Gus is a good boy.
His golden retriever coat is still shiny and thick, and his graying snout shows the only the sign of his 10 years. On a cloudy summer day, he’s sleeping on the kitchen floor, dreaming dog dreams of running and chasing and finding, when John Robinson walks back in the door and wakes him up.
It’s time to head out to find the white rubber bumper toy Robinson has placed just outside the gate leading to their house near Creston. Gus, unsure where the chew toy is, knows Robinson will lead him there.
“Sit,” Robinson says, as Gus tries so hard to hold still that his legs are shaking from the effort, but he’s too excited. The dog’s warm, brown eyes are focused on the hillside in front of him. Then Robinson lays a light touch on Gus’ head, and he’s off, running toward the toy he knows is somewhere out there.
A sharp blast of the whistle stops him, and Gus immediately turns back to get direction from Robinson. It’s not the pair’s smoothest run – it’s out of context, since Gus isn’t in training mode – but it’s impressive nonetheless.
With whistles and hand directions, Robinson directs Gus not only to the toy, but also in the exact line he’d like the retriever to take to it. When the dog heels at Robinson’s side, the exercise isn’t over until Gus sits and politely allows Robinson to take the toy from his mouth.
Gus’ graying nose has a small bald patch, mirroring a freshly shaved rectangle on his leg. Those are for and from the chemotherapy Gus takes weekly to fight off the lymphoma growing inside him.
They’re happy together, Robinson and Gus. And they’re a good team: in June, Gus made it to the National Amateur Retriever Club’s national field trials, the Super Bowl for retrievers showing off their talents through a series of tests mimicking fowl hunting. The dogs are judged on their accuracy in marking where the bird fell and retrieving it in a controlled fashion via their trainer.
Just qualifying for nationals is an honor, Robinson says, but this was extra special. Cheryl Talley, Robinson’s wife, was home with Buddy, the couple’s new 4-month-old golden retriever puppy, so the four-day road trip to Stowe, Vermont for nationals was theirs.
“It was just me and Gus,” Robinson says. “It was intense bonding. It was he and I on the trip. I know he has cancer, but he doesn’t.”
Gus is a sick boy.
Last December, Robinson was home during the day and woke to the sound of Gus fighting with Alex, the couple’s other 10-year-old golden retriever. It was a rare moment for the two dogs, and both got nicked up enough that Robinson took them to the vet.
There, Dr. Katie Sherrill saved Gus’ life, Robinson said, because the veterinarian found a swollen lymph node. Gus was still running great and in good spirits, so cancer didn’t seem possible.
But after a test at Western Washington University and another with California veterinarian Dr. Gregory Ogilvie, Robinson and Talley learned that their Gus, who they’ve raised since he was 7 weeks old, had large T-cell lymphoma.
His first bout of chemo put the disease into remission and hardly affected the athletic canine. Dogs don’t lose their hair – save for the small patch on Gus’ nose – and chemo doesn’t tend to make them sick. Gus could still train and compete and play, all without realizing he was ill.
“It doesn’t cure it,” Robinson said. “The typical patient will come out of remission in six months.”
Gus came out of remission with two weeks of chemo left and was placed on another treatment regimen. He’s back in remission, Robinson said, but it won’t last long.
“We’re on borrowed time,” Robinson said.
They’ve got a couple of field trials planned for late summer, but those will only happen if Gus is still in good enough shape.
“He loves doing it, but if he comes out of remission, that’s not going to be good,” Robinson said.
News of Gus’ illness spread during field trials in California, where he was running well and in high spirits. The final trial was a marking test, and Gus ranks in the top 1 percent of marking dogs in the country. When he finished, Robinson listened for his number to be called in the winner’s group, thinking he’d maybe placed fifth.
When Gus wasn’t called for third or fourth place, Robinson thought they’d lost it all.
“Then they called his number out for the win,” he said. “I started bawling.”
With that win, Gus earned a spot in the nationals. As one of two goldens entered in the trials – the rest were either Labrador retrievers or Chesapeake Bay retrievers – he made it through four out of 10 series at the eight-day event. It was a great showing, Robinson said, and he did it all with having chemo treatment just two days before.
Robinson is the president of the Mission Valley Retriever Club based out of Ronan, where amateur field trial enthusiasts train and compete together. MVRC secretary and treasurer Anna Calvert said Robinson and Gus are a great team.
“It’s very hard to get qualified (for nationals) because there are so many good dogs nowadays, and especially since Gus has been ill and going through chemo,” Calvert said. “John and Gus do have a very special relationship, I think. It is a very special bond because you spend a lot of time together.”
Gus has won the most ribbons and awards of any dogs Robinson and Talley have trained, and with just two more points – earned through placing at field trials – Gus would earn the title of amateur field champion.
It’s unknown if he’ll get them, if his body will hold out that long. But Robinson and Talley don’t care. He’s an athlete and he’s successful, yes, but he’s also their family member, their friend. He’s worked hard for them, and they’ve appreciated it.
“We know he’s a champion anyway,” Robinson said.