LOST AND FOUND: Local dentist reunited with lost dog after 5 years

Brian Withers holds his dog Luke, who disappeared from downtown Manhattan Beach five years ago. Photo courtesy Brian Withers 

by Mark McDermott 

Five years ago, Brian Withers experienced every dog owner’s worst nightmare. His little buddy Luke, a seven-pound Maltese mix, disappeared, as if into thin air. 

It happened in the early afternoon of July 16, 2018. He and Luke were just hanging out in the front yard of Withers’ home on the 200 block of 13th Street, the walk street around the corner from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House on Highland, across from the Ocean View Cafe. One of Luke’s favorite pastimes was to watch the people on the patios of both restaurants come and go. 

Suddenly, Luke wasn’t there. He’d sometimes saunter out to greet a passerby, but this time, he was nowhere in sight. 

“I go to look, and it doesn’t take long for your adrenaline to release the butterflies in your stomach,” Withers recalled. “You are thinking, ‘Wait a second. Something is not right here.’” 

Withers asked people sitting at the cafe if they’d seen a little white dog. Two young kids said they’d seen someone pick up a dog matching that description and walk off with him. Uncertain, Withers checked with his neighbor, Richard Podgurski, because Luke often paid him visits. Nothing. He searched the neighborhood all day, and over the next weeks, broadened the search throughout the South Bay —  posters went up everywhere offering a $2,000 reward. Because his family has deep roots going back to the founding of the community, local institutions such as the Neptunian Women’s Club even got involved. One teenage boy Withers had never met spent an entire day searching for Luke. No sign of Luke was found, and nothing turned up on security camera footage in his neighborhood. 

Withers assumed his dog had been stolen. Someone, he thought, saw a cute little white dog and decided to scoop him up and take him home. 

“I think he just walked up to the wrong person,” Withers said. 

Luke at home before disappearing. Photos all courtesy Brian Withers

His everyday companion was gone. Withers, who is a dentist with his own practice in Manhattan Beach, had adopted Luke five years earlier when his office manager, Aileen, was volunteering at the Carson animal shelter. Luke and his mother had belonged to an elderly man who’d passed away; they’d survived several days before their owner’s death was discovered. 

“Aileen said, ‘We’ll take the little boy dog,’” Withers said. “He came to us covered in fleas and needing a good meal. A couple days later, we really couldn’t take it that we had separated him from his mom, so we went and got her. Aileen took care of the mom and later got her happily adopted out. And Luke became my shadow for the next five years.” 

Luke at home circa 2018.

Luke was a spirited little character. 

“He was a little mountain goat,” Withers said. “He was jumping up on the back of couches and anywhere he could get, desks, whatever. He loved being on that perch in front of my house, across from Uncle Bill’s. He would just sit there and watch the traffic come in and out all day. He loved it.” 

The search went on for months, but finally waned. It was a strange, unsettling feeling for Withers, knowing that Luke was likely still alive but having no idea where. He just hoped his little buddy was being taken care of. And he never stopped missing him. In July, his Facebook page sprung a five year memory on him, with photos of him and Luke. His heart sank. 

The poster circulated in search of Luke.

Withers, however, had never truly given up hope. He estimated Luke was about two years old when he adopted him, so he figured the dog was still somewhere, probably not that far away. 

“At some point, you think, okay, well, the chance of getting him back decreases every day,” Withers said. “I just hope he’s being taken care of. I just hope he’s happy, man — that’s what I remember, looking at those photos, other than, ‘Facebook, you are killing me here, man.’ I just hope you are happy buddy and someone is taking care of you.” 

It turned out this last hope was not occurring. As Withers would soon find out, Luke was indeed still alive, but he was alone, mostly blind, deaf, and most definitely was not being taken care of. 

On August 5, Luke was found curled up in a corner of a family’s backyard, by the home’s trash cans, in Watts. He was shivering. His hair was long and so dirty the girl who found him thought he was a brown dog, not white. He was covered with ticks and fleas. It appeared he’d been living on the street for some time. The family in whose yard he was found have three dogs, and somebody apparently saw Luke and dropped him over their fence. 

This was Luke’s first lucky break. Jacqueline Garcia, 14, immediately asked her mom if she could take the dog in. 

“I love dogs,” Garcia said. “You know, I will always want to help a stray dog if it was up to me.” 

Her mom said yes, and Garcia spent the next eight hours picking ticks off of Luke, and then shaved his matted-up hair off. Jacqueline and her brother Jose, who is 17, slowly nursed Luke back to health. They fed him and cleaned him. When Jacqueline wasn’t there, Jose would take Luke to his room, petting, feeding, and showering the dog, helping him to feel safe. Finally, they took him to a veterinarian, hoping his eyes could be treated, as well as his itchy skin. The vet scanned the dog and discovered he was embedded with a chip. 

Jacqueline then contacted the chip company, who told her Luke’s name and history. 

“This little dog has been missing for five years,” a person from the company told her. 

“I didn’t know the story of Luke,” she said. “And I really want to know where he came from, and if he had a family.” 

And so a week ago Wednesday, on August 23 —  1,864 days since Luke had gone missing —  Withers’ phone began going off. He was with a yoga instructor, Blake Jung, who works with him to maintain the flexibility needed to work most effectively as a dentist. Usually, during his yoga sessions, Withers turns his phone off. But for some reason this time the phone was on, and one of the messages got Withers’ attention —  it was a text from his office, which said, “Call immediately.”

A wave of worry washed over him about what might have happened at the office. But then he looked at his other messages —  from the chip company, and from the family who had Luke — and he realized that his long-lost Luke had been found. He had to charge his phone for a few minutes and gather his thoughts. Could this possibly be real? Then he called the family, and found out Luke was indeed alive, if not exactly well. 

“They told me he was blind and deaf,” Withers said. “The emotions that were kind of being shattered by adrenaline came up, so I kind of lost it.” 

Jung said, “Give me your keys,” so together Withers and his yoga instructor took off for Watts. 

“It was kind of like one of those weird dreams, right?” Withers said. “You know, I am in a car with my yoga instructor going to find Luke.” 

Jung took a video of the moment Withers first held Luke in his arms. Withers is a large man; he was an offensive guard and captain the the 1997 Mira Costa football team that won a CIF state championship. And Luke is probably not even 7 pounds anymore, as well as being shorn of hair. But as Withers hugged Jacqueline and held his dog for the first time, Luke nestled in. Withers both wept and giggled. . 

“I thought I was never giong to see him again,” he told Jacqueline. 

“No worries,” she said, over and over again. 

“I felt amazing,” Jacqueline said. “I felt like crying. I rescued this dog without knowing his story, and the story ends with happily ever after…a person crying over his dog, you just know how much love he has for that dog.” 

“It wasn’t like in the movies where he starts licking all over my face,” Withers said. “But the one thing I could tell was, he had this little spot that always nestled into my arms, and he just nestled right back into it, and immediately stopped shaking….That’s when I knew it was him. It was like two little jigsaw pieces fitting back together.” 

Jung said this is better than most movies, because it actually happened. 

“I told Brian, you need to write a movie about this, because this doesn’t happen in real life,” he said. 

Jung described Jacqueline and her brother Jose as “the real heroes”  of this reunion story.  “Good people do exist on this planet,” he said. And Withers, he said, is also among the caring people he’s ever met. 

“That’s the crazy thing,” Jung said. “Flip the script, and Brian would do anything for you. He’d give you the shirt off his back, pick you up if you had a flat tire, whatever you need. That guy has a heart of gold. And I said, ‘Hey buddy, good things happen to good people.’” 

Luke, back at home after five years.

Luke has a long journey back to health, but he’s already made strides. He’s been drinking water almost non-stop, and his eyesight seems to be coming back at least a little bit (he got a standing ovation when he returned to his local vet’s office last week). This week, he began barking again for the first time, and a few nights ago finally slept through the entire night. 

“Whatever happened to that dog, no one will ever know,” Jung said. “Now his life is going to be amazing.” 

Withers said it’s more like having a little old man as a companion than the puppy he once was, but sees no reason Luke won’t live  “another five or six years” happily ever after. 

“To that end, he’s still the same,” Withers said. “I mean, he’s always been in my hip pocket. He’s always been right with me, and that is going to stay like that now.” ER 


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