Kelly: Dog escapes, travels miles to site of owner's funeral

Elvis, a Schnauzer-Poodle, is photographed at Gayle Johnson's home.

Dogs possess a keen ability to track a scent. But some events are unexplainable — suggesting that what happened was not from a scent, but a sense. A kind of “sixth sense.”

That's what Omaha professionals and others are saying about a 21-pound Schnauzer-Poodle mix named Elvis who ran out of a house and traveled miles on his own — and was spotted days later across the street from the church where his owner's funeral had been held.

How the pooch got to that exact location has amazed everyone who has heard about it.

“Animals have a sense not readily available to us,” said veterinarian Dr. Melissa Garner. “I don't have a scientific explanation. I think it's a sixth or seventh sense. It's something beyond what we can recognize.”

Elvis, about 6 years old, was owned by Judy Gustas, who lived in Ralston. She had been battling cancer for the past year, and the dog spent a lot of time in her bed, as if to comfort her.

Judy asked her daughter, Gayle Johnson, to take the dog after she died. Gayle declined, noting that she already has three dogs and baby-sits her 2-year-old granddaughter.

So a nurse who cared for Judy agreed to take Elvis. After Judy's death on Dec. 22, the nurse took the dog to her home near 23rd and Harrison Streets. That night, he bolted out of the house.

Michael Kelly

Yes, Elvis had left the building. And he couldn't be found.

Judy's wake service and funeral were held Dec. 26 and 27 at St. Rose Catholic Church, 4102 S. 13th St., a few blocks south of the Rosenblatt Stadium site.

Gayle thought Elvis by that time either had died from the cold or had been hit by a car. She tried one more thing, a World-Herald classified ad for three days:


23rd and Harrison area


On Monday, New Year's Eve, she received a call about 3 p.m. from Bill Beaty, who had seen the ad. He said a little black dog with a blue collar was in front of his house.

Yes, Gayle excitedly said, the dog has a blue collar. Where do you live?

“Across the street from St. Rose Church,” he replied.

Gayle couldn't believe it. The dog never had been taken to that church or that part of town. It wasn't Judy's church; it was her sister's.

Judy's home was seven miles to the west. The nurse's house was two and a half miles to the south. Since Elvis ran out, nine cold nights had passed.

“Maybe Elvis was there during the funeral,” Gayle said later, “and we just didn't see him.”

Bill called for the dog by name, but he ran off. Gayle and her husband, Brian, drove to the neighborhood. They eventually spotted Elvis several blocks north and just west of 13th Street, near Interstate 80.

Even after they tossed ham his way and called his name, he wouldn't come to them. They returned the next day, and Gayle laid one of her deceased mother's blankets on a street, 30 or 40 feet from the dog.

Though Dr. Garner said it's not possible that Judy's scent had led Elvis to the site of the church — too much distance, and her body was driven to different places in a hearse — the scent of Judy's blanket at close range could work.

Gayle kept calling gently. Elvis finally crept over and lay next to her — on the blanket.

He was dirty, greasy and icy cold. Gayle slowly wrapped him in Judy's blanket, took him into the car and held him tightly all the way home.

Elvis needed a two-hour professional bathing, scrubbing and tooth-brushing. Gayle's other dogs welcomed him with licks. She has changed her mind — Elvis will live with her, just as her mother had wanted.

Pam Wiese, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Humane Society in Omaha, said the dog's arrival at the site of his owner's funeral is amazing.

“It's unbelievable,” she said. “It boggles my mind that some animals have such perceptive abilities.”

She noted other stories of dogs traveling great distances to reunite with owners, or dogs that sit at owners' gravesites. In Rockford, Iowa, at the 2011 funeral of a Navy Seal killed in Afghanistan, a touching photo showed his dog lying next to his casket in a mournful pose.

Therapy dogs, Pam said, can sense illnesses or other problems. Some dogs have been trained to detect fake gems from real ones.

Dr. Garner, who has cared for Elvis over the years, along with other veterinarians at the Mobile Animal Clinic, said he has “a spunky personality.”

But how could a spoiled and pampered pooch with no canine “street smarts” survive nine nights on his own?

“Animals have a remarkable sense of survival,” the vet said. “They find places to hide out. That being said, nine days on his own takes a lot of stamina.”

As for the improbable journey to the street where the funeral had been held, Dr. Garner said the scientist in her says maybe it was mere coincidence.

“The other part of me says maybe he knew she was there,” she said. “This just reaffirms my belief that there's more out there than we know.”

Elvis is no hound dog, but he also never caught a rabbit — at least not before his nine days on the run. During that time, who knows what he caught to stay alive?

Gayle said her mother, who once had owned three dogs and three cats at the same time, loved animals and left 20 percent of her bequests in her will to animal-rights groups.

But Judy's fervent last wish was for her daughter to take Elvis in, and Gayle wryly says that her mother, as usual, finally got her way.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132,

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