She became a topic of conversation and an outlet for compassion in rural Spencer -- people would check on the stray as part of their daily commutes to work and back. They'd leave her food. They'd knock on the doors of nearby farmhouses to let the occupants know "their dog" was near the road.
Phantom didn't belong to anyone, but in some ways she belonged to everyone.
Kate Whitrock, director of the Humane Society of Northwest Iowa, received a phone call from one of several residents who had been leaving food for a cautious animal who turned tail whenever someone came too close.
"Their understanding was, there had been a shoot-to-kill order issued on Phantom because she was considered to be a possible traffic hazard -- and I can understand that because a dog running near the highway is a distraction," Whitrock recalled. "Certainly, if she were to get up on the highway, a car swerving could cause an accident. We were asked to intervene and help to save this dog, rather than see her glorious year of freedom end with a death like that."
Humane Society chapters in northwest Iowa generally don't do animal control -- they encourage residents to stay away from an animal they do not know and call their local law enforcement agency for a capture. Some are identified and returned to their owner. Others are cleaned up and cared for at the Humane Society until the pet can be paired with a good home.
In Phantom's case, deputies saw a dog who wasn't a good fit for either outcome. She spent a year in the wild, wouldn't let anyone come close and most importantly, Phantom was causing safety concerns on a major highway. The options were limited for Dr. Mark Reese who worked with Whitrock to plan a capture. They told Phantom's highway samaritans to stop giving her food. Eventually, they knew Phantom would need to eat. Her last meal in the wild was mashed potatoes, gravy and a sedative.
Catching a dog like Phantom is what Whitrock calls "the easy part."
"The real problem is: What do you do once you've caught the dog? If she's been running on her own for a year, you have to assume she's not what we look at when we think of domestic dogs," she said. "There can be so many problems and issues entering into working with a dog like that. One of them is re-domesticating her and getting her to accept living in captivity again."
Put another way, how does someone confine the dog in a way that doesn't make her feel trapped?
"If she starts biting, now you're faced with having to euthanize her," Whitrock said. "And if you have to do that, you have to go back and ask: 'What would have been better to begin with?' Why even interfere? From our standpoint, we needed to not just capture her, but have a plan in place as to what we were going to do with her once we got her. We had someone I've worked with before and know really well who I felt would be a good handler and be able to build the kind of relationship with this dog that would bring it back to a level it must have come from -- it was somebody's pet at one time."
Phantom received an exam, including rabies shots and other vaccinations during that haze of medication.
"The catch-22 is, that, when a dog is frightened and feels cornered it is going to bite its way out of that situation," Whitrock said. "Some dogs can bite for fear, or they can say 'no, you're not going to trap me.' Even though they wouldn't normally be aggressive, they'll be aggressive to try to get away. She was not aggressive in trying to get away. She was just fearful. But I always caution people because if a dog is fearful and she's trying to avoid you ... placing her tail between her legs and things like that -- that's a dog that's scared enough to bite. Those bites can be just as damaging and painful as those that come from an actual attack."
Whitrock's choice for a handler worked with the German shepherd for the first time July 26.
"It was on an almost daily basis," Whitrock said. "You start out with the realization that the dog has completely depended on herself. She doesn't need anybody. What you have to do is you have to establish a need. We were able to put the dog into a large, fenced-in area with six-foot fencing and, in addition to that, we cable-tied the dog. Desperate enough, any good-sized dog can climb a fence -- certainly a German shepherd or a lab."
During that time, the dog is no longer able to feed herself. The relationship of trust between a dog and its master comes from meeting the need of the animal. Phantom had to learn to come to her handler instead of retreating.
"You shift her needs for food and water onto a human," she said.
Phantom learned her handler's voice and approach. Feeding led to petting, petting led to brushing and brushing led to baths for the well-known stray. The process took the entire month of August, but once Phantom responded to the commands of her handler, she was "pretty-much domesticated again," Whitrock said.
"She can go back to being a pet, which is probably what she has wanted," Whitrock said. "We might think that it's great that this dog ran loose for a year, but I don't think the dog thought it was great. It's a lot easier for a dog to have a loving family and a supportive system and know where it's food and water are coming from -- to have someone that cares about it and who they can care about. That's why we have pets and that's why dogs allow us to domesticate them and have them as pets."
There are no guarantees in pet adoption. Whitrock thinks about one pup in her kennel who seemed fine in the fall. As winter approached, someone walked through with a pair of gloves on and the dog came unglued. The director calls them "unknown triggers" and she worried about Phantom -- could a dog that spent a year in the wild find a good home after a month with a handler?
"In Phantom's case, it became a relatively easy thing to make the adoption because the person who had been the handler did ask me if they could adopt the dog," she said. "It ended up being a case where I lost a darn good foster home and a great handler but Phantom got the best home I could have picked for her."
Phantom was adopted on Friday, Sept. 3. Whitrock is reluctant to disclose the identity of Phantom's handler and new owner. She did say "Phantom's adjusted well and is going very well." The slow, gradual approach has continued at Phantom's new home. Seemingly pointless car rides helped get Phantom comfortable with the idea of going to the veterinarian's office and the "real" trip, when a veterinarian had her spayed.
Phantom's new family has brought her into the house for short stays. She then goes back outside where she's more comfortable. She also has a different kind of traffic to deal with: Video of "Phantom's Adoption" was posted on YouTube and www.humanesocietyofnwia.com.