They hung flyers all over town -- at gas stations, restaurants and on utility poles, longing for the return of their beloved Mr. Joe.
Neighbors hopped on snowmobiles and four-wheelers and scoured the small town of Davison near Flint for a 3-year-old mutt.
To family, he was Mr. Joe, the spirited pooch who frolicked with horses, goats and a turkey on a farm during the day and slept in a bed with his human companions at night.
The dog disappeared on a chilly afternoon -- on New Year's Eve, a discovery that burned his keepers, Steve Hadrich and wife, Jane Chan. Was he stolen or hit by a car? Was he suffering somewhere?
The questions grew more agonizing as days turned to weeks.
"We prayed every night," Hadrich said. "We weren't going to give up."
On a bone-chilling evening Feb. 21 -- 52 days after his disappearance -- a neighbor opened his barn door to a frightening discovery: Mr. Joe's rust-colored body was emaciated, seemingly lifeless, on a bed of straw.
Their hearts pounding, his companions sprinted to the barn. At the sight of Mr. Joe's skeletal chest rising and falling, Hadrich carefully wrapped the yelping dog in a coat and rushed him to a local vet.
Mr. Joe was dying. His body temperature was 86 degrees, and his former 52-pound frame weighed in at 24 pounds. He needed special care, the kind available at Michigan State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
There, specialists marveled at how a dog could survive nearly two months in a frigid barn with maybe a few mice to eat. They surmised that he slurped at snow that blew into a small opening in the barn, and that kept him hydrated.
"He was really close to dying," said Matt Beal, an emergency doctor at the school's hospital.
For two days, Mr. Joe couldn't muster the energy to move. Veterinarians fed him slowly, increasing his intake over time, careful not to disturb his fragile system.
It was the worst case of emaciation any of the veterinarians had seen. They said the dog used his fat and muscles for energy. Mr. Joe's human companions drove an hour daily to see him. They broke down when he waddled toward them for the first time a few days later.
"He still looks like a rack of bones, but he's making progress every day," Beal said. The dog is expected to make a full recovery.
Mr. Joe went home last week. His buddy Lucky, a rat terrier, snapped out of a depression that made it a task to eat and play when Mr. Joe went missing. A three-legged shepherd mix the family adopted while Mr. Joe was gone made his return even more joyful for the playful canine.
Chan said she can't wait until Mr. Joe can eat his favorite treat, a prime-rib bone. She stored it in the freezer while he was gone. In some ways, it was a reminder that she never gave up on finding Mr. Joe alive.
Perhaps it was that hope, Chan said, that kept Mr. Joe company on those lonely, cold nights in a locked barn.
After 52 days in the cold, beloved dog is on the mend | Freep.com | Detroit Free Press