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Purrr-fect research

Canada's first pet detective, Vicky Vaughan, has a nose for finding missing companions.

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Vicky Vaughan can't begin to count the number of times Oprah has seemingly singled her out (in her living room) and told her to follow her passion. But it wasn't until four years ago, when she was "bagged out on the couch" watching an episode of Beverly Hills Vet, that Vaughan decided to take Oprah's advice.

Vaughan researched intently, travelled to Boston to take a course, made friends with the hunting community and even began collecting for a personal library, which now boasts over $15,000 worth of bound paper.

After all this, Vaughan is Canada's first bona fide pet detective---offering a slew of services designed to find and return lost pets to their panic-stricken owners.

Shortly after her eureka moment with Oprah, Vaughan picked up two dogs and began the tedious task of training them. Each serves a distinct role: Montana, a beagle and blue-tick coonhound mix, is a scenting dog. Dakota, a pure-bread beagle, analyzes territory for recent animal activity, communicating her findings through body language.

Vaughan has always had a special bond with animals. The 45-year-old was born legally blind and couldn't read until she was 15. What she lacked in sight, she made up for in smell. "I think that makes me understand the animals," she says. "I can smell ants. People thought I was crazy because they didn't know what ants smelled like."

She offers a variety of pet detection services at a range of costs, from poster templates to motion sensors and even infrared cameras. But if you ask her to put her canines on a case, prepare to fork over at least $295---a fee that escalates as the clock ticks.

Vaughan "does a really good job," says Andrea Slaney, whose cat disappeared last month. "She's been at our house three times. She went to the SPCA yesterday and looked for [the cat]. She follows up on things and goes beyond. You can tell that she's really passionate."

While Vaughan considers herself a legitimate scent and track specialist, she's aware some see her work as frivolous. "I got resistance from the search and rescue community---they couldn't fathom why I'd put such intensive training into my dogs to find pets," she says. "I'm considered the lowest of the low amongst people who use scent to trail or track, because I train to find pets, not people."

Still, she is unfazed. "They can think whatever they want. I love what I do. I love being there for people who need me. I can't guarantee, but I can give you the best chance there is."

According to her site, petdetective.ca, lost pets only have a 20 percent chance of finding their way home. Vaughan says nearly 80 percent of her cases end with a rescued pet and a very happy owner.

Even with those odds on her side, demand for her services is low. "I would probably get more calls if more people knew about me. This is just so new that people aren't thinking, 'I better call the pet detective.'"

To make ends meet, Vaughan still works as a full-time office clerk for Bell Aliant---a job she's maintained for the past 21 years.

Amidst the chaos of these two careers and very often late nights, Vaughan still finds time for her bigger project---designing a curriculum to teach pet detection---a testament to her proclamation, "I live and breathe this stuff."

She has joined forces with a pet detective in Oklahoma to develop a more thorough certification program than currently exists anywhere. It will be a one-month course which the two will take on a tour across the continent to educate other aspiring pet detectives. "There's so much to know and you've got to make sure people are getting it," says Vaughan.

It seems Vaughan isn't the only one who finds her work interesting. Arcadia Entertainment and Vanguard Entertainment just wrapped up a pilot that follows Vaughan as she tackles two unique cases. They hope to pitch a television series to networks soon.

So until she is broadcast far and wide, Vaughan offers a few pieces of simple advice for all pet owners. Make good posters, distribute them widely and follow every lead. And do not put food outside to lure the pet home. "You might as well invite Wile E. Coyote to the buffet!"

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