogs lazed around nearby. Fifteen minutes later, Swix, her prized griffon, jumped into the ambulance, and laid down at her feet. A moment later, the dog stood up, and Petterson saw the pool of blood on the floor.

“The very first thing I thought was gunshot wounds,” Petterson said. “You know how they bleed … I saw there was a wound on her chest and abdomen.”

Swix was the matriarch of Petterson’s pack of high-performance dogs. Oslo — a large heavily-muscled German Shorthair — was her pack’s leader and her hope to compete against the best.

That was the start of three frantic days that would include the death of Swix, lots of searching up and down the creek, fresh blood next to an old deer carcass, an unnerving warning from a sheriff’s deputy, and end with the knowledge that she would never see Oslo again.

“He was born in his prime. He was never a puppy. From the day I picked him out, I knew he was going to be the leader…When he was three or four months old, I was running these guys with the sled. He was old enough to do a short free run. On that very first day, he got the hang of it. On the second day, when I was lining out the other kids, Oslo went to the front of the line and sat down. He waited for the countdown – 5,4,3,2,1. He never took off until then.”

In Montana, a property line can be the difference of life or death for a dog.

Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton said his office receives calls at least once a month about a neighbor shooting a neighbor’s dog after they wandered onto the wrong property.

Under state law, landowners may shoot a dog that’s harassing livestock or wildlife. They can also face charges for killing a dog that just happened to wander onto their place.

In Holton’s experience it’s always better for neighbors to treat each other with respect, whether the issue is dogs, water rights or what have you.

“If they can work their differences out respectfully and treat each other like they wanted to be treated, it’s beneficial for both parties,” he said. “Once law enforcement gets involved, it’s pretty much out of their hands. Beyond that, what it does is ruin relationships. Once something like that happens, it’s difficult to build a friendship.”

“Swix was the matriarch of this pack. She ruled the roost. She was seven years old and weighed 50 pounds, but she kept all the boys in line for me. On the trail, she was the sassy one. She thought she had to protect us all, I guess. Whatever I did, she was always my demo girl. I just taught a canine first aid class at the Bitterroot College. Swix sat there patiently as people practiced putting bandages on her… It’s the first time in my life that I don’t have a protector here. She was the guardian of us all.”

Kathy Luedtke is a close friend of Petterson’s who has seen firsthand the impact on the community that she and her dogs have had over the years.

“Teresa is a good citizen,” Luedtke said. “She and her dogs have brought a lot of joy into people’s lives. During the pandemic, she dressed them up all as reindeer and paraded them around the Living Center so the residents could look out their windows and smile. She’s like an EMT out in the woods. She helps anyone in need.”

“Those dogs are like her kids,” she said. “She takes complete responsibility for letting them get out of her sight. She has said that time and time again. She never blamed anybody for this … All she wanted was to get Oslo’s body for that last bit of closure.”

Luedtke was at Petterson’s home Sunday, along with a search-and-rescue dog tracker who had made the trip from Fairfield to help in the search for Oslo, when a sheriff’s deputy returned from Petterson’s neighbor’s home.

Since he was not charged with a crime, the Ravalli Republic is not releasing the neighbor’s name.

Ehli Hampson, a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wildlife management technician, spent part of Friday with Petterson searching for signs of Oslo, accompanied by his mountain lion dog. They found a deer carcass on the neighbor’s property with fresh blood next to it.

Hampson said the carcass didn’t show the normal signs of being killed by a mountain lion, wolves or coyotes.

The carcass was old enough that the blood they found was too fresh to have come from it.

After learning that her neighbor had a history of shooting dogs on his property — including being charged with killing two mountain lion hunting dogs in 2009 — Petterson crossed Bear Creek and made the five-minute walk to her neighbor’s home.

In tears, she asked the man about Oslo. She said he started screaming at her about being on his property and told her “you realize this is all your fault. The reason the dogs died is your fault for having them not under control.”

“I said yes, I understand that sir,” Petterson remembered. “I understand that 100%. I just want a body so I can stop looking for my dog. He kept going off… the only thing good about it was that I knew he shot my dogs when he said he wanted me to know it was my fault my two dogs were dead. I never told him there were two dogs dead.”

After that encounter, Petterson turned herself to law enforcement for trespass.

A sheriff’s deputy came to her home and took a statement before going to the neighbors. When the deputy returned, she told Petterson that she needed to get security cameras set up on the back of her property and “you need to do that now.”

The deputy’s investigative report said the man refused to talk about the dogs other than family members had seen them on his property earlier.

“He told me he believes in dealing with neighborhood issues himself and frequently takes on threats, guns, dogs at large, etc. by himself,” the report said. The deputy replied that “regardless of his beliefs,” he needed to report crimes and not take care of them himself.

Luedtke said she and Fairfield dog tracker were with Petterson when the deputy returned.

“We all looked at each other after she left,” Luedtke remembered. “She wasn’t making a recommendation. She was telling Teresa needed to get surveillance equipment installed. I felt completely unnerved by it. Whatever exchange that deputy had, it was not good.”

“A friend once told me that Oslo was a leader reincarnated. He was with me 24/7. Everyone goes to work with me but Oslo was in the clinic under the desk. He rode shotgun in the vehicle because he was the leader. All the coffee shops know him. He was going to take us to the worlds this year. He was doing two-dog classes by himself last year and winning … Oslo was my speed demon. He could hit 30 mph but a lot of the top dogs can do that. While he wasn’t the exception with the speed, he was the whole picture. He had the heart. He had the drive and he had the brains. Hey was a beast.”

Petterson’s backcountry adventures with her dog pack went viral on social media years ago. People from all over the world follow her through photos she posts from competitions, backpacks and dog sled trips. There’s been a huge outpouring of sympathy from people she’s never met since the loss of her dogs.

“All I do is dogs — I work because that’s what I have to do — but beyond that, it’s all about my dogs,” she said. “We’re either training, running, backpacking or something. It’s my everything. I feel horrible they were going over there and I didn’t know it. I can’t believe I let them get shot.”

“You know the devil is out there but this is the worst because it’s affected the ones that I love,” she said. “There are so many people who are just crushed.”