Inseparable Dion on the Great Wall of China with Gobi
Sprawled across the sofa in an Edinburgh bar, Gobi the Wonder Dog is taking a well-deserved nap.
Already the heroine of the best-selling book Finding Gobi, which has sold more than 250,000 copies to date, the extraordinary marathon-running mutt is now being groomed for Hollywood stardom.
Leading men Hugh Jackman and Ryan Gosling are reportedly in the running to appear in a film adaptation of the book, but Gobi is unlikely to be star-struck.
Over the past year she has mingled with royalty – of both the blue-blooded and celebrity variety – appeared on television throughout the world, and accumulated tens of thousands of fans on social media.
None of this would have seemed even remotely possible in June 2016 when the little dog, then a scruffy stray, attached herself to ultra-marathon runner Dion Leonard as he pushed himself for seven punishing days through the Gobi Desert and Tian Shan mountains in north-west China.
The mysterious dog kept pace with him for 77 miles.
Each recognised a need in the other. Gobi – as she was quickly named – was one of numerous waifs eking out an existence in a brutally inhospitable landscape.
Australian Leonard, 43, was something of a stray himself, having grown up in a dysfunctional domestic environment – and he speaks of a ‘knowing’ when their eyes met.
‘I hadn’t had that loving family when I grew up, and you could clearly see that she hadn’t had it either.
‘There was something in her eyes. She was desperate for it, just as desperate for it as I was when I was a kid.’
As the race continued, Leonard started sharing his carefully rationed food supplies with her.
‘For me to do that was a big deal, but you couldn’t say no to her eyes. It was a huge sacrifice, but she already meant that much to me. I can’t really explain why. It was crazy.’
When the terrain became too punishing, he arranged for Gobi to get a lift in an event car.
At night, in the runner’s camp, she would seek him out immediately.
‘This unique bond was just unbreakable,’ he marvels. ‘Chinese people often mention past life connections. There’s a definite spiritual aspect to our bond.’
After the race, Leonard returned to his adopted home city of Edinburgh, where he lived with his wife Lucja and Lara the cat.
Already resolved to bringing Gobi back, he harnessed a growing fascination in the story on social media to raise funds for her repatriation.
‘It was horrible being apart. We were doing everything to bring her back.’
Then disaster struck. Gobi went missing while being temporarily homed in the Chinese city of Urumqi, where Dion had a friend.
Both Dion and Gobi recognised a need in the other. Gobi – as she was quickly named – was one of numerous waifs eking out an existence in a brutally inhospitable landscape. Pictured The pooch gets her passport
It’s clearly a tangled tale, and although he doesn’t wish to elaborate on the details, Leonard believes she may have been dog-napped.
‘There was so much stress and depression as it started to kick in what had happened to her,’ he says. ‘We didn’t know where she was at all.’
After two weeks of frantic searching and a huge social media campaign that captured the imagination of the Chinese public, Gobi was finally found in a park by a man and his son.
She was a bit bruised, but overjoyed to see Leonard again. ‘She was across the room at their house and she spotted me,’ he says. ‘She came running, squealing and barking, and jumped into my arms.
‘She was injured, in quite a bad way, but to see her excitement was incredible. I sat on the couch just looking at her. I was stunned. It brings a tear to my eye just thinking about what she went through.
‘She’d be dead by now if we hadn’t found her.’
It was, he says, a partnership that was simply meant to be. ‘For her to run 77 miles with me, then to go missing, and for me to find her again…’ He shakes his head.
After their reunion, it took Leonard and Lucja five agonising months to organise Gobi’s move, negotiating spools of red tape. Leonard even moved to Beijing to be with her.
She finally arrived in Edinburgh on January 2, 2017, having flown first-class most of the way from China, feasting on sausages and being fussed over by the crew.
Since then, the legend has taken flight. Still snoozing on the sofa, Gobi is maintaining a Garbo-esque silence, so it’s left to Leonard to pick the highlights.
Whether receiving a Blue Peter badge, appearing on Good Morning Britain or hanging out on the This Morning sofa, Gobi has taken it in her stride
‘We’ve done things you would never believe. At Holyrood Palace, she met Prince Edward and we gave out the Duke of Edinburgh gold awards together,’ he says.
Her profile went galactic when she bumped into Star Trek legend Sir Patrick Stewart at the Animal Hero Awards in September, where Gobi picked up the Inspirational Animal of the Year gong.
A fanatical dog-lover, Stewart told Leonard he also has a rescue dog, Ginger, that he’s desperately trying to bring to the UK.
‘Sir Patrick was overwhelmed with the thought Gobi ran 77 miles in the desert on those little legs,’ says Leonard.
‘He ended up saying that this unbelievable story should be made into a movie, and I responded by saying, It is! ’
Whether receiving a Blue Peter badge, appearing on Good Morning Britain or hanging out on the This Morning sofa, Gobi has taken it in her stride.
While touring America promoting the book, she even partied with one of the world’s most outrageous rock bands.
‘It started with a weird phone call when we were in London,’ says Leonard. ‘This croaky voice came on and it was Paul Stanley from Kiss.
He said he and bandmate Gene Simmons would really love to meet Gobi and invited us to their show at the O2 that night.
‘Unfortunately, I really couldn’t take Gobi to a rock concert. Eventually we caught up with the band in New York, and they loved her.
‘On the same visit we were interviewed on The Today Show by Jenna Bush, George W. Bush’s daughter.’
It wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling. When Twentieth Century Fox paid big bucks for the movie rights to Finding Gobi, they told Leonard ‘We couldn’t have written this story!’
It’s unlikely Gobi will play herself in the film; Fox calculate they’ll need up to 20 dogs to portray her antics on screen.
And what about Leonard – does he think Hugh Jackman is up to the job? ‘I’m not sure if he’s got the looks,’ was his droll response.
Gobi has now been in Edinburgh for more than a year. ‘She has become a local celebrity. Wherever we go she is recognised, every day.
‘My wife took her for a run and she was recognised at six in the morning. People love seeing her, and she loves the love and attention.’
At home, Gobi enjoys a diet befitting a Tinseltown A-lister. ‘She gets steak and chicken,’ Leonard smiles. ‘She’s very spoilt.’
This remarkable buddy story has been lucrative enough for Leonard to give up his career as a senior business manager in the drinks industry to become what he laughingly calls a ‘full-time dog-sitter’.
Each week there are school visits, charity events and speeches for businesses and animal welfare organisations.
He has continued his own ultra-marathon adventures, recently competing in Peru and the Hawaiian jungle.
These days Gobi doesn’t join him, though he’s weighing up an offer to visit Italy with her in April, to run the Milan marathon and undertake several television appearances.
As well as the blockbuster film, there may be more books. ‘People want to know the next part of the story,’ he says. ‘Maybe the things we’ve experienced together.’
He strokes her affectionately, saying ‘Something has changed and made me a better person – this little dog is delivering more than just one story.’
Like its amazing, adorable star, this tale is destined to run and run.
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