Australian runner finds Gobi the dog that followed him on ultramarathon in China desert

Mr Dion Leonard with Gobi after the ultramarathon through the Gobi desert.
Mr Dion Leonard with Gobi after the ultramarathon through the Gobi desert.PHOTO: BRING GOBI HOME / FACEBOOK
Gobi disappeared on Aug 15, prompting a media and social media campaign/
Gobi disappeared on Aug 15, prompting a media and social media campaign/PHOTO: BRING GOBI HOME / FACEBOOK
Mr Dion Leonard with his dog Gobi on a walk after being reunited.
Mr Dion Leonard with his dog Gobi on a walk after being reunited. PHOTO: BRING GOBI HOME / FACEBOOK

LONDON (WASHINGTON POST) - A small stray dog had won hearts all over the world after deciding to follow an Australian runner for several days during an ultramarathon through China's vast, forbidding Gobi desert.

Mr Dion Leonard fell in love with the dog, named her Gobi and planned to bring her back to his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Then, on Aug 15 , just before she was due to travel to Beijing to enter quarantine, the dog disappeared, scampering out an open door in the Chinese city of Urumqi, where she was being looked after.

Mr Leonard flew back to China to look, launching a media and social media campaign and putting posters up all around the city. Volunteers helped him scour Urumqi, asking guards, taxi drivers, cleaners and fruit vendors, visiting parks and dog shelters, talking to anyone who might have seen the dog.

Local television interviewed Mr Leonard, residents stopped him in the street to say they were looking, crying about the story, he said. China's Phoenix media even launched a live blog to update people about the search.

But at the bottom of his heart, Mr Leonard feared it would be a fruitless quest. Urumqi is a huge city of three million people, and he feared the dog could even have run back into the countryside that surrounds it, where people speak the Uighur language, don't use social media and were unlikely to even be aware of the campaign.

"I needed to come and do it, just to be sure in my own mind I had done it," he told BBC Radio Five Live.

"But realistically I was dreading having to go back home next week without her."

Then, on Wednesday (Aug 24) evening, a Chinese man called: He and his son had seen a small stray dog in a local park while walking his own dog. They had brought her home and thought she could be the one.

Still, after a couple of false alarms, Mr Leonard was skeptical. The man had sent pictures but the lighting wasn't good.

"Walking into the room, I was already thinking this isn't going to be Gobi, and I'm a bit down about the last few days," he told the Washington Post.

"I walked into the room, and I didn't say a word. There were actually about ten people in the room at this stage."

"Gobi spotted me as soon as I walked in, and she started running towards me. Literally she was running up my leg, and jumping all over me, and squealing with delight."

"It was just mind-blowing to think that we had found her," he said. "It was a miracle."

Talking to the BBC earlier, Mr Leonard called it "love again at immediate sight."

Mr Leonard told the BBC's Phil Williams that he had struggled to stay positive during his stay in Urumqi, especially as time ran out before he had to return to Britain next week.

"I had actually spoken to Phil the night before, and I was pretty down and depressed about things," he said.

"I was starting to realise this wasn't going to happen."

Mr Leonard told the Post that the day he had heard Gobi had gone missing was "pretty close to one of the worst days" of his life, but being reunited with her was one of the best.

He said Gobi had not left his side on Thursday, and said he can't pinpoint why the dog had formed such an immediate and close bond with him.

"It must be something about my smell or something that she likes," he said.

"But literally, as soon as I walked in, she clocked me. It was just like we were back together again at the race."

Mr Leonard raised Β£19,700 (S$35,215) through a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of bringing Gobi back to Britain, and a further Β£9,300 to finance the search.

He paid tribute to everyone around the world who had supported him, and especially to the people of Urumqi, whose response he said had been "overwhelming".

"The amount of people we've had volunteering, going out from six in the morning to midnight trying to find her has just been absolutely amazing," he said.

When Gobi went missing, some media reports had highlighted the dog meat trade in China, he said, but that was ridiculous.

"Urumqi is far from that. It is very much a dog-loving city," he said.

"You could see that by the response of everyone, getting out in their own time to help. Without them, I wouldn't have found her. It's as simple as that."

He has posted a short video of them together on his Facebook page and Twitter.

Recalling the race, he said Gobi had completed four of the six day-long stages of the ultramarathon, running around 80 miles with him. The pair even won the third stage together.

"She's beaten some pretty damn good athletes," he said. "She has definitely got a big heart for a little dog."

Mr Leonard says Gobi now has to undergo 120 days of quarantine in Beijing, but he hopes to come out once or twice to visit her during that time - and then have her home with him by Christmas.