Christmas miracles really can happen.
And Peter Johnson has the dog to prove it.
On Monday night, the former Fremont resident drove all night from his home in Denver for a reunion with his beloved dog Sammy, who disappeared more than two years ago.
“I’m absolutely happy. It’s the best early Christmas present ever,” Johnson told the Fremont Tribune via phone Tuesday morning.
Johnson, who lived in Fremont from 2013-16, first got Sammy as a puppy four years ago. He already had a dog, Gunner, but another dog, Sasha, had died. That’s when a buddy brought Johnson a puppy from Lincoln.
The female puppy, who was a mix of blue heeler, black Labrador retriever and Rottweiler, had a spunky attitude and big ears.
“It was obviously love at first sight,” Johnson said.
Johnson, Gunner and Sammy went everywhere together. Sammy went along on hunts for shed deer antlers, and she went boating.
Then one morning in October 2015, Sammy and Gunner went outside while another dog, Sadie, stayed in the house.
Gunner came back inside, but Sammy didn’t.
Johnson, then living on an acreage north of U.S. Highway 30, looked outside and called for Sammy. He put up flyers and made Facebook posts. He searched cornfields and ditches, worried she may have been hit by a vehicle. He and friends looked for the missing dog.
“We searched about a 6-mile-square radius,” he said. “To me, it was like the dog just vanished. You would think somebody would have some sort of idea where she was.”
He started getting reports of possible sightings in the Norfolk area via Facebook. He or a friend would go to a shelter in Norfolk only to discover the dog in question wasn’t Sammy.
Time and again, Johnson would get his hopes up only to see them dashed.
After about six months, the posts trailed off. Every once in a while, someone would send him a picture, but none of the dogs was Sammy.
On Monday night, Johnson came home from work and fell asleep while watching television. He woke up to several messages on his phone saying, “I think this is your dog.”
He opened a picture.
It looked like Sammy.
So he called Norfolk-area resident Suzanne Davis — the woman believed to have found Sammy. Johnson told Davis about specific markings on Sammy’s chest, neck and toes. Davis photographed Sammy and sent a picture.
“It was an exact match,” Johnson said.
At about 9:30 p.m., Johnson called his boss and asked to take a personal day. His boss agreed.
An hour later, Johnson jumped in his truck with Gunner and Sadie and headed from Denver to Nebraska, driving all night.
Davis, who’s a grandmother, said she noticed Sammy last weekend.
“I was in my kitchen when I saw this dog running from one side of my house to the other, playing with my dogs who are in a fence,” she said.
Davis wondered about the dog and coaxed it to come to her. She noticed Sammy had a collar, but no dog tags.
“You could tell she was living rough. She was so skinny,” Davis said. “She was scared to death of me. I coaxed her into the garage and I almost had to carry her.”
Davis said she knew Sammy had to belong to someone.
“She wanted to come to me, but she was scared of me. Not like a wild dog,” Davis said.
Davis photographed Sammy and put the photo on her Facebook page. She eventually posted it on the Madison County Exchange, a Facebook group with more than 44,000 members.
A friend called Davis about Johnson’s dog. And after Johnson and Davis talked, he asked if he could come to Norfolk and said he’d leave right away.
“This man must love this dog,” Davis thought.
Johnson picked up a friend from Columbus to look at the dog and reached Davis’ house by about 8 a.m. Tuesday. They went to Davis’ backyard.
“At first, I didn’t even think it was my dog. She’d lost so much weight, but the markings were the same,” he said.
Johnson noticed the animal’s skittishness.
“He came in and was very gentle,” Davis said of Johnson. “She (the dog) came up and laid down next to him.”
Then Sammy rolled over for a belly rub.
“It did take her a little bit to warm up all the way to him. I think she was just not sure. When they (dogs) have been living rough and been in and out of people’s yards and been yelled at, it takes a little while,” Davis said.
Johnson whistled and the dog would come to him like she’d done before. He put Sammy in the truck with Gunner and Sadie.
When he saw the interaction between the three pups, who’d grown up together, Johnson said he knew the dog was Sammy.
“She cuddled up right in between them and before we got to the vet, she (Sammy) wouldn’t leave Sadie’s side,” he said.
Johnson said Sammy knows who he is and he’s glad to have her again.
“She’s opening up minute by minute. Nothing some food, fluid and love can’t take care of,” said Johnson, who called the reunion a miracle in a Facebook post.
Davis is happy Johnson and Sammy have been reunited.
“It was just precious,” Davis said. “I’m glad she’s found her person again and her other dogs — and as he (Johnson) said, ‘We’re a family of four again.’”