— -- A teenage girl in Louisiana cried tears of joy when her dog that went missing nearly four years ago was returned to her today.
An animal control worker handed 14-year old Karisa Lambert her 10-year old Yorkshire terrier named Sam at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
"I was overjoyed for my daughter. It's been four years and my family has been through a lot," her father Thomas Lambert of the New Orleans suburb of Bridge City told ABC News. "I lost my father and she lost some people who were very close. To have something good happen to her, I felt great. She never had something good like this happen to her."
At the airport, United Airlines welcomed the dog and family with balloons and refreshments.
"When he saw her, I swear he recognized her and went straight for her. When I talked to him, he started licking me in the face," Lambert said.
A birthday gift to Karisa from her uncle when she turned 4, Sam went missing in the summer of 2011 after he went through a hole in their backyard fence into the surrounding woods, Lambert said.
Asked if the dog could have been stolen, Lambert said, "Somebody had to take it to Iowa. It had the microchip in it. We were waiting to hear around here if someone found him. They would have called us. After four years, you kind of give up hope."
On April 14, an animal control officer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, brought what was thought to be a stray to the shelter, according to a city press release issued today.
"The Yorkie was in fair condition, but was straggly and weighed only 5 1/2 pounds," according to the press release from the city of Cedar Rapids. "Despite the dog’s condition, Animal Care and Control staff was able to determine that the Yorkie had a microchip."
The next day, the workers contacted the dog's owners, who had listed it as missing more than three years ago in Louisiana.
Lambert, who is a disabled fireman and out of work, initially started a fundraising page to raise $200 or so to bring Sam to Louisiana. But after the family initially raised $255 through a GoFundMe fundraiser, United Airlines paid for Sam's return home in first class with an animal worker.
"He had the presidential treatment," Lambert said.
Lambert said the five donors agreed that the $255 would be used for Sam's care. Sam now has a clean bill of health thanks to his care in Cedar Rapids, he said.
“This just makes all of us feel really, really happy that we can make this miracle come true for this family and their little dog," Cedar Rapids Animal Care and Control program manager Diane Webber said in a statement. "Sam was found during Animal Control Officer Appreciation Week, and all of us taking care of this dog and finding a way to reunite him with his family really bonded us together in a special way.”