After a protracted search, an elusive "bandit" was finally found this month in Westport.

This bandit was no marauding highwayman, but a cavapoo named Bandit that inadvertently set off on a 16-month journey that would include abduction, a frantic search, a litter of puppies and finally rescue.

Bandit's odyssey began in June 2010, when she was dropped off by her owner, Jennifer Ross, at a friend's house. The dog would not stay there for long. After a housekeeper accidentally left a fence gate open, the cavapoo left and journeyed on Maple Avenue North toward the Fairfield County Hunt Club, where Ross was attending a horse show.

Bandit apparently knew her way, having previously visited the riding club with Ross.

But en route, she was snatched by a woman and a teenage girl who pulled up in a black SUV, according to a witness account.

To recover her dog, Ross posted about 1,000 signs -- with a picture of Bandit and offering a $500 reward -- in towns from Greenwich to Bridgeport. While she received calls reporting Bandit "sightings," those tips did not lead to Bandit's discovery.

"We were doing everything we could," Ross said. "It was really hard to live here and not have seen at least one sign. They were everywhere. We missed her a lot, so we were very determined to get her back."

After consulting with a pet investigator, Ross raised the reward to $5,000 to improve the probability of the cavapoo's return. But Bandit still could not be found.

Then three weeks ago, another mother and teenage girl -- Westport Animal Shelter Advocates President Julie Loparo and her daughter Callie -- encountered Bandit while driving. As they navigated rush-hour traffic on Riverside Avenue, they spotted the cavapoo meandering in the road.

"She looked like a little, white tumbleweed," Loparo said. "She was basically unrecognizable. A lot of her markings you couldn't even see, because she was so matted and dirty."

After pulling over, they were able to halt traffic and scoop up Bandit. The cavapoo appeared to have recently had a litter of puppies.

"I think whoever picked her up used her for a litter of puppies, made some money, and dumped her back in Westport," Loparo said. "People are spending thousands of dollars on puppies, so who knows how many puppies she had."

After picking up Bandit on Oct. 7, Loparo transferred her to WASA volunteer Amy Scarella, who took the dog for a bath and grooming at Greenfield Hill Dog Grooming in Fairfield.

With the cavapoo restored to her former luster, Scarella showed a new photo of Bandit to a student whom she tutored, and the girl's mother, Vanessa Caccamise -- who happened to be a friend of Ross. Caccamise surmised that Bandit matched the profile of Ross' missing dog, and texted the picture to Ross.

Alerted to the discovery of her dog, Ross hurried over to the Westport Animal Control shelter on Elaine Road to reunite with Bandit.

"The second I walked into the Westport animal shelter and called her name, she started howling," Ross said. "She remembered me."

Despite a 16-month separation, Ross instantly recognized Bandit.

"The reason we call her Bandit is because she has what looks like a little bandit mask," Ross said. "She's all white with a little black mask that goes over her eyes and ear. It was pretty easy to tell that it was her."

After Ross submitted Bandit's veterinarian records to Animal Control, the cavapoo was allowed to return home. Ross' 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter were overjoyed to see the cavapoo.

Once settled, Bandit soon resumed her former routines.

"I have two Labs, and she went around the house and collected all of their bones," Ross said. "She made a huge pile in the middle of my bed and guarded it. Every time they would try to get one of their bones back, she would growl at them, which was her favorite pastime. Then I was 100 percent sure she was mine."

A veterinarian later confirmed that Bandit had given birth after being abducted, but Ross said the cavapoo did not show any signs of abuse from the individuals who absconded with her.

The Loparos did not claim the reward for Bandit's return. Instead, Ross said that she and her family will make a $1,000 donation to WASA, which provides shelter and care to animals in Fairfield County.

Bandit is now almost two years old and exhibits an outgoing and friendly demeanor, according to her owner.

"She doesn't appear too traumatized by what happened," Ross said. "She's just resumed her role of bossing everybody around at my house. Little Bandit pretty much rules the roost."