In 2012, through a series of unfortunate events, Tom Johnson lost his dream dog, a golden retriever.

He knew right away he needed to have another dog in his life, so during a trip to Duluth he stopped at an animal shelter. “And I brought a lab home,” he said. A short time later he took in another lab whose owner could no longer take care of him. But he still missed his golden.

After Johnson retired from the Hinckley-Finlayson school district where he was a teacher and coach, he wanted to volunteer his time.

“I told myself I wanted to choose something that I was somewhat passionate about,” said Johnson. “That left politics or dogs.”

He chose dogs.


Retrieve a Golden of Minnesota (RAGOM) began in 1985 when Hank and Jane Nygaard took in a homeless golden retriever whose time in a shelter was up. That experience, along with learning that some breeders didn’t keep their dogs after they could no longer show them, fueled their desire to begin their rescue mission. Within  the last couple of years, RAGOM has expanded to include Iowa, the Dakotas and western Wisconsin. The “M” now stands for Midwest instead of Minnesota.

Turkey and China

Not only do they rescue dogs from the midwest, RAGOM International Outreach (RIO) works to rescue dogs from around the world. In Turkey for instance, according to the RAGOM website, thousands of goldens are given up by their families and left to fend for themselves. RAGOM has transported more than 100 dogs from Turkey to Minnesota since 2015.

More than 10 million dogs in China are killed each year for human consumption, according to the Humane Society website. Goldens are among the most popular. In China, dogs are rarely leashed, therefore, making them easy to steal. These stolen dogs are often transported to slaughterhouses or butchers. There are, says RAGOM’s website, volunteers in China who are working to save these dogs. They rescue dogs either by pleading with the butcher for the dogs’ release or by stopping trucks which are filled with animals on their way to the slaughterhouse. They then take them to shelters which are incredibly full, but where the dogs’ basic needs are met with food, water, a makeshift bed and shelter at night to keep away thieves and other unwanted visitors.

Meet Mama

On a mission to China, a RAGOM volunteer met a dog who could not be forgotten. “She’d recently had puppies, and there was intense sadness in her eyes,” said the volunteer. “She sat very politely to greet volunteers, as if she was ... hoping if she sat nicely enough she would be chosen for rescue.”

Unfortunately, they were not able to take her that trip. RAGOM was already committed to two dogs that trip and Mama, as she has come to be known, would have to be left behind. Back in Minnesota an email was sent out asking if anyone was going to Beijing on vacation or business that would be willing to help bring more dogs, including Mama, back to the states.

RAGOM volunteer Michele Hersom, her husband and youngest daughter all received the email plea for help, and it didn’t take long for them to decide they would volunteer to go.

“From what we were told by the rescuer in China, Mama was saved from the meat trade by a good Samaritan,” said Hersom. “We did not get to see the shelter, as they do keep the location a secret, which was totally understandable.”

According to Hersom, there are plans for rescuing another group of dogs from Turkey this fall and they are also working out the logistics and flight options for another trip to China.

“I would love to go back again sometime to help more dogs as I just don’t understand how this could be done to these sweet dogs,” she said.

Back in Minnesota

After following all of the quarantine requirements set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Customs, Mama finally made it to Minnesota. After a short stint as a TV personality on channel 11 in the Twin Cities, Mama arrived at her new foster home and met Tom Johnson.

Johnson has now been volunteering with RAGOM for about two years, and in that time he has fostered nine dogs.

Next steps

The next steps for Mama include medical treatments and then finding her a forever home. People from as far away as Canada have heard her story and expressed an interest in adopting her.

The process of adoption through RAGOM is a stringent one, says Johnson. It starts with an application which is reviewed by someone in the organization, then a select few of those applications are sent to the dog’s foster family for further review. In Mama’s case, Johnson would pick the family that he believes will be the best fit for Mama.

A home visit is set up with the potential new owners. During the home visit all household members must be present. The volunteer will also have a dog with them and they will go through the house and yard to make sure the area is safe and welcoming for a new pet.

If the home visit is successful, Johnson would then set up a time for the applicants to visit Mama. There is a 24-hour waiting period after this visit. It’s for both the potential owner and the foster home to make sure that it will be a good fit. It must be a mutual decision.

The adoption fees that RAGOM receives do not cover the expenses for all of the work they do, they also rely on fundraisers such as the “Goldzilla” Fun Fair and Walk for Rescue. This year’s “Goldzilla” will be held on Sept. 8 at Long Lake Regional Park in New Brighton. Admission is free and all dogs are welcome.

 RAGOM is always looking for volunteers to work in all aspects of the process. Visit to find out more.

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