A married couple from rural North Dakota feared the worst when their three-year-old son disappeared from their yard one May evening in 2014. Surrounded by thousands of acres of rambling farmland, the family home was set in a sparsely settled corner of the state. The parents were frantic. An unaccompanied toddler could easily stray into trouble – and there was a storm on the way. But in their distress, the mom and dad might have at first missed the fact that another member of the family was also AWOL…
Brock and Courtney Urness lived with their son in Cooperstown, North Dakota. According to the last census, the settlement – which has the official motto of “Unlimited Possibilities” – has a population of just 984. Located near the Sheyenne River, it serves as the administrative seat of Griggs County, which is home to some of 3.4 people per square mile. And now young Carson Urness had gone missing. As his 20-something parents surveyed the North Dakota wilderness, the appalling possibilities facing their son must have indeed seemed fearsome.
Indeed, the prospect of locating the boy in the rural expanse around Cooperstown might have been as challenging as finding a proverbial needle in a haystack. Nevertheless, the Urnesses had two things on their side. Firstly, the emergency services immediately mobilized a search party. And secondly, the conspicuous absence of another family member suggested that wherever the boy was, he was hopefully not alone…
Local sweethearts Brock from Cooperstown and Courtney from nearby Grace City had married in Cooperstown Lutheran Church in 2013, while little Carson had arrived two years before. Choosing to remain in their home state after graduating from college, the couple ran a family farm just outside of Cooperstown.
And there was certainly plenty of space in which to bring up a son. Indeed, on the day of his disappearance, on Monday, May 5, 2014, Carson had mostly been outdoors playing by himself. At about 7:30 p.m. his mother called him in from the yard for his dinner. It was only when she did not receive a response that Courtney realized her son was nowhere to be seen.
Nevertheless, the mom thought it highly likely that Carson had simply wandered off somewhere. As she took in the 2,000 or so acres of sprawling fields that the family home overlooked, the enormity of the situation hit her. What’s more, the weather was turning cold and rainy as day prepared to turn into dusk. And there was the fact that May nights in the North Dakota countryside often dip to a distinctly chilly 45°F.
Indeed, her initial reaction was totally understandable. “I lost it, I guess you could say,” Courtney told local ABC affiliate WDAY. “You think of the worst.” However, the mom soon realized that another member of the Urness family was also missing.
Brock and Courtney contacted the local emergency services. The authorities immediately assembled a search party that included some 200 volunteers, a search dog and a highway-patrol search plane. The hastily recruited throng scoured the surrounding countryside for hours. Midnight came and went, and still little Carson had not been found.
Furthermore, fears over worsening weather were confirmed. In fact, search volunteers on foot were instructed to stand down just before 2:00 a.m. due to a heavy thunderstorm. However, professional emergency service personnel continued to comb the area on all-terrain vehicles. It was shortly after the volunteers had gone home that one of these riders, a local fireman, spotted a canine lying near a knoll about a mile from the Urness property. It turned out to be Cooper – the family dog.
Unbelievably, Cooper was found lying on top of Carson, apparently trying to heat the toddler and shelter him from the worst of the storm. The pair had been away from home for almost seven cold-and-wet hours. “Great dog,” Courtney said to WDAY of the German shepherd-golden retriever mix. “If anyone was going to find [Carson], they’d just have to find Cooper… I just didn’t realize that he would actually be keeping [Carson] warm and protecting him.”
And Brock was in full agreement with his wife’s assessment of the family dog, adding, “I was really proud of him.” Apparently, the fireman loaded Carson on to the ATV and rode to the Urness farmstead with the loyal Cooper dutifully tailing behind. Apart from tearing his jeans and his jacket, Carson was physically unharmed and a local hospital gave him a clean bill of health. However, the outcome might have been very different were it not for the family’s four-legged member.
Courtney later described how Carson had told her what had happened when he realized that he was lost. “He came up to me today and said, ‘Mum I was really scared, but Cooper laid on me… and he kept me warm,’” she told WDAY. “And I said, ‘But what about your feet?’ And he said, ‘No, not those.’”
But could it have been that Cooper was just returning a favor to the Urnesses? As a puppy, the mixed-breed had been abandoned by his owners. But his saviors, Brock and Courtney, had rescued and adopted him after finding him alone on a roadside.
Indeed, so-called “rescue dogs” – those who have been re-homed after abandonment, abuse or neglect – are popularly thought to make the most loyal and grateful pets. While some rescue dogs have long-term behavioral problems – which require work and attention – with time, they too can be extremely loyal pets.
It can generally be said that dogs are loyal because they naturally live in packs. According to Cesar Millan, canine behaviorist, author, and host of the Emmy-recognized reality TV show Dog Whisperer, dogs are innately social creatures who experience a great sense of loss when a pack member goes missing.
Millan expanded on his theme on his website, Cesar’s Way. “When you see how dogs react when their humans and canine friends come back after they’ve been gone for a long time or when they don’t come back at all, you know it’s about more than food,” he wrote. “Dogs are pack animals.”
Millan continued, “They want to belong to a pack, whether it’s made up of dogs or humans or pretty much any animal.” The canine expert then highlighted a video he had made for National Geographic, Unlikely Animal Friends, to illustrate his point. The clip features remarkable scenes of canines interacting with other species, including a bear cub, a leopard and even a dolphin. “Dogs aren’t loners,” Millan explained. “When they lose a member of a pack – even temporarily – they feel that a part of them is missing.”
“The friendship between man and dog has gone back thousands of years,” The Dog Whisperer said. “Dogs didn’t become ‘man’s best friend’ for no reason. They give us unconditional love every day.” But it was Millan’s concluding words that the Urnesses might have heeded most. “Dogs have been loyal to us,” he said. “It’s time we return the favor.”
Indeed, it was thanks to Cooper’s loyalty that Carson was found safe and well. And no doubt the hairiest member of the Urness household was handsomely rewarded for his heroic act. But the family also realized that their local community also deserved some recognition for organizing so rapidly. As Brock later told ABC News, “We’re very thankful for the police and local fire department here, and all the people with horses and four-wheelers and the walkers. We’re very grateful that they all came and looked and helped us.”
It’s fair to say that for a place as remote as Cooperstown, a strong sense of community is a matter of survival. The fact that 200 volunteers could be roused in such a sparsely populated area at such short notice is proof that social bonds in the rural North Dakota town are robust, enduring and loyal. Just like the town’s canine namesake, Cooper.