Jane Nygaard never had a dog until she was 20 years old and engaged to be married.
“I came from a family of eight kids growing up in Hopkins and we weren’t allowed to have pets,” she said.
She’s more than made up for that since then, however. Thirty-two years ago, Nygaard founded Retrieve a Golden of Minnesota (RAGOM), an organization that has rescued, fostered and found forever homes for 8,500 golden retrievers and golden mixes. The organization serves Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
At the time the group was founded, Nygaard was working as a nanny and she and her husband, Hank, cleaned banks after hours.
In 1985, they received a phone call about a homeless golden retriever named Sophie, who was scheduled for euthanasia at a shelter. A friend called Jane to ask what to do.
Jane’s answer was short and to the point: “Get that dog out of there!” she said. Jane and Hank took Sophie, had her spayed and vaccinated, and found her a new home.
“After Sophie, there always seemed to be another dog needing a home, and RAGOM began,” said Mary Riebe, marketing manager at RAGOM.
The first 10 or 12 years, Nygaard said, she would bring the dogs to her own home to bathe them and then take them to a veterinarian. “We had a dog a week for the first 10 years,” she said. “A friend of a friend would tell someone else about us. Between showing and boarding dogs, we sometimes had up to five at a time.”
Sometimes the Nygaards would get a phone call and end up driving to Bemidji or Detroit Lakes to pick up a golden who needed a home.
“Until 1997, it was just us and a bunch of friends,” Nygaard said. “Now we have an outreach program. We sometimes get calls from the police or a sheriff’s deputy. A lot of them know we’ll take a golden.”
Eventually, the Nygaards formed a non-profit organization and began soliciting donations to help cover the cost of feeding the dogs and getting them veterinary care.
“We’ve picked up dogs in Ely or Virginia; we have foster homes in Sioux Falls,” Nygaard said. “We cover the five-state area. We have flown into O’Hare [Chicago’s airport] and picked up 20 dogs at a time. We send 20 volunteers to walk the dogs and clean the cages.”
They have rescued dogs from puppy mills, and they’ve found others who were chained to trees, or a litter that was dumped in a garbage can.
Now RAGOM has three paid contractors: a manager, a fundraiser, and a person who provides administrative support for the managers. It has policies, procedures and protocol. It has a website blog, plus a whole crew of people who do the rescues and help with home visits, and a team that reads reports from the home visits.
A transport team handles intake calls, and volunteers are trained in how to accomplish the pick-ups. Rescued goldens are brought to the RAGOM headquarters in Minnetonka, where they’re given a bath and then transferred to a foster home. “We keep them at the office until a temporary foster [care person] picks them up for the night,” Nygaard said.
“We have 150 to 200 people doing something every day,” Nygaard said. “Every dog that’s rescued first gets a bath and then sees a vet within 24 hours.”
RAGOM gets donated crates, food and other equipment. Representatives from RAGOM visit elementary schools and sometimes find that the students have made blankets to donate for the dogs. “Dogs come to us with nothing, no bowl and no bed,” Nygaard said. “The really sad ones are the goldens that people dump when the dogs are ready to die. We get the dogs right to the vet and then into hospice care with a foster family. They don’t die alone.
“We have beautiful volunteers who do hospice care. They may have the dog for six weeks, six months or a year, and they make them comfortable.”
Dog adoptions have dropped in the last five years, from 400 to 500 to about 250 a year, according to Nygaard. “Spaying and neutering have helped everyone,” she said.
Nygaard likens the dogs to 2-year-old children. “Goldens want nothing but love and attention,” she said. “They want to be touched continuously. They’re insistent; they want attention. They are members of the family.”
Nygaard, a resident of St. Louis Park, survived colon cancer and said RAGOM volunteers brought dogs to the hospital to keep her going during chemotherapy treatments. She’s on her third pacemaker. But she still works as a nanny two days a week, for two children ages 6 and 4 .
And she’s still actively involved with RAGOM: taking emergency calls, registering and keeping track of microchip information for all the RAGOM dogs, doing home visits, fostering dogs, and visiting school groups and Girl Scout troops to teach them about dogs.
“The dogs are what keep me going,” she said.
When two boys from St. Louis Park’s Peter Hobart Elementary School died at Lilydale Regional Park in May 2013, Nygaard took the initiative and went to the school playground for a week with her golden retriever, bringing comfort and solace to the children there, Riebe said.
Nygaard’s many years of service were recognized in June 2017 when she received a National Starfish Award from Golden Retriever Club of America’s National Rescue Committee (GRCA-NRC), for 32 years of significant contribution to golden retriever efforts.
RAGOM, which meets all twenty-seven of the Charities Review Council standards, was awarded that agency’s “Meets All Standards” seal.
Goldzilla, RAGOM’s biggest annual fundraiser, was Sept. 10 at Long Lake Regional Park in New Brighton. More than 1,200 people and 600 dogs attended the event in 2016, a day that brings families together that have adopted RAGOM dogs, as well as other dog lovers.