(01-28) 03:22 PST Saint Louis (AP) --
Cujo was a frisky 7-year-old when he sneaked out of his owners' south St. Louis yard in July 2000. Now, thinner and grayer and with a tale that would be fascinating if only he could tell it, the golden retriever is back with the Barczewski family.
"It's a miracle," Noreen Barczewski, 41, said at Friday's reunion. "We found him!"
Six years and a side trip to Columbia can do a lot to a dog, but it was unmistakably Cujo. There was the heart-shaped patch of white on his forehead, the white fur on his toes, his manner of greeting people by rubbing against them cat-style.
Cujo's homecoming was orchestrated by Dirk's Fund, a golden retriever rescue group that has found homes for more than 900 dogs in the past decade.
After slipping away from home, Cujo somehow ended up 120 miles in Columbia in the home of an elderly woman. When the woman entered a nursing home, the dog was sent to the Central Missouri Humane Society in Columbia.
Bob Tillay, president of Dirk's Fund, spotted the dog — by then renamed Willy — on an adoption Web site and arranged to have him brought to St. Louis.
"Sweet old man! He knows how to sit and shake," the Web site cooed.
The dog's ears were so infected he couldn't hear. His coat was so matted he had to be shaved. And Dirk's Fund paid to have some cysts removed.
The group eventually took Cujo/Willy to a nursing home in Clayton, to serve as a pet for residents. But things didn't work out — the dog needed a yard where he could run off the leash — and his picture went up on the Dirk's Fund Web site.
A week ago, Noreen Barczewski's brother-in-law, Michael Barczewski, went to the Web site on a fluke. He'd been looking for a dog to adopt and saw the picture of the old dog with the white heart mark and white feet. Michael and his wife, Gail, had been the original breeders of Cujo. He recognized the dog immediately, and the reunion followed within days.
Now 13, Cujo had never been forgotten by the his original family — especially Kayla, who was just 4 when the dog disappeared. Kayla insisted on hanging the retriever's red felt Christmas stocking each year, confident he'd someday come home.
"I had something in my heart," the fourth-grader said Friday, patting her pet's soft golden coat, "and I knew he wasn't gone."