‘The dog is going with us’

The rain was falling in sheets on the Wednesday afternoon last month when bus operator John Saenz pulled into the Thornton Park-n-Ride for a short layover, his second since starting work that day. Before heading north to reach the other stops along Route 93L, Saenz walked his bus, checking that all the usual details were in order. He opened the door. And through the storm, he could see an animal bounding east through the tunnel beneath I-25 that connects both sides of the Park-n-Ride.

It was a beautiful, frightened dog – and it was headed straight for his bus.

“I thought it was waiting for its owner,” Saenz recalled. The dog, a Brittany spaniel, jumped aboard the bus, shook itself off, turned around and looked out the door. Saenz began petting the animal and fed it some of his crackers. A bit calmer at that point, the dog walked to the back of the bus and laid down in the aisle.

The operator considered what to do, not knowing whether the dog was a service animal and seeing that it was not in a carrier. While such an animal would not be typically allowed to ride, RTD’s operators are encouraged to use their best judgment in circumstances like this. Saenz looked at the two other humans on board, an RTD coach and a customer, and told them: “I guess the dog is going with us.” He closed the door and angled away from the curb at 4 p.m., back on his route.

At the same time a short distance away, Lucinda Nelson pulled into her driveway at West 87th Place and Galaxy Circle – and noticed immediately that the side gate was open. She panicked: Her dog, Buster, was not in the backyard. When leaving late morning for Brighton, she had left him outside. Driving home, she said, “I could see that it looked like a bad thunderstorm.”

Somehow, she realized, her dog had managed to open the 8-foot gate and escape. Buster had been pheasant hunting ever since he was a puppy, and he was not afraid of gunshots – but he deeply feared thunder and firecrackers. Now 13 or 14, Buster’s anxiety about these things had gotten worse as he aged, his owner said.

Nelson got back in her car and drove around the neighborhood, not seeing Buster anywhere. A man working in the area told her he saw a dog running east, past a nearby school and park toward the RTD Park-n-Ride. Nelson was worried, knowing the streets near her home were busy.

“He is not a dog that has ever run loose,” she said. “He doesn’t know how to run around on streets and dodge cars. I figured I wouldn’t find him alive.” Considering a better possibility, Nelson acknowledged, “He’s very nice. He likes everybody.” Maybe, she thought, Buster had been picked up by a family who would keep him.

Back on Saenz’s bus, the operator thought about what to do with the dog beyond his shift. He began calling organizations that help animals. He thought about how his 3-year-old Chihuahua, Nathaniel, would react to this big dog were he to bring it home. Looking in his mirrors, Saenz watched as the dog sniffed customers as they boarded. While it was generally well-behaved, the animal jumped off the bus at one stop. It came back as soon as Saenz called for it – and he secured it to a seat immediately with his belt to guard against it leaving again.

Farther down the road, Saenz realized that the number engraved on the dog’s collar was not an ID but a phone number, so he called. The number rang to Nelson’s husband’s phone, which she had in hand. After a few calls, Saenz conveyed that he had the dog – and was headed back just after 6 p.m. to East 88th Avenue and Grant Street, to the Park-n-Ride where the animal first jumped aboard.

“The best part of my day was when I pulled up and saw that she had a leash in her hand,” Saenz said of Nelson. She called for Buster and he came.

“John could have made other decisions, but he let Buster stay on the bus,” Nelson said. “I’m so happy to get my dog back. This was over and above the call of duty. I appreciate him more than words can express.” Wet dogs, she added, don’t smell very good.

Nelson offered Saenz money for his kindness, and he declined, only accepting her thanks. She contacted RTD to let the agency know about this incredible act of service, providing a written commendation.

Saenz said he appreciates the gesture – and is simply glad to have helped her.

“There was no way I would have left that dog behind,” he said.

Has an RTD employee made your day better? Would you like to recognize someone for their outstanding behavior? Tell us about it by completing a Customer Comment Form, linked here. Simply click on “Commendation,” and your feedback will be routed appropriately.