Animals make our lives better. All pet parents know this, but few have experienced the life-saving power of animals like Lon Hodge has. Hodge, a veteran living in Vernon Hills, suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety, and autoimmune arthritis. He credits his service dog, Gander, with saving his life. Today, the two of them travel the country spreading awareness about the transformative effect service dogs have on the lives of trauma survivors.
Four-year-old Labradoodle Gander spent the early part of his life in a Colorado animal shelter before being rescued by a program that pairs prisoners with rescue dogs for training. His excellent demeanor and personality led to him being selected for Freedom Service Dogs, a Colorado-based organization that trains service dogs for people with disabilities. After some additional training and work, Gander found his way to Hodge. “Everybody says they have the best dog in the world, and it’s true,” Hodge says. “But anybody who has ever met Gander immediately knows that he’s special.”
For Hodge, life is 100 percent better with Gander in it. His heart rate, which averaged 120 bpm for the two years prior to living with Gander, currently rests at a comfortable 80 bpm. He is also able to enjoy and participate in his passions, such as writing and poetry, something that his PTSD and anxiety prevented him from doing.
Gander hasn’t only made life better for Hodge, he’s inspired an entire movement. Hodge and Gander travel all over the country sharing their story, spreading awareness, inspiring good deeds, and most importantly, bringing together other trauma survivors with service dogs. Their efforts have made a positive impact on the community, and earlier in the year Gander received the AKC’s Humane Fund Award for Canine Excellence. The honor means a lot to Hodge, and he hopes that the AKC will continue to recognize the beauty of rescue dogs. “Gander was in a shelter on death row, and now there’s nothing he can’t do. And there are a million other dogs in shelters just like him, with the same capabilities. The more we talk about service dogs— especially rescue dogs in service—the more we talk about PTSD and how dogs help mediate it, the better.”