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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Judy Britton from Pet Search and Rescue discusses her plan for the search of pet owner Kristi Wallace's boxer, Gracie, missing since Dec. 8 in northwest Bakersfield.

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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Encouraged by fresh leads, Judy Britton from Pet Search and Rescue and her dog, Melanie, try to track Kristi Wallace's pet boxer, Gracie, off Sagebrush Avenue. Gracie has been missing since Dec. 8.

There is no mistaking the issue when you pull up to the Wallace family home on Andes Avenue in northwest Bakersfield.

No less than seven posters on trees, the garage door -- pretty much any available surface -- advertise the $500 reward for the couple's beloved 9-year-old female boxer, Gracie. The dog went missing last week when a garage door was briefly left open by mistake.

After five days of fruitless searching, Kristi and Jeremy Wallace called in the big guns: professionals from Pet Search and Rescue. That's a San Diego-based search agency that will work in any state that one of its six nationally distributed pet detectives can reach by car.

For a fee of nearly $400 to start (plus travel and supplies), the company dispatches a human expert paired with a specially trained search dog.

In the Wallaces' case, the team consisted of Judy Britton, a former Orange County Sheriff's deputy who now lives in San Diego, and her dog, Melanie. Both have undergone the same training police dogs and their handlers get to search for missing people.

That's because the process isn't that much different. Melanie sniffs a collar, pet bed or other items the missing cat or dog has had contact with, then tries to pick up a trail.

On Saturday morning, Britton and German shepherd-golden retriever mix Melanie were on day two of their search for Gracie, aided by a small army of volunteers from the Lamont school where Kristi Wallace teaches.

"Now I have to warn you," Britton told the group that had gathered to pursue some promising leads. "This will seem insensitive, but if she finds a body, I still have to reward her for doing a good job, so I'll be petting her and giving her treats and celebrating."

That isn't to say search dogs are heartless.

If the find is something less morose, say, a bit of fur snagged on a fence, Melanie jumps up and down and begs for her treat enthusiastically, Britton said. But when it's a body, her reaction is more subdued.

"She's like, 'We have a dead dog here. A little respect,' " the handler said.

Britton has heard every Jim Carrey pet detective movie joke there is, but she takes her job seriously, and so do Pet Search and Rescue's clients.

Kristi Wallace, 33, got Gracie as a graduation present from her now husband when she finished Cal State Bakersfield. Gracie was just a 6-week-old puppy at the time.

The couple has lived with Gracie and another boxer named Dixie for longer than they've lived with their sons, ages 2 and 11 months.

"They were our children, still are, actually, before our children," Kristi Wallace said.

Jeremy Wallace, 32, admits he's taken some heat here and there for the amount of resources the family has devoted to the search, but he has no regrets.

"We have the money, and if she needed surgery, we'd pay for it. This isn't much different," he said.

Britton does more than just follow Melanie. She knocks on doors and interviews people.

"It's not just a matter of handing out fliers and saying, 'Hey, have you seen this dog?' " she said. "You ask questions. 'Has your dog been barking a lot recently? When, exactly?' That sort of thing."

Pet Search and Rescue founder Annalisa Berns said the seven-year-old company as much as doubles a pet owner's chances of finding a lost animal.

"About 60 to 80 percent of the time we recover or find out what's happened to a pet," she said. "We either find the pet alive or find forensically confirmed remains."

Even when the news isn't good, families are usually glad they looked, Berns said.

"They would rather know and have that closure than go on searching," she said. "Sometimes on Craigslist we see ads from people still searching years after they've lost a pet."

Britton said every time she works a case, she tries to put herself out of business by spreading the gospel of prevention.

"The easiest way to recover a pet is with a microchip or collar and tag that has an address and phone number on it," she said. "A lot of people won't collar their animals in the house, but pets escape from their homes all the time, and generally people assume that an animal not wearing a collar is a stray when really they're somebody's family member."

The Wallaces said Gracie wasn't wearing a collar when she got out.

"She scratches it off," Jeremy Wallace said miserably.

The couple's toddler son has been crying every day, asking why Gracie isn't home, the Wallaces said. The family's other dog, who normally sleeps with Gracie, wanders around the house looking for her.

Kristi Wallace said she takes solace from tips flooding in in response to her blanketing the Old Farm and Hageman roads area with posters and fliers.

There have been numerous "sightings," and between those and the trail Melanie is following it appears the dog is going in circles, looking for home.

"We just want her back. We want her home," Kristi Wallace said.