Baxter, center, is now safely home with owners Lorraine and Ronnie Nasso after being lost in southern West Windsor for more than a week. (Staff photo by Laura Pollack.)

If the story of Baxter the dog will teach you anything, let it be this: Don’t chase a dog, no matter how much you think you’re helping.

Goodhearted people chasing this one small maltipoo led to a nine-day saga that involved at least one butterfly net, the West Windsor chief of police, two dog search-and-rescue professionals, numerous hot dogs and an awful lot of close calls.

And if that all sounds like something that has Benny Hill music playing over it, it wasn’t funny at the time. For a week and a half, Lorraine and Ronnie Nasso were beside themselves with worry for this 15-pound Maltese-poodle mix who was still wearing his leash around his neck.

“I’m not Miss Religious,” Lorraine Nasso said, “but I asked God every night to bring him back. It was nine days of hell.”

The saga, as explained by Nasso, began on the toasty, but otherwise unremarkable late afternoon of June 23. Ronnie was taking Baxter and Dakota, their chocolate lab, for a walk around their Bear Creek neighborhood. Two youngsters—an unusual sight in the senior community—were walking through, so Nasso steered the dogs into the street to keep them from jumping on the kids.

His instincts turned out to be pretty spot on.

“The dogs got excited to see kids,” she said. “They pulled, then my husband fell forward.”

He also lost his hold on Baxter’s leash.

The older, more sedate Dakota stayed put. But Baxter, being just 9 months old, ran, leash trailing after him. The kids, being kids, figured they could catch him and lay chase. They of course figured incorrectly, and Baxter outran his pursuers and disappeared.

What nobody knew at the time, Lorraine said, is that Baxter actually ran home and scratched on the door. She learned that much later, after someone noticed the ubiquitous lost dog fliers strewn about the neighborhood and realized they had seen the pasta-colored Baxter at his own door. But with no one home, he just wandered off.

Before we continue, the contribution of Kevin Ranallo needs to be acknowledged. He is a neighbor who heard about Baxter going missing and set about making and distributing the fliers that blanketed several square miles of West Windsor during the dog’s nine-day outing. Nasso, Gloria Garofalo (Police Chief Robert Garofalo’s wife), and Barbara Poyda (one of the search-and-rescue pros brought in to find Baxter) cannot say enough about how much they appreciated Ranallo’s efforts.

The fliers, it seems, worked well. The entire development was aware of the missing dog and immediately mobilized to help, Nasso said. One early helper was Garofalo, a self-described dog lover who didn’t know the Nassos before this.

“I went out every chance that I could get,” she said. “I know it would break my heart if it was one of my dogs. They’re not something, they’re someone.”

Baxter in a trap, shortly after being captured.

Two things to know about Baxter during his outing—he can run really fast and he never went all that far. Garofalo, in fact, was one of the regular crew of people looking for the dog, which also included her husband and another member of the police department, in their off hours, and “had many sightings” of Baxter. “I thought, ‘If I just had some way to grab him,’” she said.

But, Baxter is like any other dog in the way he reacted to being out on his own, said Poyda. She and her business partner, Sue Voss, got the call about Baxter on June 28, after almost a week of frustratingly close sightings, near-misses, and long stretches of absolutely no news about him.

Their company is Missing K-9 Search & Rescue, based in Jackson, which specializes in finding dogs that get out of the house. Poyda said that dogs go into one of two modes when they get out.

“Some dogs come right back to anybody,” she said. “Other dogs go into survival mode where they’ll run from everybody.” That includes owners and well-meaning friendlies. “This dog was in full-blown survival mode.”

Missing K-9 Search & Rescue has a couple search dogs, a bloodhound and three Porcelaines. Those are French tracking dogs of legendarily sweet demeanor. Voss and Poyda will bring them out if a dog is truly gone, but Baxter never strayed far from the neighborhood. And people kept seeing him and calling Nasso with updates, so Poyda said there was no reason to literally release the hounds.

Instead, she and Voss took a more patient, baited approach—a few cage traps stocked with hot dogs and meat seasoned with liquid smoke, left in areas where Baxter was spotted more than once. There were a few close calls, but no luck for a couple days.

Nasso calls everyone who helped get Baxter back ‘my angels.’

Yet there were people still chasing after Baxter, who was easy to spot with his leash billowing like a cape when he ran, but hard to get close to. This frustrated Poyda no end.

“We tried to get everyone to stop chasing the dog,” she said. One unnamed gentleman even broke out a butterfly net thinking he could run down a scared young dog who thought he was being hunted.

Poyda and Voss soon put their feet down and flat out told people to not chase the dog and to let them do the job they got hired for. That went for everybody.

“It was weird having to tell the chief of police to back off,” Poyda said.

But people listened, however much they wanted to go back out there and look for Baxter. Garofalo said she had to fight the urge constantly. But everyone realized the two professionals probably knew what they were doing and stayed quiet. Most of them.

On the evening of June 30, Baxter wandered into a yard near the Nassos’, on Ellsworth Drive. The people who saw him apparently didn’t get the memo and tried to catch him. Predictably, Baxter took off again.

But the next day he returned to the yard, so Poyda left a bowl of water for him, figuring he’d probably need a drink.

Poyda was especially glad to know Baxter had come back to the yard, for two reasons. One, they now had his pattern, so they could bait a cage and wait for him to enter. Two, it meant Baxter hadn’t met his end at the hands of either of the two coyote-like animals Missing K-9’s tracking cameras had captured in the woods.

Coyotes generally stay away from peopled areas, but they do live in the woods, even in West Windsor. Poyda became increasingly concerned that Baxter would become the victim of nature doing its ruthlessly efficient thing.

She was also worried because Baxter was trailing a leash around his neck, something that could easily have snagged on a piece of fence or a branch. And don’t think Lorraine Nasso wasn’t imagining the gory details either. The only reason she worried less about a coyote was because Poyda never told her about it.

So Poyda was relieved to know that on July 1, Baxter was alive and probably thirsty. They baited the cage with water, steak and hot dogs. Baxter?

“He walked right in with no trouble,” Poyda said. “He drank the whole bowl.”

Add to that, Nasso said, “He ate so much steak.”

The moral of the story is simple: You can catch more stray dogs with free food than you can by trying to run them down.

Nasso said she and Ronnie took Baxter to a vet in Robbinsville, where he checked out fine, a slight ear infection aside. Since coming home, he’s been bopping around the house as if nothing happened. She’s considering some obedience training for Baxter. In the meantime, she said, Ronnie has Baxter on two leashes whenever they go for a walk now.

As for the longterm effects of Baxter’s adventures in the outside world, they’re actually all pretty positive. The Nassos, Garofalo, Poyda, Voss, Ranallo and some other people involved in the merry chase have become fast friends.

“I didn’t know [the Garofalos] before this,” Nasso said. “But they’re unbelievable.”

She calls everyone who helped get Baxter back “my angels.”

Call them what you want, everyone involved said they’re glad they’ve met each other and that they’ve found out who their neighbors are.

“It’s the people that you meet,” Nasso said. “Everybody is so nice.”

Chief Garofalo referred to the dog as an Olympian for his speed. And to commemorate Baxter’s week as the Usain Bolt of Bear Creek, he made the Nassos a Wheaties box featuring the dog and his deserved “Olympic Gold!”