When Breckenridge resident Zach Hackett first rescued Riley — a 9-year-old sheltie dog who had run away five weeks earlier — in May, nothing happened for about 10 days.
Then the story swept across the country. After Summit Daily News and KDVR reported the story, Hackett received congratulations from Congressman Joe Neguse’s office, and the national nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) honored him with a compassion award. Soon, The Washington Post, The Dodo, Fox Weather and other major news outlets were reaching out to interview Hackett.
But before all that attention, Hackett said he had been struggling. The days between when Hackett first heard Riley’s faint “yip” while exploring the trails near Peak 4 behind his new apartment and when the media caught wind of the story had been difficult ones, he said.
The uplifting story of the rescue, though, has helped Hackett connect with a wider community and find happiness and hope for the future. It also inspired him to start his own pet-care business.
“We had some bad situations, and they have turned into some great opportunities,” Hackett said. “The story was about me rescuing Riley, but really it was Riley who rescued me.”
Since the pandemic, Hackett said he has moved around the country, trying to find a place to call home. Last winter, he started a job with Vail Resorts. It brought him to Summit County, where he felt an immediate connection with the mountains.
“Instantly, I realized I’m not going anywhere,” Hackett said. “I finally found my home.”
In May, Hackett moved with his girlfriend into a new apartment in Breckenridge and quit his job at Vail Resorts in search of something more sustainable and closer to home. The property behind the apartment backed right up to the Tenmile Range, so, naturally, he had to explore it.
On May 14, exactly five weeks and one day after Riley escaped on April 8, Hackett was up in the mountains behind his new apartment for the first time. The sun had begun to set, so he was headed home. That’s when he heard the “yip” that started it all.
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Next thing Hackett knew, he was carrying an emaciated dog — which he said appeared to be clinging to life — down the mountain. For two hours, he trekked downhill, the dog in his arms, through slushy snow and mud.
To get home, Hackett had to cross the Blue River, which flows through his backyard, with the dog in one arm and a stick for balance in the other.
The next morning after a long night caring for Riley, he brought him to a local animal shelter. Soon, the dog was reunited with his owner, Mike Krugman.
“Someone told me someone else might have left him,” Hackett said when he first recalled the rescue in an interview with Summit Daily. “That never would have even crossed my mind. For me, it’s not, ‘Do I save him?’ It’s, ‘How do I do it?’”
Once Riley was home safe, Hackett returned to his everyday life. But in the days between the rescue and when the story blew up, Hackett said his girlfriend decided she didn’t want to live in the mountains and moved out suddenly. He returned one night from Denver to find all her stuff gone.
Sad and a little bit angry, Hackett, who said he’s never hurt someone or been a violent person, had a couple Twisted Teas and ended up breaking his hand. Suddenly, he said, he’s jobless, living alone in a two-bedroom apartment, unable to write or type efficiently due to his hand, depressed and running low on cash.
That’s about when the media caught wind of Riley’s rescue.
“That was the hardest part for me,” Hackett said. “I have a smile on my face. I’m so happy. Everyone is being so uplifting, and I’m still wondering, ‘How am I going to afford this? How am I going to work?’”
Hackett saw an opportunity as the interview requests came flooding in. With just one hand, he stayed up late one night crafting a website for a new pet lodging business he called Riley’s Retreat, then pitched the business in an interview with CBS the next day.
“I’m getting all this media coverage, and I think the biggest lightbulb for me was that I always liked dogs,” Hackett said. “I never had a dog as a kid. I volunteered at a human society when I was younger and watched all my friends’ dogs when they were out of town.”
With few pet boarding options in Summit County, has branded Riley’s Retreat as “Breckenridge for dogs.” He said he has always loved taking dogs for adventures, photographing them and cooking for them — all things he plans to offer through his business.
Hackett also plans to donate 5% of every sale directly to Summit Lost Pet Rescue, the all-volunteer group that helps find lost pets in Summit County and assisted with the search for Riley for weeks before Hackett found him.
Through Riley, Hackett said he has been able to connect with neighbors across Summit County who he may otherwise have never met, while also making friends across the country as the story has spread.
Energized by the community he has built over the past few weeks, Hackett said he has stopped drinking, felt more balanced emotionally and been able to focus on getting medical attention for his hand. With a surgery scheduled, he plans to soon be able to get his business up and running for good.
“Who rescued who?” Hackett said. “I’ve been a very lonely, solo person. I never asked for help. I’ve been really depressed for six years … Riley saved my life. You wouldn’t believe this story if you weren’t following it all along.”