The Shepherd puppy we nicknamed Johnny after fishing him out of the Western Canal.
The Shepherd puppy we nicknamed Johnny after fishing him out of the Western Canal.
Deb Van Tassel

Canal Rescue: A Puppy Found and Car Keys Lost

Story updated at end with information from Arizona Humane Society

No good deed goes unpunished, I thought the moment I realized I had locked my wife and myself out of our car as I stood holding a squirming, shivering, soaking-wet Shepherd puppy that we had just fished out of the Western Canal in south Phoenix.

Well, I thought that, and said a few other choice words.

Somewhere in the rescue process, my keys had fallen out of the pocket of my Kentucky pullover. I figured they were at the bottom of the canal by now.

So what were we supposed to do? We were stranded a couple of miles from home. I was going to be late for work. My wife had consumed two cups of coffee already.

But enough about our problems. You want to know about the dog.

We named him Johnny, after Johnny Weissmuller, because he was such a strong swimmer. I guess that dates us.

The scenic section of the Western Canal near where we found the puppy swimming for its life.EXPAND
The scenic section of the Western Canal near where we found the puppy swimming for its life.
Stuart Warner

I don’t know how long he had been in the water when we arrived on Friday morning, March 2, for our regular walk along the scenic section of the canal between West Dobbins Road and South Mountain Avenue with our 8-year-old German Shepherd, DeeDee.

We were wary at first when we saw him. We thought he might be a coyote that had fallen in. We had seen a pair of them by the canal only a couple of weeks earlier.

But as he paddled toward us, only his head sticking out of the water, we could tell he was just a puppy. Poor guy. Another couple had walked by without paying any attention to him. No one else was around. We knew we had to get him out.

The question was how. The walls at that section of the canal are a steep drop, about 4 feet. The water is deep and cold. Jumping in didn’t seem a wise option.

I called the Arizona Humane Society’s emergency rescue hotline. It was 7:55 a.m. The recording said the hotline wouldn't open until 8.

In the meantime, little Johnny swam toward my wife, Deb Van Tassel, and attempted several times to scramble up the concrete bank, but kept sliding back into the water. She tried to coax him toward a steel ladder that workers use, hoping she could grab him if he could get his paws on the steps. No go.

I finally I reached someone at the hotline. I explained our dilemma. They said they would send a team. I didn’t think it would take long. The AHS’s Nina Mason Pulliam Campus for Compassion is just around the bend, less than a quarter-mile, from the canal on West Dobbins Road, near where we were.

I’ve been a journalist for almost half a century, so I know that witnesses to an emergency almost always believe the wait for first responders is interminable when usually they arrive as quickly as possible.

So the next few minutes of watching Johnny swim for his life indeed seemed interminable. We couldn’t wait any longer. He looked exhausted.

We coaxed him back near the ladder again. I laid down on my stomach, forgetting where my keys were, grabbed a rung with my left hand, and extended my right hand toward him at the water’s edge. I was practically perpendicular to the canal.

He responded to the gesture and swam toward me. I grabbed him by the scruff on the neck and yanked him up to safety.

He was trembling, but seemed so grateful to be out of the water.

Still, there was no rescue team from AHS.

We didn’t know what to do except take him home with us, so we began the trek of a half-mile or so (1,069 steps according to my wife's Fit Bit) back to our 2006 Jeep Liberty. (We realized later it actually would have been closer just to take him to the Pulliam campus.)

I carried Johnny, while Deb walked DeeDee, who seemed quite taken with her new friend. Maybe it was her mothering instincts.

And that’s where we began this story, me cursing and searching frantically through my pockets for keys that weren’t there.

Deb cradled Johnny under her jacket to try to keep him warm while DeeDee and I retraced our steps all the way back to the ladder, looking for the keys.

Fifteen or so minutes later, we returned empty-handed. And still no rescue team. I called again. My directions had confused them.

Once again, carefully: “We’re now at where at the Western Canal intersects with South Mountain Avenue … oh, and we’re right next to the Eye Dog Foundation.”

There was an idea. Maybe Johnny had gotten loose from the nonprofit facility, which trains dogs for the blind. We carried him over to the entrance and buzzed in on the intercom. Several folks quickly ran out, carrying blankets.

Johnny wasn’t one of theirs, they said, but they would be glad to give him a new home.

That’s when the AHS rescue team finally arrived.

They said Johnny was likely only a few minutes from going into shock from hypothermia. His temperature was already down to 96.5 degrees. They placed him on a warming board to get his body temp back up. They also discovered that he had been microchipped. He had an owner.

After a few minutes, they took him to the Pulliam campus, promising to contact his humans.

One of the kind humans from the Eye Dog Foundation gave DeeDee and us a ride home, where I retrieved a spare key to my Jeep.

I expected that to be the end of the story.

On Saturday we had copies made of all the lost keys, except for the fob with with remote entry computer chip. We called AHS to check on Johnny. He was doing fine, they said, but the owners hadn't claimed him yet.

Monday morning, Deb visited the Pulliam campus personally. She’s a journalist, too. She wanted answers about how Johnny ended up in the Western Canal.

The owners had finally picked him up. But they live in Tucson. They said they had been out of town and left Johnny with friends and he had gotten away (he had no collar). We assume the friends live somewhere near south Phoenix.

My wife wrote a letter and asked AHS to forward it to the owners.

“My husband and I stood ready to adopt him if (you) hadn’t been located. We have owned several German Shepherds and know they can be a handful but with proper training they are the best, smartest, and most loyal dogs you can have,” she wrote. “These dogs are happiest when they have a job to do and love to please their humans.

"… Best wishes for you and your adorable pup. We’d be delighted to hear how he’s doing.”

We’ve heard nothing; we’ll assume Johnny is fine.

Then, on the following Wednesday, just as we were about to board a plane to visit family and friends in Ohio, I saw that I had a voicemail that I hadn’t picked up.

The call was from the Fry’s grocery store on East 48th Street and Baseline Road. Customer service had my keys. They hadn’t fallen into the canal. Someone found them on the bank, noticed that I had a Fry’s VIP Card on my key chain, and drove them to the store, which used the card to locate us.

Whoever it was didn’t leave a name. But thank you for your kindness.

You taught me that some good deeds do go unpunished.

UPDATE:  Bretta Nelson of the Arizona Humane Society responded Monday afternoon: "I saw your story and immediately alerted our field team so we could address it. I wanted to share the notes with you. 'Call received by dispatch: 8:07 AM. Officer (Andy) arrived on scene: 8:17AM. Address received as 9210 S. 19th Ave @ Canal Unable to get comp on the phone, Andy left after 10 minutes of searching and no response from comp. Callback received by dispatch: 8:43 AM. Officer (Andy) arrived at different address (1500 W. South Mountain): 8:45 AM. Canine was returned to owner because he was chipped – owner was reportedly DESPERATELY looking for him.' ... Our Emergency Animal Medical Technicians ... go on more than 13,000 animal rescues and investigations each year, so it can be quite busy but eye opening and sadly horrific at times."

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