Gander is no ordinary Labradoodle: The six-year-old pup has saved his human, Lon Hodge, many times over. He helps Hodge, a Vietnam Veteran who suffers from PTSD and autoimmune issues, with everything from picking things up off the floor to easing his anxiety. For the last five years, they’ve traveled the country together advocating for Veteran Suicide Prevention (according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans commit suicide every day) and Service Dog Awareness. Here, Hodge tells us about Gander’s unwavering compassion for everyone he meets—and how he gives Hodge and others a reason to get up in the morning.
How did you meet Gander?
I met Gander through Freedom Service Dogs, a nonprofit that provides service dogs for people with physical and mental disabilities. Originally, Gander was intended for a woman in a wheelchair but she was allergic to him. Lucky for me, I was next in line and the program thought he would be a fit for me—which ended up being an understatement.
How did you know Gander was the right service dog for you?
I really wanted a lab at first and the organization knew that. Eventually, they called and said, “We know you want a lab, but there’s a dog that we think you’d be a great fit for. He’s a poodle mix.” I wasn’t sold at first but when they sent me a picture of Gander, it was a done deal. I went to Denver from Chicago for three weeks of training. Before I met him, Freedom Service Dogs had dogs of all sizes paraded in front of me. They watch you interact with them to see how comfortable you are with dogs in general and if there is one you connect with most. After everything, Gander was still the only dog I wanted.
How long have you and Gander been traveling together?
Gander and I have been together for five years, and in that time, we have visited 39 states together. In the next few weeks, we’re going to jump on Amtrak to visit the rest of the states. He’s been to Disney World and baseball, football, and hockey games. He’s been on the red carpet twice in Hollywood. But nothing phases him; he’s just Gander wherever he goes.
You often say Gander literally saved your life. How so?
I’ve got arthritis and autoimmune issues. Before I met Gander five years ago, I literally couldn’t walk more than 20 to 30 yards without having to stop. My lungs were scarred from pollution after spending some time in China. I was sick physically and emotionally. My resting heart rate was 120 beats per minute for two years. Within a week of getting Gander, it returned to normal. Because of him, I can interact with people with less anxiety. He also helps me when my autoimmune problems flare up and I cannot get up. He is trained in mobility assistance. He picks things up off the floor, he can turn on lights, he can open doors. He can pick up credit cards and hand them to you without getting them wet. I always joke that I’m going to teach him how to pick up other people's credit cards.
What does Gander do to support veterans' groups, as well as individual veterans and their families?
We do Planned Acts of Community Kindness (PACKs) and assist veterans with adaptive equipment and housing support when they have fallen through the cracks of social service agencies and the VA. We’ve given mobility scooters and “up-seat devices” for people on the waiting list. We’ve raised money to help people through a transition period while they’re waiting for the VA to get them into a homeless program. We also work closely with the Eric and Jessie Decker foundation—they’ve probably donated $500,000 in the last five years for service dogs. Eric and I participated in an annual service dog event recently where we raised $80,000 in just three hours. We’ve probably raised a million and a half to two million dollars in the past five years for people in need.
Why is it so important that our veterans feel supported?
We commit suicide at two times the national average (I carried it as an option like a coin in my pocket for years). Our lives were changed by military service regardless of the job or deployment. It’s hard for civilians to understand, but the more we can do to honor and assist them, the more lives we will save.
Why do you believe Gander won the AKC's award for Canine Excellence?
He is the most extraordinary being I have ever known—and I have been honored to meet movie stars, Nobel Prize winners and officials worldwide. He is a guardian angel of the highest order. He has been the central figure in two award-winning documentaries (one of them is called: Gander: America's Hero Dog), won the Rotary Club Humanitarian Patriot Award, The 10th Congressional District Veterans Assistance Award, The Chesty Puller Award, The Eagle Rare Award the Survivor category, The AHA Service Dog Hero of the Year in 2016 and many more.
Can you tell us a particularly memorable story about someone Gander has helped?
A few years ago at Arlington Cemetery, a woman stopped short near us at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. She suddenly asked me, “Do you suppose he can hear them? The soldiers?” She told me that she visits Arlington once a week—her brother was interred not far away. He’d served in Vietnam as a hospital corpsman, and he’d received the Silver Star for attending to patients without regard for his own welfare.
The day his tour ended, he was transported in his jungle fatigues to a waiting 727 that flew him to San Francisco. At twenty years old, he was a stranger in his own country after only nine months in Vietnam. By the time he reached out for help, the VA, with the casualties of two new wars to attend to, had few programs and little time to coax cooperation from an aging vet. He left a note the day he hung himself. He asked not to be buried in a military cemetery because that was reserved for soldiers he’d watched over as they died. But, because money was tight, his sister had arranged for him to be interred at Arlington. “I feel ashamed. I want him to be at peace,” the woman said quietly. “Do you think he can ever forgive me?”
Just then, Gander rose, turned toward the graves, and then slowly bowed his head at me. Then, he walked to the woman, who by now was in tears, and leaned his weight against her. She bent down, looked into Gander’s eyes, and said: “Thank you.” It doesn’t matter whether or not it was a coincidence that Gander chose that moment to be affectionate. She’d received the answer she needed from him.
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