It was nearly three years ago that Michelle Garza lost her precious pooch, Czar, while making a quick stop in Naperville on a trip back to their Will County home.
Still, not a day passed that Garza didn't think about Czar and pray someone was looking out for him.
As it turns out, a lot of folks were doing just that.
In an ending that has lots of tails and tongues wagging, the two recently were reunited thanks to a microchip and a Warrenville neighborhood that cared for an elusive stray after he set up residency in a nearby wooded area.
"It was absolutely the best day of my life," Garza said of the Nov. 10 reunion. "I can't even begin to explain the way that I feel. I had so many fears when he went missing, and they never went away until I saw him again."
Garza adopted the German Shepherd/Blue Heeler mix as a puppy nearly 10 years ago. She named him "Czar," a Russian king, and trained him with ease. From the onset, the two were inseparable.
Such was the case when Garza visited friends in the Northwest suburbs on a Sunday after Thanksgiving 2005. As she and Czar headed back home to Wilmington, Garza stopped at a clothing store along Route 59.
She thought Czar was safe in the back seat with the window cracked open, but somehow he managed to climb his way out. He went into a different store, searching for Garza, then ran off scared in an unknown direction after people tried to catch him.
Czar was wearing his dog tags, so Garza hoped for the best.
"I never really left," she said of her search efforts. "We circled around Naperville and Aurora, just driving and walking and calling for him. I actually slept in my car in the (shopping center's) parking lot for probably a week, just hoping he'd come back."
As months turned into years, Garza said she prayed each day for his safety, but she had all but given up hope of ever seeing her floppy-eared best friend again.
Enter Warrenville's Old Town neighborhood.
After Czar went on the lam, he headed north toward the south side of Warrenville. It was the fall of 2005 that Barbara Bailey recalls first seeing the tan-and-black dog running along the outside of her back fence with her two dogs. He always showed up at the same time, twice a day, like clockwork. Other neighbors fed him, too.
At first, they all thought the dog had a home and owners who allowed him to roam free in the morning. His dog tags were missing, but the pooch seemed healthy and well-trained.
Bailey said she was riding in her car one rainy day and saw him eating out of a garbage can.
"That's when I knew he was lost," she said. "He continued showing up at various times and we gave him food and water when we could. We began to look forward to seeing him each day."
But Czar would never let anyone get close enough to catch him. He took shelter at the edge of an undeveloped area in the neighborhood, emerging for food.
Folks began sharing stories of the elusive dog they saw near the post office, the VFW, or wandering along Curtis Street or River Road. One young girl named him Bob. The name stuck.
Local animal-control officers, such as Joshua Perry, responded to frequent sightings, but Bob was one step ahead. Police called him the "ghost dog" because he disappeared so quickly.
Then, on Nov. 7, as Bob showed up for his daily treat, Bailey said she noticed an abscess on his jaw. That next day, after he returned, she called Perry. He was finally able to capture the pooch with some assistance after the Baileys lured him into their yard with treats.
It was at the Arboretum View Animal Hospital in Lisle where authorities discovered his microchip and phoned Garza. Still in shock, Garza said she immediately headed to Lisle, terrified of what shape her beloved Czar might be in.
Surprisingly, though a bit worn and tattered, Czar was in good shape and about the same weight.
"I called his name, and he literally lunged into my lap," Garza said. "I couldn't have asked for anything more."
His first night home, Czar had a warm bath and fell right asleep. Garza said it's as if he never left. He got reacquainted with his old feline friend, Oreo, whom Garza had for years. Czar also met his new sister, Chloe, a 5-month-old Beagle/Golden Retriever mix who Garza took in after the puppy showed up in her uncle's yard in Indiana.
Garza said she plans to return to Warrenville with Czar to thank everyone who helped look out for him when she couldn't.
"Someday, I really do want to go back there and let the neighborhood see how he really is and not just some scared stray dog," she said. "I feel like the neighborhood really kept him going, and I couldn't be more thankful."
His adopted family in Warrenville won't be forgetting about him anytime soon.
"The dog is amazing," Bailey said. "He's a survivor. What a happy ending."