The plane was pulling into the gate at about 1am in LA when I got the call that Stella was gone. A friend staying at my house had left her outside while taking my other dog on a hike, thinking Stella wanted to stay out on the grass and rest, especially since she’d been so weak lately. But when the friend got back to the house, Stella was missing.

She’d been gone about 8 hours by the time I got the call, so I borrowed a car and drove down to San Diego to search in the dark. I’d had her for twelve years, since she was 8 weeks old, and lately she’d had a harder time moving around. So if she somehow got hurt, I thought it would be close to the house and she’d probably stay where she was. We have mountain lions and aggressive packs of coyotes around here, and a compromised 100 pound Labrador would be no challenge for them. I drove fast.

She’d never gone missing like this. I put her inside whenever I went running or hiking, because I knew she’d want to follow me. So when I got home at about 2:30am, I dragged the deep pond in front of my house, climbed neighbor fences, and tore apart the 4 acres around the perimeter until almost daylight. Nothing.

I couldn’t imagine that she’d gotten far, because she’d hardly been able to make it down the driveway the last few months before her hind end would give out. Maybe she’d gone somewhere to die, but I thought that if that happened, either I or my other dog would have found her by now. There was nothing left to do until daybreak, so I made some posters with Stella’s picture and my phone number, left them on the kitchen table, and tried in vain to get some sleep.

Her vet when we’re in Idaho is a world-class canine surgeon, and people from all the over the country bring their dogs to him for help. When he first met her and saw her X-rays, her spine had fused together to the point that he believed she wouldn’t be walking by age 7. But she was still walking and sometimes running in short across-the-patio bursts now, at 12. The last time we saw him, he told me that Stella may have gotten the shitty end of the stick genetically, but she had one of the strongest wills to live and hearts he’d ever seen in a dog.

And for that reason, he kept doing what he could to keep her going, even when he’d usually recommend just letting an older dog like her decline because the recovery from surgery would be unmanageable. Stella always came back, though. Late in life she got a new hip and new knee, and he’d recently taken out a pretty big tumor. A few months ago I took her in to replace the other hip, and the surgeon called me and said there would be no hip replacement, because her knee had been shattered and all the cartilage had disintegrated, so fixing that was the priority. He said he couldn’t believe she was still walking on it, but at the same time, he could believe it.

Things that should have killed her didn’t. I’ve told the story before of how she found rat poison left behind at a house we were moving into, and ate enough that she should have died a few times over. There are more stories, but they make me look like an irresponsible owner, so I’m going to leave them out. I promise, I’m not irresponsible at all. She was just that dog.

My other Labrador, Kona, was the sweetest soul I’d ever been around, but when she was done, she was done. I’d hoped some of her gentleness would have rubbed off on Stella, but that never really happened. Instead, Stella was a nightmare of a puppy and younger dog, because she was so smart and strong in every sense: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And she pulled more than one person to their knees on the street, myself included, because her dominance was unmatched by any human hand or leash. A pit-ridgeback mix had torn her up in a parking lot when she was a puppy, and the aggression driven into her by his powerful bite never really left her.

I’d always been good with dogs, but she was tough to train. Well, impossible. So I searched out help from a couple of trainers, both of who quit on her after a few sessions. I found a trainer named JT who would become a friend, and she saw something special in Stella and didn’t quit on her. A wisely, carefully-used shock collar finally reeled her in a little to at least consider listening to a human, and as she got older, she softened. The last 4 or 5 years she’d been a joy. Still strong and playful, still smart, but the aggression had disappeared and people meeting her for the first time thought she was the greatest dog ever.

Little did they know.

I used to say I loved her, but didn’t like her. Her vet here in San Diego and I talked about how everything that made me not like her when she was young was going to keep her going when she’s old.

The last five years though, I both liked and loved her deeply.

I gave up trying to sleep sometime after dawn and went into the kitchen, where my friend had left a note saying she was already out putting up some of the posters I made. I started calling veterinarians and shelters and leaving messages, and talked to my incredibly gracious neighbors who started making calls on Stella’s behalf.

My phone was starting to die when I got a call from an unknown number. I answered with a shaky ‘hello?’ and heard these words:

‘I think I have your dog. And I think I’m right outside your house.’

A couple of minutes later, a mother of 5 opened the back door of her SUV in my driveway and Stella was there, wedged into a space on the floor because she was too heavy for the lady to lift onto the seat. She’d found her the night before, turning circles in the road a ways from my house, and taken her home. She was on the way to the vet this morning when she saw the poster.

I’d discounted Stella’s strength and heart as I searched last night, not really thinking she could make it as far as she did given her physical limitations. But now I knew she’d gone in the direction of my friend and other dog with more strength and heart than even I thought she had, following them down the long driveway and under the gate, then heading toward the nature preserve, slowly, deliberately, until she was lost and confused, turning circles in the middle of the road.

Until this beautiful woman with a golden heart saw an older, confused Labrador limping on a busy street, waved down a man in another car to help her lift the dog into her SUV, took her home to her 5 kids and husband and two dogs, and took care of her.

And brought her back to me.

Heart is real.

And angels are out there.

I believe it now.