If you've never owned a dog, you may not understand just how completely one can fully work its way into your life - or even take it over.

Ryan Hopper of Alexandria knows that all too well, and so does his family.

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"My son is just in love with her. He's a single guy, and for him to have someone to come home to at the end of the day, waiting for him, means a lot," Ryan's dad, Scott, said of Lola, an 8-month-old, 7-pound Yorkie mix puppy who was a survivor of an Arkansas puppy mill.

"From the minute I met her, I knew she was a part of the family," Ryan said. As a kid, his parents had owned dogs, but this was different. "From the start she fit so perfectly into my life. If I sit down on the couch, she wants to jump right up and be with me. Really, she is family. I couldn't imagine her not being there."

Suddenly, that's the prospect he faced, when on a December Saturday walk to Fillmore Park, she broke free and ran. Dogs invariably find opportunities to get free and run, but in this case it turned into a harrowing four-plus days of an all-out search by many residents from Alexandria and beyond.

"He was just fraught with despair, that she had gotten away from him," Ryan's dad said. "This was his first dog, and they've grown extremely close. That's why it was especially tough."

The search ended happily, when David Reis was driving home from work and in the darkness spotted a tiny dog crossing Nokomis by The Senator condominiums. Something about its appearance made him pull over and investigate.

Lola was leaning against a garage door, too tired to run anymore, and allowed Reis to pick her up. She had just a scrap of her leash dangling - maybe she got caught up somewhere, since bite marks indicated she chewed through it - and her collar was still on, with Ryan's name and number.

"I wasn't quite sure what to expect," Ryan said when his cell phone rang. For days, he hoped every call would be the one. "I almost couldn't believe it."

He had been out putting up a new set of signs around the neighborhood, as he and his family had been doing for days, and was only three or four minutes away. Those were three or four long minutes.

"It was just a massive relief," Ryan said. "It was so hard not having her around."

It was also a huge eye-opener into just how many people here cared about a resident and his lost dog.

"I was absolutely staggered by the response," he said. "I knew my family and a few of my friends were out there, but people I had never met before were looking for her. A family pretty much spent their entire day. People would show up and say, 'I've got the next hour (to search).' I never expected that type of response. It really makes me happy to live in this community."

Scott and his wife, Amy, live in Fergus Falls to be midway between their two sons in Fargo and Alexandria. What they saw here this month made the couple want to make this their home when they retire.

"We were just so floored by the number of people who were out," Scott said. "Honestly, it was just overwhelming. At 5, 6 in the morning, it was pitch dark, and there were people walking around Fillmore Park, yelling, 'Lola, Lola.' We had no idea who they were. And that's just the tip of an iceberg. There were so many people that were involved in this."

The Hoppers, along with a Twin Cities group called The Retrievers, flooded telephone poles with pictures of Lola. They got help from radio stations and this newspaper, and the police department helped with searchlights and heat sensors at the fairgrounds for a potential sighting, Scott said. "Bring Lola Home" was bannered on Randy Fischer Real Estate's electronic sign on Broadway.

"There's no way we can thank everybody," said Scott, who made several friends through the ordeal. "Even if the outcome had been different, we were just so impressed with the people and their willingness to help. The whole experience really renewed our faith in human kindness. It was an unbelievable outpouring of support by the people in town."

Ryan said he was fully prepared that Christmas wasn't happening this year, and his father agrees.

"We went from where we don't even want to celebrate Christmas, to this is going to be the greatest Christmas ever, a celebration of what we almost lost," Scott said.

"We had given up hope. It really felt like a miracle."