Golden Heroes

Golden Heroes

by Susan Spisak

The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study or GRLS, operated and funded by the 72-year-old 501(c)3 Morris Animal Foundation of Denver, CO, is one of the largest and most comprehensive canine health studies in the US. Initiated in 2012 - with plans for it to last roughly 14 years - the Study reached their desired 3000+ Golden participants by 2015 with representation across the 48 contiguous US states. They honor the canine enrollees by referring to them as “Heroes” – they’re paying it forward to future generations of all dog breeds by contributing to this study. 

GRLS’ goals are not only to collect and uncover environmental, nutritional, genetic, and behavioral factors associated with canine cancers and secondary diseases within the test group, but to expand strategies for screening and prevention. Findings will be used as a launching point for multiple health studies in dogs. Goldens were chosen because it’s estimated that 60% of the breed are affected by some form of cancer. (Four of the most common cancers in Goldens are Hemangiosarcoma, Lymphoma, Mast Cell tumor or MCT, and Osteosarcoma.) 

As a vet tech at Oxford Hills Veterinary Hospital in South Paris, Missy Lessard-York was aware of the study and submitted her Golden girl as a possible participant. Missy said her now 9-year-old Chompski, Hero #59, was approved because she fit the study’s specific parameters, such as being a healthy purebred, under 2 years of age, and two generations of her pedigree documentation were accessible. 

Participants agree to remain in the study for the life of their dog. each dog must have a thorough annual physical with blood, urine, feces, hair, and toenail clippings collected. Data
is compiled by the Hero’s veterinarian and staff and is submitted to the study team. The dog may require additional tests such as tumor samples, and results are also submitted. Because exams and data compilation may be costlier, GRLS does provide a small stipend, but some owners like Missy donate it back to the Foundation.

Sandy and Peter Lok of Connecticut are longtime Golden owners and their Andy is Hero #1483. Sandy said there’s an annual online “major detailed” questionnaire regarding each dog’s nutrition, lifestyle, and environment. Info requested in those scores of pages include the dog’s daily diet and type of water given, grooming history, home and yard environment (think flooring and pesticides), dental records, travel history, and more. “It goes on and on,” Sandy said. Missy added, [The study is] stockpiling tests and will start mining information, and different research groups will extrapolate what’s going on...It will find and change the way we attack cancer in dogs.” 

Participants also are asked to consider cosmetic necropsy (removal of a small tissue sample) or complete necropsy (removal of all valuable tissue samples) following their pet’s autopsy. “It’s a committed group for sure,” said Missy. 

“Ten years is a critical age for Goldens [health wise],” said Sandy. The dogs first enrolled are hitting that age, with the youngest being about 8-years-old. “It’s the age about 60% of Goldens are diagnosed with some type of cancer,” she explained. “It goes without saying, it’s going to get sad [within our test group].” Missy is all too familiar. Chompski had an MCT and mouth growth removed recently. While the follow up oncology visit on the former proved it was a success, she’s awaiting biopsy results on the latter. Her vet will continue to monitor her pet closely. 

Annie Li, external engagement Associate for Morris, shared that of the 3,044 Golden enrollees, there are 2,750 living Heroes and 195 angels. Of those angels, 104 deaths were from one of the four primary cancers with Hemangiosarcoma and Lymphoma dominating. (She added that 99 dogs have withdrawn for a variety of reasons, such as changes in the health of their owners.) 

Photo credit: Linda Hadwen & Stew Stryker 2019


A Golden Family 

The GRLS is now in its eighth year, and the owners have become a family of sorts by connecting through their own Facebook page, 3000 Strong Community, GRLS Heroes & Supporters. “The participants
and their Heroes have formed an incredible supportive and passionate community,” said Annie. “We are grateful for their dedication to the Study – and to each other.” 

The group also stays in touch at events like the upcoming 6th Annual New England Golden Jubilee. It’s held at the 150-acre Dog Mountain in St. Johnsbury, Vermont – the scenic spot was originally owned by the late artist and author, Stephen Huneck and his wife, Gwen. “The New England Golden Jubilee helps to promote and sustain support for the Morris Animal Foundation Golden Retriever Lifetime Study,” said Sandy, co-organizer of the Jubilee with her husband. 

After the first Jubilee in 2015, the Loks lost their 12-year-old Golden, Ginger, to Hemangiosarcoma.
Sandy said it was difficult to plan the next Jubilee, but despite being heartbroken, it fueled their resolve to continue. And when they arrived at Dog Mountain for the 2016 event with their other Goldens in tow, they saw a rainbow and knew it was a sign from Ginger. Sadly, their Golden nutmeg recently passed from liver cancer, furthering her belief that it’s an important study. “I have huge hopes for future generations of Golden Retrievers and all canines.” 

The Jubilee takes Sandy months to put together. It is a day filled with Golden conversation, hikes, a cookout, pond swims for the canines, Dancing Dogs entertainment, and a Blessing of the Animals. Attendees come from at least 15 states, and many stay for the weekend in the picturesque New England town. Missy added that she and her husband, Randy Lessard-York, take Chompski, and they all have a blast. 

The event has grown into a successful fundraiser - last year they raised over $7k for the Foundation. Their Kibble-Cup Auction, which benefits the Yankee Golden Retriever Rescue (Sandy serves on their Board as their Volunteer Adopter Relations Director), raised an additional $3,800 for this non-profit that serves New England. Allyson MacKenna, executive Director for the rescue, said they’re grateful that the Jubilee includes them. “Every year has raised more money for us that goes directly to rescuing the breed we all love.” 

Allyson attends the Jubilee with her Goldens, Connor and Mariah. “It is an experience like no other to be around so many Golden enthusiasts and over 100 Golden Retrievers.... There are many special moments, from the remembrance of those dogs that have passed to the pictures celebrating the Goldens representing the rescue dogs, Morris Heroes, and therapy dogs. There are many rescues in attendance, and it is wonderful to see these dogs so happy with their families.” 

The 6th Annual New England Golden Jubilee is scheduled for May 16th – but check their website for date clarification in the event it is pushed back due to COVID-19. The public is welcome to attend with their friendly, well-behaved dogs. For more info, visit

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