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A man and his dog walk on the boardwalk along Lake Ontario in Toronto in this file photo from Jan. 16, 2017. When a much smaller dog, a Chihuahua named Chili, ran away from columnist Cathal Kelly on a recent walk, he opined that COVID-19 will not change our societal baseline: that people you do not know very badly want to help.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

My neighbour Pedro occasionally reads this column. As a result, he worries about my grip on reality.

So the other day Pedro had an idea. Why didn’t he send one of his family’s dogs over for a couple of hours?

You don’t think of yourself as the kind of person who needs a therapy animal, and then there you are. In a year, I won’t be able to fly without a pot-bellied pig named Herman.

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Once I got the dog – Chili, a rescue Chihuahua – home, it was clear she was not best pleased. Pacing. Grumbling at the door. Giving me the sort of look a person on the stand has when they are pointing out someone at the defendant’s table.

So I decided to take Chili for a walk. That was nice. Lovely day, a little air, not breaking any of the rapidly changing rules.

My new best friend and I were ambling down a formerly busy stretch of King Street in Toronto when I felt a tug on the leash behind me. I turned to look. And what I was looking at was a collar no longer attached to a dog.

I swung around and the dolly shot in my mind’s camera began to operate – like the beach shot in Jaws, but more horrifying.

I watched as Chili – loose and moving at something close to the speed of sound – took off down the middle of one of the city’s main thoroughfares.

Now I run occasionally. For streetcars. On a treadmill if I’m at a hotel and feeling frisky. But that’s not even jogging. It’s more like speed-walking.

I don’t believe I’ve full-out run since my 20s. But now I was running. Sprinting (this would be the sports portion of this sports article) and screaming and waving my arms.

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The sight of an adult man in an overcoat and khakis running whilst shrieking tends to alarm people. Because they assume he is running from something. Everyone ahead of me scattered, just enough so that I could see Chili receding into the distance.

After about six blocks, I lost sight of her.

I stopped and had a little think. My first thought was: “This is not the time to pass out.” My second thought was: “You have killed your neighbour’s dog.”

I started asking passersby if they’d seen a Chihuahua come through. They looked at me like I had gone mad. Which was becoming a real possibility.

Just then, a cop pulled up in his patrol car.

“Sir, have you lost a dog?”

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Well, this is unexpected.

“Um, yes.”

“Little thing? What’s her name?”

“Chili.”

“I’ll go look.”

And then he peeled off.

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Working on the theory that Chili might have gone to a familiar spot, I wandered over to the closest dog park. And there she was, standing off on her own. Hallelujah.

I crept up behind her, quite literally on tip-toes. Too late. She’d spotted me and begun to cower. She had slunk away toward a couple standing nearby.

“Can you grab that dog?” I said.

Another 'crazy man’ look.

“Please, I’m begging you. Don’t let that dog get away.”

I lunged at her and managed to get a partial hold, and was now rolling around on the ground when the man began to yell, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY DOG?”

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This was not Chili. It was her dog doppelganger. I was adding dog-napping to dog murder.

Under the circumstances, this guy was pretty understanding. Because I would probably have punched first and talked later if someone was stealing my dog right in front of me.

After I’d explained myself, these strangers offered to come help me find Chili. They began following me out of the park. People. They’ll surprise you if you give them half a chance.

But I’d given in to despair. How long could I reasonably leave it before I called Pedro? What would I tell him? Can you move into a hotel and sell your house online without ever going back there?

I was staggering back toward King when the cop pulled into an intersection sideways, a move I thought was reserved for hostage situations and Starsky & Hutch.

He leaned out the window and yelled, “We’ve found your dog. Jump in.”

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Someone behind me cheered. This was becoming exciting.

I got in the back of the squad car. It’s even tighter in there than I remembered.

He drove us a block or so away. A young woman – a girl, really – was standing there holding Chili. She’d been found in a laneway.

There is no joy quite like the sort you feel when a disaster has been averted. You don’t get it very often, but I was having it now. I felt like I’d just rolled out of a truck as it went off a cliff.

The cop let me out of the back seat. I stood there in a daze. The girl handed Chili over. Stupidly, I offered her money (at that point, I would’ve given her the keys to my car). She refused.

“There’s some still humanity left,” she said.

I swear to God. That’s what she said.

The cop – whose name I wish I’d asked for – patted me on the shoulder. We all stood there looking happy. It was a moment.

I scooped Chili up in my arms – she was still giving me that look – and began back toward home. Just a grown man taking his baby Chihuahua for a stroll.

About halfway there, I passed a woman on the sidewalk.

“Oh, great,” she said. “You found your dog.”

I gave her a head tilt.

“I was the one who stopped the policeman,” she said. “I saw you running. I could tell you needed help.”

After I’d returned Chili, I told Pedro. His first reaction was, “That must have been so stressful for you,” and then he started to laugh about it. I would have settled for anything short of ‘didn’t hit me with a baseball bat.'

It may have been the kindest thing in a string of unexpected kindnesses.

I was beginning to wonder how the current situation will affect the way we treat each other. The news is full of stories of random idiots who won’t do the simplest things to stop the spread of COVID-19, of profiteers and hoarders, and science-deniers. A few minutes on the internet can make it feel as though we are knee-deep in apathy and increasingly alone.

There is something jarring about the way people now avoid you in public. The way they jump out of your way or cross the street when they see you coming.

This may be sensible, but it had begun to feel like just when we needed each other most, circumstances had begun to push us apart.

Then you lose your neighbour’s dog.

And you realize that no crisis can change our societal baseline: that people you do not know not only will help, but want very badly to do that.

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