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Help sought to find Upper Burrell family's missing German shepherd

| Tuesday, June 24, 2014, 12:11 a.m.
Courtesy of Hochbein family
Merry, a year-old German shepherd being trained as an autism support dog for the 18-year-old son of Ronna Hochbein, ran away from a pet sitter on Friday, June 20, 2014, from the Hochbeins' home on Route 780 (Seventh Street Road) in Upper Burrell.

An Upper Burrell family is offering a $600 reward for information leading to the return of their German shepherd that ran from a pet sitter on Friday evening.

The Hochbeins had just begun their vacation in Florida when they got word that Merry, a year-old dog that acts as a companion for the family's 18-year-old autistic son, had taken off, Ronna Hochbein said.

She said Merry was with the family's 8-year-old beagle, Tippin, when the older dog ran off.

The beagle was found, but Merry remains on the lam.

“She's run with the beagle before. But on her own, she's never taken off before,” Hochbein said.

The two dogs were wearing “shock” collars — collars used for dog training that can deliver a remote-controlled pulse to deter bad behavior — but the collars were either turned off or needed the batteries charged.

The Hochbein family — which includes Ronna's husband, Erick, and three sons — plan to cut their vacation short and return home soon to look for the dog.

Meanwhile, family, friends and strangers are combing the woods around the Hochbeins' home on Route 780 (Seventh Street Road) near Penn State New Kensington.

Erick Hochbein's sister, Kristen Ziemkiewicz of Buffalo Township, and her family are coordinating the search efforts in the Hochbeins' absence.

Ziemkiewicz said her husband, Jeff, and 15-year-old son, Logan, saw Merry on Friday evening in the woods between Route 780 and Pleasant Valley Road. Since Logan resembles the Hochbeins' autistic son, Ziemkiewicz thinks Merry at first mistook Logan for his cousin. Merry ran off before anyone could catch her.

“She's just so frightened,” Kristen Ziemkiewicz said.

Ronna Hochbein said she doesn't think Merry will come to a stranger calling her name.

She suggested those who thinks they see the dog try to lure her in with food. “Lunch meat is her kryptonite.”

Ziemkiewicz said they're keeping the beagle outside as much as possible in hopes that the familiar scent draws in Merry. They've also hung about 100 flyers around the area.

Hochbein said she's even looking into deploying someone with a search-and-rescue dog to try to track Merry.

Hochbein said they bought the German shepherd as a puppy with plans to train her as a service dog for their autistic son. Merry has undergone basic puppy training and knows some commands, but is not yet considered a service dog.

“Our goal for her was for her to go into the community with him. He's pretty high-functioning, but he's kind of naïve for his age,” Hochbein said. “(The dog) is a bridge to independence for him.”

The Hochbeins are staying with relatives in Florida and weren't able to bring the dogs.

“This was the first time we ever left her,” Ronna Hochbein said.

Ziemkiewicz said they'd appreciate if people who thinks they spot Merry would relay the location so they can narrow their search area.

“I feel like it's a needle in a haystack — and the haystack keeps moving,” she said.

Meanwhile, the family has been touched by the outpouring of support, both in terms of people searching for the dog and from people sharing information about Merry on the Internet.

“Three wonderful, wonderful boys from Pleasant Valley Road, they literally spent their entire Friday evening searching with us,” Ziemkiewicz said.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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