Dog's bark guides neighbour to rescue missing Hamilton senior with dementia

·4 min read

Neil Bannon walked out into blowing snow Sunday, not sure if the search for his missing neighbour would end with a rescue or recovery — then he heard a dog bark.

Hamilton police asked the public for help finding Alan "Van" Viznioski Sunday night.

The 73-year-old suffers from dementia and had last been seen around 6 p.m. the night before near Chippewa and Glancaster roads. Police said he might be with his dog, a silver and black Norwegian elkhound named Max.

Matt Llewellyn and his family reported Van missing after they arrived at his home Sunday to find the doors unlocked, the lights on and back gate open.

"We just had a sinking feeling that something wasn't right," he said.

Van is the uncle of Llewellyn's wife and they had arrived at his home planning to visit and go for a walk in the woods behind it.

Instead they contacted other family members and searched the immediate area for their loved one. With daylight fading, the temperature dropping and snow starting to fall, they contacted police.

Llewellyn, who previously worked as a reporter for CBC, fought tears as he described covering similar stories in the past and remembering how often they ended in sadness.

"I know how quickly a tragedy can occur, especially when the weather really started to get nasty."

Around the same time they spoke to police, the family began posting about Van on social media and were blown away by the response.

"We were getting calls from absolute, complete strangers from places like Cambridge, one person was in Simcoe, people from around Caledonia who said 'We have ATVs' … we're ready to come down and help you search," said Llewellyn.

But it was someone just down the road who ended up finding the missing man.

'I was very grateful to hear his voice'

Bannon hunts in the bush and was asked by police, after the canine unit had searched for a few hours, to go and check the trail cams he uses to see if Van had walked by.

The 41-year-old said he'd seen Van walking in the woods with his dog before and had a rough idea of where he might have headed.

He walked into the blowing snow and rain, calling for Max because he figured the dog would hear him first.

"The dog started barking and I called out Van's name and he said 'Hello I'm here,'" said Bannon.

"It was kind of an overwhelming feeling to hear his voice, because the outcome could have been different. I was very grateful to hear his voice."

Viznioski family
Viznioski family

Llewellyn said Max basically stayed with Van the entire time he was missing.

"I don't know if I believe in miracles, but honestly, in the last 12 hours haven't been able to figure out another way to describe that we found him," he said.

"Had it not been for Max, I don't know what would have happened."

Bannon estimates he was only searching for about 15 minutes before he found Van.

"He lost his shoe back there and he was in the long grass and the wet, so he couldn't get back up," the neighbour said.

Van told him his hands were cold, so Bannon peeled off his mitts and handed them over before heading up the top of a nearby hill and signalling with his flashlight in the darkness.

Police and paramedics showed up at Bannon's door a short time later and followed the directions his wife provided to find the two men.

A warm bed and extra treats

Even though Van's loved ones regularly visit, Bannon said his family also tries to make sure they're always looking out for him.

"[We're] kind of a neighbourhood watch," he joked.

Llewellyn said paramedics told him Van had mild hypothermia. He's recovering now and seems to be doing well.

He said the family is overwhelmed by the outcome.

"The people we hear from who were willing to jump in their car and come and help complete strangers … has been probably one of the most humbling and amazing experiences I've been a part of."

A few years ago, when a previous dog Van owned died of old age, there was some debate about whether or not he should get another as he was getting older and puppies can be a lot of work, said Llewellyn.

But, after the search and rescue, they're glad Max was there by his side.

"We're just so thankful about the dog. Without question it's his best friend," said Llewellyn.

"Max got to sleep in a bed and got a meal he's probably not used to and a few extra treats for sure."