Apache, an 11-year-old Australian shepherd seizure-alert dog, knew the command "Go home."
What she didn't know was how to get there after being picked up as a lost dog May 14 and kept in a shelter for six days. Apache was euthanized May 20, minutes before her owner called in search of her.
Little did the family know that was twice as long as most dogs get because the county's shelter usually keeps dogs older than 5 for just three days -- a policy based on space and animal populations.
"Our normal holding period is three days," said Toni Lytton, director of Beaufort County Animal Control and Shelter. "No one came looking for the dog until the sixth day. Our criteria is we don't keep anything (older than) five years ... because most animals over five don't adjust well to a new home."
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Apache's owner, Marji Renteria of Grande Oaks just outside of Bluffton, said the backyard fence had been broken, but she doesn't know how her 85-pound dog could slide through a hole smaller than a cinder block.
The service dog has helped her 11-year-old daughter, Faith Lamiroult, for the past seven years.
Faith has a form of epilepsy and suffers seizures daily. Apache rarely left her side, Renteria said. Apache would alert Faith just before she would have a seizure, and she would serve as a cushion in case the girl fell down, or alert other family members if they were not nearby.
When Renteria returned home from working at Lowe's the afternoon of May 14, she noticed Apache was gone when the dog didn't greet her at the door as usual. When she walked to the backyard, she saw the broken fence.
Renteria and her family immediately went searching for Apache and put up "lost dog" fliers in their neighborhood and in nearby developments.
The next day, when Renteria got off work, she called the county shelter, but the office already had closed. She looked up the shelter's Web site, along with those of other local animal rescues, and found no signs of Apache.
"Her picture wasn't on any of the Web sites, so I assumed she wasn't there," Renteria said. "I really assumed she had been taken because she's such a well-trained dog."
The animal shelter posts photos only of dogs up for adoption, Lytton said. The shelter's Web site indicates the photos are of pets "available for adoption."
Last year, the shelter took in more than 5,000 animals, Lytton said. Of those, about 3,800 were euthanized, Lytton said. The rest were adopted or reclaimed.
In Apache's case, a Grande Oaks resident called the shelter about a dog running loose in the neighborhood, Lytton said. An animal control officer picked up the dog around the corner from where Renteria and her children live.
Lytton said Apache wore a collar and a rabies tag that expired in February. When animal control contacted Apache's veterinarian's office, her records did not show up in the computer because her information had been moved to an inactive file, said Dr. Ben Parker of Coastal Veterinary Clinic in Bluffton.
"We had not seen the dog since 2006," Parker said.
Parker said his office receives calls daily from people trying to track down lost pets.
"Rabies tags are not reliable," he said. "Some dogs lose their collars or have the wrong one on. ... For them to make such a final decision on one call is perplexing and bothersome. I think their policies need to be reevaluated based on this unfortunate incident."
Renteria said that a day or so after talking with Parker's office, animal control called the Hilton Head Humane Association to ask if anyone had called looking for a "husky" at its shelter. Renteria believes animal control was trying to find her dog's owner but had misidentified the breed.
Animal control also scanned the dog twice for a microchip that many owners implant in case their pets get lost. Renteria said Apache had a chip, but animal control did not find one.
On May 20, Renteria called the Humane Association and learned of the "husky"at the shelter. She called animal control and was told her dog had been put down minutes before her call, Renteria said.
In July, Faith will undergo surgery to stop the seizures because her medicine is not controlling them. Renteria said she's looking for another service dog for her daughter, but she said Apache was so much more than that. The dog also served as a comfort to Lamiroult's sister, Ashley, while she was battling leukemia last year.
"It's like when you were telling Apache what was wrong, she was listening," Ashley said.
"She was more like a friend," her sister Faith added.
Renteria said Bluffton residents have been a help to her family because of her daughters' medical conditions. She doesn't want donations but hopes to start a network of volunteers willing to foster animals older than five to save them from euthanasia at the shelter and help them find their families.
She asks anyone interested to call her at 843-684-1034 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.