CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Of all the upsetting phone calls Donald Smith has received in his life, the one he got from his adult son on March 22, 2019 ranks right up there with the worst.

At the time, Donald was working remotely for TIAA in Denver, Colorado, where he was overseeing renovations on his late parents’ home. While he was away, he had reluctantly decided to leave his beloved terrier mix at the house his 22-year-old son was living in back in west Charlotte.

For more than a month, all had been fine with the arrangement. Then, four days before he was scheduled to return, came the fateful call.

Coco managed to escape through a gap in the fence, his son told him, and we can’t find her.

Even now, it’s difficult for Donald to articulate the intensity of his reaction, but it can be summarized like this: “I was angry. I mean, I was really, really, really angry. I was very upset.”

Coco — an “absolutely gorgeous” dog who wound up with Donald somewhat by accident the previous September — had been a warm and fuzzy game-changer for the Air Force veteran, who is not married and has struggled with depression for most of his life.

So, understandably, “I was devastated,” he adds. “It was maybe almost as bad as hearing that somebody died that you were close to.”

Donald Smith poses for a portrait with Coco in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. Donald’s dog Coco went missing for 3-1/2 years. In that time, he got a new dog, Bella. This past October, Coco was found and returned to Donald. The dogs didn’t get along, but by chance he met another veteran who was looking for a therapy dog and Coco now belongs to this other Charlotte-based veteran. (Khadejeh Nikouyeh/The Charlotte Observer via AP)

When he got back to Charlotte, he headed to his son’s neighborhood and drove around it with the top down on his convertible, yelling out Coco’s name over and over again, “hoping maybe I’d hear her bark or something, (thinking) maybe she was in somebody’s yard,” Donald says, “because I figured somebody had her. But it just didn’t work.”

A few friends offered to help him distribute and post “lost-dog” flyers in a four-block radius, also to no avail. Assuming Coco hadn’t been hit by a car, Donald just knew that whoever found her would want to keep her because she was so cute.

Days, then weeks, then months, then years passed.

It took a long time, but Donald found peace again.

And then, about 10 weeks ago, that peace was upended when he answered a phone call that, of all the shocking calls he’s received in his life, ranks right up there at the top of the list. Coco, the voice on the other end of the line told him, has been found.

‘She looked sad, and she looked thin’

The 31-year-old man who found Coco is named Dennis, and although he asked that his last name not be used, frankly, his first name is what makes him rather remarkable in the context of this whole story. (Don’t worry. It’ll all make sense soon.)

Dennis says he was headed out for a run at about 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 13 when he found a brown and white dog on the doorstep of his townhouse, which is on the edges of NoDa and Plaza Midwood.

“She looked sad, and she looked thin,” Dennis recalls. “But you could tell, she was just a gorgeous dog. … She backed off and was shaking. I put my hand out, she came over, smelled me, and then from then on she just wouldn’t leave.”

He gave her some food and water, which perked her up. He brought her inside, and she made herself at home almost immediately. While he worked at home, she napped on the couch.

His general assessment of this dog, beyond her good looks? “She was the friendliest dog ever.”

Dennis was a little bit — OK, a lot — in love by nighttime, but the next day he did what he felt was the right thing to do: He took her to get scanned to see if she was microchipped. She was.

And the very same day, he got a call from Donald Smith, who told him Coco’s story.

“At first I was skeptical,” Dennis recalls, “because she looks like a puppy. I mean, and she was thin. So I thought she was a year old, if that. When I brought her to get the chip checked, even the vet said, ‘She’s probably a year old? A year to a year and a half.’ So when Don said she’d been missing 3-½ years, I was just like, ‘What? Really??’”

Donald was calling from Denver, where he has spent much of the year while overseeing the construction of a three-car garage on another property he owns there. He told Dennis he wasn’t planning to return to Charlotte for a few more weeks, to which Dennis happily replied that he wouldn’t mind hanging onto Donald’s sweet and adorable dog until he could get back.

When Dennis finally did bring Coco over to Donald’s Charlotte home in November, however, the reunion was rockier than expected. Not because of Donald. But because of Donald’s new dog.

A completely unexpected dilemma

Coco came into Donald’s life in September of 2018.

He says he first spotted her on a local TV news story about puppies that had been evacuated during Hurricane Florence from a shelter in Hilton Head, South Carolina, to a doggy day care in the University area of Charlotte.

He’d grown up with dogs in Denver, but hadn’t had one as an adult due to being in the military and then living in a high-rise building in Washington, D.C. After recently relocating to Charlotte and moving into a single-family home with a backyard, the story inspired him to try fostering a dog. But when he showed up to express interest, he decided to adopt, instead, simply because there were fewer hoops he’d have to jump through to do so.

Donald asked if the puppy that he’d seen on TV was available. She was.

In the few short months they had together, he says, Coco became “my heart.” And then … well, you know.

For awhile, he clung to hope that she’d be found. But that faded, replaced by hope that she was just safe.

“My pastor back in D.C., she’s like, ‘Don, my spirit tells me somebody has her.’ And I said, ‘You know what? Mine does, too.’ So I would pray about it, and when I would pray, I would just say, ’Wherever she is, whoever has her, I just hope they’re treating her well. ‘Cause not everybody treats dogs well.’”

(The working theory, by the way, is that someone cared for Coco for years but then abandoned her in the summer or fall. She’d been wearing a collar when she first went missing but was not when she arrived on Dennis’s doorstep. Mobile veterinary service provider The Vets, Donald says, told him that Coco was “absolutely healthy” after an evaluation of her during a home visit in early November.)

Then, in February of 2020 — having finally reached a point where he felt he could consider adopting another dog, and hoping one could help him manage his depression — Bella came into Donald’s life.

He’d seen a post describing how this black Lab/boxer/pit bull mix needed a permanent home, and he took a leap.

In the nearly three years since he adopted Bella, they’ve become closer than he and Coco ever were, if for no other reason than the comparative lengths of the relationships.

Donald Smith sits on his couch with his dog Bella in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. Donald’s dog Coco went missing for 3-1/2 years. In that time, he got a new dog, Bella. This past October, Coco was found and returned to Donald. The dogs didn’t get along, but by chance he met another veteran who was looking for a therapy dog and Coco now belongs to this other Charlotte-based veteran. (Khadejeh Nikouyeh/The Charlotte Observer via AP)

Still, the emotions were complicated when he learned Coco had turned up out of the blue. Says Donald: “It’s almost like I wish I hadn’t gotten another dog. But who would ever dream that 3-½ years later, she would come back? I miss the relationship that I had with her, but I love the relationship that I have with Bella.”

So when Coco didn’t seem to remember her old owner when Dennis brought her to Donald’s house in October, and because Bella showed signs of aggression toward Coco, Dennis offered to let Coco stay with him a little longer to avoid any issues.

Donald already knew, though, that having two dogs was going to be a challenge for someone who travels as much as he does.

And he knew his primary obligation, now, was to Bella.

If he was going to lose Coco to someone and somewhere else again, though, he needed more than anything to know this: That she would be loved.

Donald Smith sits on his couch with Bella, left, and Coco in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. Donald’s dog Coco went missing for 3-1/2 years. In that time, he got a new dog, Bella. This past October, Coco was found and returned to Donald. The dogs didn’t get along, but by chance he met another veteran who was looking for a therapy dog and Coco now belongs to this other Charlotte-based veteran. (Khadejeh Nikouyeh/The Charlotte Observer via AP)

Searching for the right new home

Dennis and Donald actually talked about Dennis keeping Coco permanently.

“I mean, I definitely had an attachment to that dog, for sure,” Dennis says. “She’s the sweetest thing ever. … I didn’t hear a bark once. She didn’t pee in the house once. She didn’t ever get feisty or anything like that. It was just like, ‘Nope, I’m gonna live here now.’”

But he also has to travel for work, and he just didn’t think it would be fair to her.

Meanwhile, Donald was feeling increasingly conflicted about having to let go of Coco for a second time. But then he had a chance encounter with a fellow veteran outside the VA Clinic in Charlotte that changed everything.

Donald had Bella with him, and this stranger asked whether Bella was his service dog. Donald replied that she was “just a dog.” The stranger nodded, and said he’d asked because he was interested in getting a service dog at some point He tried to move on, but Donald followed him and struck up a conversation.

Donald told him about Coco. The stranger told Donald about his anxiety and depression. It quickly became clear that maybe they could help each other out. When they exchanged information, the man introduced himself. My name, he said to Donald, is Dennis.

‘I couldn’t be happier for her’

Dennis Dail says he tried owning a dog once before, but “my depression was so bad at the time, I guess I wasn’t in the frame of mind to have a dog.”

He also says his social anxiety can be so bad that he often deliberately avoids having face-to-face interactions with those he doesn’t know (he declined to meet with an Observer reporter at Donald’s house but agreed to speak by phone) … and admits the only reason he said anything to Donald that day was because he really wanted to know about the dog.

He’s incredibly grateful that he did.

Dail says Coco has improved his life practically overnight.

“My mood has changed,” he says. “I’m laughing more than I ever did before, and smiling more than I have ever done before. … Something was missing here in my home, and it’s like Coco is the answer now. When I used to get off from work and come home, it’s nothing there. But when I get off from work and go home now, I know I have to hurry up and get home to Coco. You know? And it’s just a blessing. … It’s just working out real good.”

He said he’s already talked to his therapist about the process of getting Coco registered as a service dog.

As for how this has all panned out, everyone involved is shaking their head, with a smile on their face.

Says Dennis Dail: “It’s crazy how this is going on. I don’t understand. Look, the guy that found Coco is named Dennis. My name is Dennis. I’m 57. And Don’s 57. All of our names start with a D. It’s just —”

He can’t think of how to describe it, so he just laughs.

Says the Dennis who found Coco originally, upon hearing that she wound up with in the hands of another Dennis:

“Oh, that’s really funny. I actually have never met another Dennis. … I mean, it was tough to let her go. It was definitely tough.”

He pauses, seeming to wrestle in his mind with this revelation for a couple of beats before continuing.

“That’s making me second-guess my decision even more now, that the new owner is named Dennis. Like, maybe it was meant to be!”

Then there’s Donald.

He recognizes that this isn’t a straightforward feel-good ending, one in which he finds his lost dog after 3-1/2 years and the two go on to live happily ever after, together.

But in a way, he says, this is an even more fitting resolution than he could have ever envisioned.

“I think it’s awesome to be able to help somebody else out, especially another veteran,” Donald says, as he sits next to Bella, who is curled up in a ball next to him in the living room of his house in Charlotte. “What Coco’s gonna give him is so much greater than anything she could ever really have done for me. That’s probably the only thing that makes me OK with being honest and true to myself that I couldn’t really keep her. Even though I wish I could.

“It just seems like her coming back … happened for a reason. So I couldn’t be happier for her. And I keep in contact with the Dennis that has her now, so I’ll be able to see her periodically when I’m in Charlotte.” “I truly couldn’t ask,” he says, finally, “for a better Christmas gift.”