Walking by the dog dishes was just too hard, and Evangelist McKinney finally accepted she had to put them away.
Two months had passed since Cujo, the Hanover Park family's long-haired Chihuahua, was stolen from their car while they were doing their weekly charity work on Chicago's South Side.
Perhaps the daily reminders of Cujo weren't healthy for 8-year-old Electa, still prone to crying spells. Or Cujo's partner-in-crime, Michelle the pit bull, sluggish since the disappearance.
"I prayed and tried to be strong for my daughter," McKinney said. "But people told me horror stories of little animals being used as bait in dog fights. I didn't know if we'd ever see him again."
Then came that glorious call Tuesday. Police said they had tracked down the dognapper, who still had the healthy, if a little unkempt, Cujo.
Now the 5-pound miracle can get back to his duties as riding buddy. Cujo always accompanies the McKinneys on weekends as they make food deliveries to raise money for Holy Trinity True Divine Temple.
He's a big hit with everyone, which is why the shock of his theft affected so many, and why the effort to find him was so widespread.
It all happened in just a few minutes. McKinney left Cujo in her car that day as she and Electa ran into Jewel at 95th Street and Stony Island Avenue. She thought she locked the door.
But when they came out, Cujo was gone. McKinney frantically ran around asking if anyone saw anything, but to no avail.
"We were devastated," she said. "My daughter couldn't stop crying."
Right away, they caught a crucial break.
A security guard had seen a woman with a dog talking to a Jewel employee, who in turn told McKinney he had expressed interest in adopting Cujo, not realizing he was stolen. He and the woman with the dog swapped phone numbers.
Police came and took a report, but didn't exactly instill confidence in McKinney.
"The officer wasn't very concerned and was very pessimistic," McKinney said.
She spent the coming days following up with Chicago police, only to get passed around from department to department, she said.
Then came another break: Her file ended up in Detective Michelle Habiak's inbox.
"(Habiak) said, 'I'll do whatever I can to get him back,' " McKinney said. "She was committed and really did her detective work."
Habiak tried -- without success -- to make contact with the suspect, who she eventually identified as 28-year-old Jenkesha Walker of South suburban Dolton.
"I was trying to get her to answer the phone instead of leaving a message, but she was avoiding me and avoiding the victim," Habiak said.
Walker was charged with misdemeanor theft and has a court date June 10.
McKinney and myriad friends left a barrage of pleading voice and text messages on Walker's phone: Electa was heartbroken. We won't press charges. Please have mercy.
They went unanswered.
"I started to think we had the wrong number because I never thought anybody could be that cruel," McKinney said. "You'd think anybody who heard messages like that would have compassion."
Reached by phone, Walker declined to comment.
As Habiak continued to build a case, McKinney did her own legwork, notifying vets and shelters and neighbors. But it was more difficult to keep hope as time passed.
"People may not think police do anything, but things take time," Habiak said. "It's not like 'CSI' on television."
A trace on the phone number revealed the billing address. Feeling the case was strong enough, on Tuesday Habiak and her partner went to Dolton.
Police say Walker first said she found the dog, which McKinney finds laughable.
"Yeah, if you show me how Cujo can open the car door, we're going on 'Oprah'," she said.
Police say Walker finally said she gave Cujo away to a girlfriend who planned on selling him for $500.
Then came the bark.
Right on cue, Cujo started yipping from the basement. Sure enough, there he was, wearing the same DuPage County dog tags, black spiked collar and gray hoodie.
Habiak delivered the news to McKinney, who got to the 111th Street police station two traffic-laden hours later. She wanted to surprise Electa and brought her under the guise of filling out paperwork.
"Cujo popped up from that chair the second he heard us," McKinney said. "Electa was crying and laughing and thanking God all at the same time."
Habiak said McKinney was wonderful to work with because she was patient and didn't tell her how to direct the investigation.
"She didn't lose faith and didn't get discouraged," said Habiak. "It was so gratifying to see how happy they were. I hope I never forget that feeling."
Cujo is back to thinking he's the biggest canine in the house, playing father-figure to the family pit bull. And a day of pampering should take care of his overgrown nails, dandruff and dry skin.
"There's so much happiness in this place," she said. "And he and our pit bull are back to being partners in crime."