As She Rushed to Escape a Wildfire, She Realized Her Dog Was Missing

Yellowknife resident Louise Cumming and her family thought they escaped with all their pets. Until one went missing.

Pet Reunions YellowknifeThe Canadian Press / Bill Braden

Few senior dogs are as energetic as 13-year-old Sedze, a white and beige Shih Tzu whose name means “my heart” in the Dogrib language, spoken by the Tlicho First Nation. Aptly so, as Sedze has been a beloved member of the Yellowknife-based Cumming family since she was eight weeks old. Despite being in her golden years, Sedze can still keep up with Axel, the family’s nine-year-old German shepherd, on long walks. “Our vet always comments on what good shape she’s in,” says her owner, Louise Cumming, a collections officer for Housing Northwest Territories. “She’s a real trooper kind of a dog.”

In August 2023, the little Shih Tzu’s resilient spirit went through a real-life trial by fire. On August 13, Louise and her husband, Shannon, were shopping for non-perishables and packing up their camping gear in anticipation of an evacuation order. A massive wildfire 35 kilometres west of the city was getting dangerously close and officials were monitoring its path.

Over the previous three months, Canada had been dealing with its worst wildfire season on record. In all, more than 6,600 wildfires were recorded in the country in 2023—1,000 more than the 10-year average.

On August 16, the evacuation order came and Yellowknife’s 20,000 residents were instructed to leave the city. At 9:15 p.m., Louise, along with her husband, daughter-in-law and her daughter-in-law’s best friend, hopped into two cars and a truck with their pets: Sedze, Axel, a husky named Rhea, a cat named Copernicus and a chihuahua named Choco. Along with their clothes, phones and laptops, they made their way onto the Mackenzie Highway, heading south toward Alberta. (Louise’s son, who worked at a diamond mine in the North Slave Region, was to rendezvous with the group later.)

Their destination was an evacuation centre in High Level, a town about seven hours away in northern Alberta, but heavy traffic slowed them down, and thick smoke made it hard to see. “The drive seemed to take forever… But once we finally got through the fire, the relief was amazing,” says Louise.

After driving all night, the exhausted group set up camp near the Deh Cho bridge—220 kilometres from the Alberta border—to sleep for two hours before hitting the road again at 8:00 a.m. But 20 minutes into the second half of their journey, one of Louise’s worst nightmares came to life: The group realized that Sedze was not in any of their vehicles. She was missing.

The group sped back to their campsite, believing they may have accidentally left Sedze there. But there was no sign of her. They flagged down passersby, desperately asking if anyone had seen a small Shih Tzu, to no avail.

Though Louise tried to stay positive, deep down she feared the worst: either a wild animal had killed Sedze or she had drowned in the nearby Mackenzie River. After searching for 30 minutes, Louise and the others continued the journey south, heartbroken but still holding out hope for a miracle.

Later that evening, the group finally arrived in High Level. Louise called her daughter, Jilaine, who lives in Calgary, and broke the news. Ten minutes after they hung up, Jilaine called back with a shocking update. A man named Ryan Snyder had posted about a dog he found wandering out of the bush near the Deh Cho bridge on the Facebook group Yellowknife Lost/Found Pets. The dog looked exactly like Sedze!

Louise quickly got on the phone with Ryan and confirmed Sedze’s identity with a description of a faux pink flower attached to her collar. Sedze was alive and well. And as it turns out, Ryan had also evacuated to High Level: while speaking to each other on the phone, they discovered that they were standing on opposite sides of the same baseball field.

Pet Reunions SedzeCourtesy of Louise Cumming
Sedze the Shih Tzu.

“It was the greatest feeling when he brought her over on her leash and she was sled-dogging it toward us,” she says. Today, Louise still marvels at their luck that Ryan found Sedze and reunited her with her family.

Three weeks later, on September 6, the order was lifted and the group returned to their homes in Yellowknife. “If my house had burned to the ground, I could have replaced it,” Louise says. “But you can’t replace your family.”

Next, check out these heartwarming dog stories that’ll make you smile.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada