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Tel Aviv Local Reunites with Dog 40 Days After Pet Went Missing During Israel-Hamas War (Exclusive)

On posters of her missing dog, Rebecca Geller highlighted the pet's defining characteristic – the "mini mohawk" on the top of his head

<p>Rebecca Geller</p> Rebecca Geller

Rebecca Geller

Rebecca Geller's dog Stevie goes missing for 41 days during Israel-Hamas war

In October, when Rebecca Geller traveled to London, she left her dog, Stevie, with a friend and her boyfriend in Talmei Yosef, a village on the southern border of Israel about 7 kilometers from Gaza.

While the Tel Aviv local was away, she checked in daily to ask how Stevie, her 5-year-old former stray dog, was doing. Then, on Oct. 7, a few days before Geller was supposed to fly home, she learned from her friends that Hamas had launched a terrorist attack against Israel.

"I know that Stevie is incredibly scared of air raid sirens," Geller, 44, who got Stevie in March 2018, recalls to PEOPLE. "So I immediately texted my friend. I asked them if they were OK. I also asked them to put Stevie on a leash just to make sure he didn't do anything silly."

To be safe, Geller delayed her trip home, which meant more time away from her dog. She says she contacted her friends to inform them about the change but couldn't get through because they lost reception. So Geller sat glued to her phone. She watched the news as Pri Gan, the town next to where Stevie was staying, was infiltrated by Hamas.

Then, a couple of hours later, Geller got a call.

"Rebecca, I'm sorry. We woke up to the sirens. We were so confused. We opened the door, and Stevie vanished. He has gone away," she says her friends told her.

She asked them to call out Stevie's name from the window to see if he was nearby. Geller's friends called for the dog but had no luck finding him. So Geller began her own search, joining WhatsApp and Facebook groups where people post runaway dogs. She says: "For the whole week, I was in London. I was glued to social media."

"Then I thought to myself, hold on a second. Why is someone else going to look for my dog when I should be there looking for him? I was like, I have to find him. And I knew I had to be there to find him," Geller says.

Related: Family of 6 Freed Israeli Hostages Describe 'Very Tough Moments' for Children Following 50 Days of Gaza Captivity

The Search for Stevie

On Oct. 29, Geller made her way back to Israel to search for her dog.

When she returned home to Tel Aviv from London, she printed piles of posters with Steve's information and covered them in plastic sleeves. On the posters, she highlighted what she considers her dog's defining characteristic – the "mini mohawk" on the top of his head.

Then, she got in her car with the posters and drove south. "I brought cookies for the soldiers and laundry so that I could leave laundry in the desert so if Stevie was there, he could find my scent," Geller says.

<p>Rebecca Geller</p> Rebecca Geller hangs posters of Stevie across Israel

Rebecca Geller

Rebecca Geller hangs posters of Stevie across Israel

The first time Geller drove to the area where Stevie went missing, she went with a rescue organization. "I had no idea how to find Stevie in miles and miles of agricultural land, dirty fields, and greenhouses. I remember thinking that he could have crawled into a greenhouse and died. I was so upset," the pet parent says.

After her initial visit to the area, Geller drove south by herself to look for Stevie. She says she decided the best option was to go to the villages around Talkie Yosef — where Stevie went missing —and talk to soldiers, farmers, and volunteers. She'd explain the situation, show them pictures of Stevie, and leave them her contact information in case they came across her beloved canine.

Related: Nightmare Phone Call Reveals Israeli Family of 10 Kidnapped by Hamas: ‘Survival, That’s Where We Are’ (Exclusive)

"This is a very social dog. He has a lot of friends. He connects with people. I knew the only way he would survive in the desert was if he met people," Geller says of sociable Stevie. "Every time I came across a soldier, I'd say, 'Have you seen any lost dogs?' Sometimes, they would say, "Yes."

The soldiers Geller talked to would spread the message about her lost dog around their unit, but she says the soldiers' shift changes caused issues.

"Every week they — changed shifts, and I'd have to do it all again," Geller says. "So I started going down every couple of days to target different areas, different villages."

<p>Rebecca Geller</p> Rebecca Geller created posters with information about her dog, Stevie

Rebecca Geller

Rebecca Geller created posters with information about her dog, Stevie

Losing Hope

During her search — which she documented on Instagram — Geller worked with Dogs & Heros, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating pets.

Through Dogs & Heroes, she was put in touch with Yoram, the founder of PTROA, an organization that uses military technology and intelligence to help rescue pets from animal cruelty.

"I messaged Yoram, and I said, 'Hey, Yoram, my dog Stevie went missing on Oct. 7. Is there any chance that you can help me find him? Immediately, he said yes," Geller says. "We planned a trip for Tuesday, Nov. 14. We went down and flew a drone from where Stevie ran from."

"I remember him saying, 'Rebecca, this is new airspace, and there's so much space here. We could be here literally all day looking for Stevie here," she adds. After many hours of searching, the pair remained unsuccessful.

<p>Rebecca Geller</p> Rebecca Geller documents her journey to find her dog. Stevie

Rebecca Geller

Rebecca Geller documents her journey to find her dog. Stevie

Geller says she began to give up hope after the drone search, and then her phone rang. It was from an unknown number, but she answered it anyway. "Hi, I think I've got Stevie here," she recalls the caller telling her.

Geller says that while posting about her search for Stevie, she would get a call at least once a day from someone who thought they'd seen the pooch — so she didn't get too excited at first.

The caller, who was a soldier, sent Geller a photo of the dog he'd stumbled across in Bnei Netzarim, close to the Israel-Egypt border.

"He said, 'I can't get any closer than this, but he's got the thing on his head,'" Geller recalls. "I got the picture and was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's Stevie!' I told him to crouch down and call his name. When he did, Stevie turned around and came over to him."

"He was super scared, but the soldier had food. I texted Yoram, who was 15 kilometers southeast of where Stevie was, and he drove there right away to get him. Then he drove Stevie 2 hours to bring him to Tel Aviv," she continues.

The Reunion

On Nov. 16, 40 days after Stevie went missing, Geller reunited with her dog. She captured the heartfelt moment on camera. In the video, Geller kneels as Stevie jumps all over her.

"Everyone helped bring him home," Geller says of the journey that led to this reunion. "I had messages from around the world, friends of friends who haven't been to visit me in Israel, so they haven't met Stevie. They were messaging me, their friends were messaging me, people were messaging, and everyone was praying."

Stevie returned to Geller 13 pounds lighter. She took him to the vet, who was stunned that Stevie survived his ordeal. Geller believes her pet was kept alive by the people he met while he was missing.

"He's healthy, he's back to himself. He's not too traumatized," Geller says about how Stevie is now. "We've even had a couple of sirens, and we got through it. He's a gentle soul."

She adds: "Each of the people and organizations kept me going down and talking to people about Stevie and his special hair thing," she adds. And it kept my hope alive and ultimately led me to him."

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