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These days, Dana Holby’s life revolves around Finney.
Like all Jack Russell Terriers, Finney is endlessly curious and energetic: she burrows for insects in the yard, barks at every bird or bug that flits by, and chases squirrels—and boy are there a lot of squirrels near Holby’s home in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Finney’s appetite is insatiable, and most nights she wakes Holby up four or five times for a bowl of kibble. And then there’s the relentless attention Finney receives when Holby takes her on walks around town. Friends, neighbors, and even strangers will stop to see her, pet her, and ask is this really Finney the wonder-dog?
“She’s become a local celebrity,” Holby says. “People will tell me how incredible the story is. And then they will stop and see me and say ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’”
These reactions spring from an improbable tale of tragedy and survival. On August 19, Holby’s husband, Richard Moore, and Finney vanished while hiking on Blackhead Peak, 12,500-foot mountain located 35 miles east of town. Their disappearance prompted a massive search and rescue mission, and for 16 days more than 100 volunteers scoured the mountain, to no avail. The search generated plenty of buzz in Pagosa Springs, where Moore and Holby are members of the local San Juan Outdoor Club hiking group. Volunteers hung up photos of Rich and Finney around town, and hikers continued to ascend Blackhead Peak in hopes of finding them.
On October 30, a hunter on horseback discovered Moore’s body. Standing nearby was a small white dog—it was Finney, and she was alive. When news trickled through the community that Finney had survived 72 days in the backcountry, she became an overnight superstar.
When Holby got the news, she felt a potent blend of grief and amazement. Happy to have her dog home, but crushed by the loss of her husband.
“I was in disbelief and frankly still am that Rich isn’t here,” she says. “Finney coming home was otherworldly.”
Holby and her son, Cesar, picked Finney up at a local animal hospital on October 31. Finney usually weighs ten pounds, but when Holby got her back she had dwindled to less than half that. Her ribs shone through her abdomen, and a deep gash on her nose was coated in scabs and dirt. Since then, nursing Finney back to health has become a full-time job for Holby, who is 78.
But perhaps that’s for the best—attending to the energetic dog, with all of her idiosyncrasies, has kept Holby’s mind and spirit occupied. Because Holby is still trying to understand why her husband of 34 years is gone, and a three-year-old Jack Russell Terrier is still here.
“She’s my purpose now, which is good because before I had no purpose,” Holby says. “I’ll do anything for her. I’m just happy to have her back. She’s a piece of us.”
Golden Years in Colorado
“Retirement is a good thing,” is a mantra that Holby and Moore often repeated to one another. Their post-career lives revolved around hiking and dogs, and in 2019 they relocated from Brattleboro, Vermont, to Pagosa Springs to live out their golden years surrounded by the soaring San Juan Range. Holby had been a professor of dance at several universities in the Northeast, and Moore had been a social worker.
“He was this tall skinny man who wanted to hike and ski and do it in the sunshine,” Holby says. “He would rather be outdoors than anywhere.”
Just a few days after arriving in Pagosa Springs, Holby and Moore set out on a trail from town and noticed a group of similarly aged hikers. When Holby asked them to share mosquito repellent, one responded with a can of bug spray and an invitation. The San Juan Outdoor Club, the woman said, held weekly outings, and many of the members were retirees. Holby and Moore joined up, and within a few weeks had new trails to explore with new friends.
They hosted poker nights and dinners, and quickly became part of the club’s social fabric, says Bill Milner, 66, a friend and a club member.
“Rich could hit it off with anybody—one of those people who is super interested in people and wants to hear your story,” Milner said. “He had a great memory. He’d repeat an entire episode of Seinfeld line by line and then nail the punchline.”
Milner and his wife Jacquie became fast friends with Holby and Moore, and the two couples regularly hiked and camped together. The two couples also brought dogs into their homes around the same time. During a trip back to Vermont in 2020, Holby and Moore visited a breeder in New Hampshire. A mother Jack Russell Terrier had just had puppies, and Holby and Moore chose the runt of the litter. She was white with black and brown blotches on her face and tail. The mother was an Irish Jack—a sub-breed with shorter legs—so they named their dog Finnegan, or Finney for short.
“She was always off-leash, running far away,” Holby says. “Like a streak—this little white dog, way out there in the woods who would always come back.”
Finney and Holby got along swimmingly, but the dog saved her deepest affection for Moore. He took on the role of dog trainer and primary companion and taught Finney tricks and games and helped steer her relentless energy. She soon became their hiking companion.
On August 19, with Holby in Montana visiting her ailing sister, Moore decided to climb Blackhead Peak. He and Milner had hiked the scraggly mountain in 2021, and their outing had been grueling. “It’s a horrendous trail, it’s a social trail and it just goes straight up the mountain,” Milner says. “Rich had always talked about wanting to go back.”
The mountain is the highest viewpoint on the eastern horizon from Pagosa Springs, and the trail up it starts in a remote area on its western flank, about an hour drive from town. Moore told Holby over the phone he planned to hike the peak with Finney. “I said ‘please don’t go alone,’ but he did,” she said.
When Moore failed to check in that evening Holby texted Milner, as well as her son, Cesar, who also lives in town. Someone reported Moore’s car at the trailhead parking lot. Cesar and a neighbor sped to the trailhead that evening, and Milner met them there with jackets, flashlights, and food. “They started hiking at midnight and I don’t think they got off the trail until 3 A.M.,” Milner says. Holby, meanwhile, drove through the night to get back home.
The following day the Archuleta County Sheriff’s office began its search, calling on SAR teams, a regional Flight for Life helicopter, and various agencies. In the ensuing days the mission swelled to 176 people: climbers rappelled down cliffs, helicopters and flying drones buzzed the peak, dog teams patrolled the trails searching for any signs of the two. Ryan Foster, the emergency management commander of the Archuleta County Sheriff’s office, says the mission was one of the largest in county history.
“You gotta get through some steep terrain to get to the summit which made the searching pretty difficult,” Foster says. “A lot of teams had to be inserted with helicopters.”
As the search stretched past a week, Holby stayed at home, overcome by worry. Moore was in perfect health, she said, and he was confident and experienced in the backcountry. What had gone wrong?
“I was beside myself thinking about Rich and Finney,” Holby says. “It was a trail that Rich knew and I thought ‘he’s just going to go up and come back down’ like he was planning. He just didn’t do it.”
An Unbelievable Discovery
By the onset of fall, Bill Milner knew Rich and Finney weren’t coming back. Human beings and dogs haven’t evolved to survive for that long high on the slopes of a peak, he figured. He assumed a hunter following the deer herds would find them somewhere on the mountain. “That’s what I hoped for, anyway,” Milner says. “Just to have some closure for Dana.”
That’s precisely what happened on October 30. Officer Robert Hill was in the sheriff’s office when a message came through from a Garmin InReach that afternoon. The message, from a hunter on horseback, said he had found a body and a dog on a wooded ridge on Blackhead Peak.
“We figured he meant the dog was dead too,” Hill says.
Reception is poor on the eastern slope of the mountain, and the following message didn’t arrive for more than an hour. “He said the dog was alive and he was trying to catch it but couldn’t,” Hill says. “We were shocked.”
Sheriffs arranged for a helicopter transport to the area, but the sun was already low in the sky. They flew over the ridge where the message had come from and saw nothing, but they did scout a suitable landing spot. The next day, Foster and another crew member were airlifted onto the ridgeline at about 7,500 feet elevation. After some searching, they saw Moore’s body. And besides him was Finney—teeth bared, hair raised, and ready to attack. Finney barked at the two men.
“She looked skinny but she was moving well,” Foster says. “She was very protective of Rich.”
The two coaxed Finney over with a can of wet dog food—rescuers had laced it with a sedative prior to the flight. They collected Moore’s remains and Finney, and flew the 35 miles back to Pagosa Springs.
In town, Holby knew something was up when sheriff Mike Le Roux showed up at her door on the evening of October 30. Le Roux had kept Holby informed via daily phone calls and text messages throughout the search, but an in-person meeting was somewhat out of the ordinary.
“He sat on the couch and I knew right away they were going to say it,” Holby says. “My emotions were completely out of control—it was hard not to be that way.”
The sheriff’s office has yet to publish an official cause of death, but rescuers told Holby that Moore had likely died of hypothermia and exposure. He was lost, stranded on a steep ridge on the eastern side of the peak, far from the trail. He had smashed his glasses and probably could not see where he was going. His body was about 500 yards from the farthest boundary of the search.
“It was kind of a closure, I suppose, but I don’t think there’s ever closure on someone you love,” Holby says. “Not when they are supposed to be here because they are healthy and strong and happy.”
And then they told Holby the rest of the news. Finney, all four pounds of wriggling and barking and bug-eating energy, was alive. Holby and her son rushed to the animal hospital the next day, and there she was.
“My son and I both wept,” Holby says.
Bred For Survival
The Jack Russell Terrier Club of America publishes a detailed warning on its website for would-be owners of the dogs: “Many experienced, as well as inexperienced, dog owners are overwhelmed by the demands of a Jack Russell Terrier, leading to the dogs being abandoned even before they reach adulthood.”
Bred to hunt foxes and small rodents, the dogs are famous—perhaps infamous—for their tenacity, need for constant exercise, and aggressive temperament.
They are also wildly individualistic, says Alison Cook, a longtime breeder who runs Kimberlite Jack Russell Terriers in Hayward, California. “We’re extraneous to them in many ways—they don’t need us,” Cook says. “When you do form a bond with a dog like that it’s much more special.”
These traits drew Holby and Moore to the breed in the past. Finney was actually their second Jack Russell Terrier—they previously had a dog named Otis. “Like Otis Redding,” Holby says. But they learned the hard way about the breed’s impulsive nature. Otis ate a worm attached to a fishhook—it cost him his life at age 13. But even Otis was calmer than Finney.
“I’d take her on walks and worry that a mountain lion would get her because she just runs after everything,” Holby says.
Was Finney chasing a critter atop Blackhead Mountain when Moore got lost? It’s one of the theories that those familiar with the case are wrestling with. Moore had likely ascended the peak and reached its summit. But for some reason he ventured away from the trail, which is located on the western flank, and descended a steep and unmarked ridge on the east side.
“Nobody goes off the east side, there’s no reason to go that way,” Milner says. “Maybe the dog went after a marmot. Maybe he slipped. It’s all speculative but it goes through my mind all the time.”
Of course the instinct to chase after critters, no matter the consequences, also makes Jack Russell Terriers experts at survival. Cook, who has bred the dogs for 30 years, says she’s heard many stories of runaways living off the land for weeks in rural or suburban settings. “Often they will evade being caught and live out there for quite some time,” she said. “Their owners will stop looking for them.” But even Cooke was surprised by Finney’s story of endurance.
Nobody knows how Finney found ways to eat, find water, and evade mountain lions and black bears high on the mountain. Holby has some theories. Since returning home, Finney has been an expert hunter of insects, capable of snatching moths and other flying bugs out of the air. She also will dig up grubs in the backyard and slurp them down.
“I think she was eating bugs and rodents that burrow in the ground—mice, chipmunks, squirrels,” she says.
There are other new behaviors that Holby has noticed with her dog. Finney won’t leave her side, no matter the situation. And while Finney was previously social with other dogs—now, she cowers behind Holby when one approaches. “I still don’t know how the mountain lions wouldn’t have found her, but she’s a clever little thing,” she says.
Holby has a final theory of how her dog made it through the ordeal, one that she thinks about on lonely afternoons. From her living room in Pagosa Springs, Holby can look out her windows and across the valley to the east and see the scraggly profile of Blackhead Peak rising in the distance.
“I keep feeling as though she was sent to me by Rich,” Holby says, “Who probably told her to go home and take care of me.”