Woman's Search for Senior Dog Who Went Missing While She Was Out of the Country Goes Viral (Exclusive)

The dog mom never imagined the twists it would take for her 10-year-old pup to get lost

<p>Hannah Riley/X</p> Hannah Riley and Hazel (L), Hazel before her disappearance (R)

Hannah Riley/X

Hannah Riley and Hazel (L), Hazel before her disappearance (R)
  • Hannah Riley was out of the country when she got the news her 10-year-old dog, Hazel, had been lost by her pet sitter

  • Hannah scrambled to get a search for Hazel going while working on getting home to look for the dog, who has special medical needs

  • The search went viral, with people far beyond the Atlanta area doing what they could to help bring Hazel back home

Hannah Riley has been through a pet lover's worst nightmare.

While away visiting friends in Toronto recently, Riley got news that her beloved dog, 10-year-old Hazel, went missing near her home in Atlanta.

"She was staying with a dogsitter, who, I should note, absolutely loves animals and was wonderful with Hazel from the moment they met," Riley tells PEOPLE.

The dogsitter had called Riley on a Sunday afternoon to let her know Hazel had to be taken to an emergency vet. Then, while at the emergency vet's office, Hazel was "taken outside without a leash in a non-fenced-in area" and had run off, with a catheter in her leg.

"This vet is located on a very, very busy road. Someone at the vet told me a man had caught a dog that looked a lot like Hazel in the middle of DeKalb Industrial Boulevard, but that she had escaped him," she explains.

"Later on, when I spoke to the man (who ended up helping all week to find Hazel) he let me know that he had handed her to a woman on the side of the road, but he didn't see them leave together. I knew so few details at that point!"

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.

The first few days were "such a blur," with Riley coordinating between her Twitter followers, whom she'd been keeping informed of the story, and her "incredibly and well-organized friends who jumped into action before I was able to get back."

"We had some group chats together by Sunday night; fliers were already being made, and people were already out searching in the woods near where she had last been seen."

In addition to her own social circle, members of the community were willing to show up for Riley. "Robin Allgood, who found the dog that Delta lost in the Atlanta Airport for 22 days, reached out and immediately offered her help for free."

It took Riley until the next afternoon to get home, with her heading "straight from the airport to the vet's office."

"I feel conflicted because I know so many people who work at St. Francis were heartbroken about what happened, and so many employees searched for her and shared in my joy when she was found. So I really want to acknowledge them and their efforts," Riley says.

Unfortunately, she didn't receive the same kind of empathy from Thrive Pet Healthcare, the owners of St. Francis.

"They hadn't reached out to me until I tweeted about them; they searched for only four hours on the day that they lost Hazel. She had been missing a full three days before they hired a tracker. It feels like everything they did was in response to the viral story and the bad press it was bringing them, not because they really cared about finding my dog," Riley says.

"Aside from sending me one text saying congratulations that she was found, we've not communicated."

In a statement provided to PEOPLE, Thrive Pet Healthcare says, "We are incredibly appreciative of everyone who has volunteered their time to search for Hazel and kept her in their thoughts during this difficult time."

"Even more importantly, we are humbled to have been given an opportunity to partner with Hazel’s family in her search to return home. We are available and will provide Hazel’s family with any necessary support that they will allow during this reunion and in the future."

As if Hazel's disappearance wasn't difficult enough, Riley was also met with scammers who asked for money in exchange for Hazel's safe return.

"I'm pretty sure the first scam call I got (where they pretended to have Hazel) made me cry. But it didn't take long to remind myself that the overwhelming majority of the responses were based on kindness, empathy and generosity — from so many people who didn't even know me — so all of that sort of drowned out the more cruel responses."

Riley also managed to "be pretty sleep-deprived and trying to respond to what felt like a firehose of messages and calls, which was a lot!"

"Sometimes, the slight distraction — the busy work of organizing a spreadsheet or responding to a text from someone out looking for her — helped keep my mind from wandering into sadder thoughts/worries about where she was and how much she was suffering," she explains.

On March 22, Riley missed a call from an unknown number while trying to catch up on sleep.

"At that point, I was getting 15 calls from random numbers a day, so I thought I'd get to it later," she recalls. "At around 7:30, I looked at my texts ... and saw a photo of Hazel from that same family. I screamed, grabbed my boyfriend and my parents, who had flown down from Vermont to be there to support me, and drove the 20 minutes to the house."

Thankfully, Riley was reunited with Hazel after "the longest 20-minute drive of my life!"

"I can't even explain the feeling of seeing her again. She had lost about a third of her body weight and was in a state of shock, but she was wagging her tail and very ready to get in the car and go home," she shares. "Apparently, she spent the morning following the couple around their house as they got ready, and whenever she saw their bed, she would start wagging her tail!"

Hazel did have some signs of being out on her own, with "injuries/open wounds on both her back paws, her stomach and her jaw."

"She's having some issues with pain in her back, and isn't able to jump up on the couch like she usually can. She's doing a lot of sleeping and A LOT of eating. She's always stuck to me like glue, but even more so now," Riley says.

"We're still waiting for the bloodwork to come back, and she's an older dog with a heart murmur, so there's a slight risk of a stressful event like this pushing a dog into heart failure. But overall, she got a pretty clean bill of health from her vets at the Inman Park Animal Hospital on Friday!"

A true animal lover, Riley is taking proceeds from a GoFundMe started to help her find Hazel and donating it to other animals in need.

"I never would have dreamed of doing anything except donating that money! I love animals, and I love people, and now having this first-hand experience of the trauma of losing a pet makes me even happier to give the money to the Atlanta Humane Society, which does such important life-saving work. And the cherry on top is Atlanta Humane is where I adopted Hazel 6 years ago!" she shares.

"I hope the generous people who donated know that their money has now helped save multiple dogs," she continues. "We had already bought the billboards and bus shelter ads before Hazel was found, and now they are being used to help find another missing dog, Nellie."

In this overwhelming experience, Riley has developed immense gratitude for "the outpouring of love and support" around bringing Hazel home.

"I love Atlanta and my community here so much. I also love every person from across the globe who empathized and cared enough to send me a little note of encouragement, help boost a post, donate to GoFundMe, or say a little prayer for Hazel."

"This experience has just reaffirmed for me that people are good; people want to do good; when there is an opportunity to help, most of us really want to. I hope I never lose sight of that."

For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on People.