Lon Hodge has a lot in common with his dog, Gander. They're both from Colorado. They share the same birthday. But it's how they differ that makes their relationship special.
Hodge is a veteran living with injuries that he sustained in the line of duty and a severe case of PTSD. Gander is a service dog who was specifically trained to assist people with such disabilities. And while all service animals are equipped with unique qualifications, from the moment Hodge met Gander, he felt there was something truly uncommon about his abilities.
"He’s just an extraordinary creature," says Hodge. "He misses nothing."
Gander the dog. All photos via Lon Hodge. Used with permission.
Gander seems to have a sixth sense about knowing exactly when and how someone needs his help. He’s done it with people who’ve been diagnosed with illnesses like diabetes and terminal cancer. He once came up to a Navy Seal who was dealing with panic attacks and offered support by leaning against him. The man broke down crying saying he'd recently lost his dog.
It's no surprise that his fans often remark, "Gander knows" when hearing about his encounters.
This almost uncanny ability to read people is also ultimately how Gander came to save his owner's life.
Hodge and his service dog, Gander.
Hodge served in the military medical corp from 1973 through 1981. He remained stateside, but sustained several injuries during his stint as an officer at a munitions plant. While not life-threatening, the experience contributed to inner emotional turmoil that began to seethe in the few years following his end of service.
Suddenly, a culmination of stressful life moments like starting a new job as director of a rehab hospital, and the death of his mother, resulted in the wheels coming off the cart, so to speak. Everything just came crashing to halt.
"I went from 60 to zero," recalls Hodge. "I couldn’t leave the house for several months."
At the same time, as a result of his ever present anxiety, his resting heart rate speed up to 120 beats per minute. His doctors prescribed him a number of medications, but they just put him in a fog.
He knew that he needed to find a better way to manage his symptoms. Then, as fate would have it, he happened to catch a TV special about the benefits of service dogs for veterans. So he reached out to Freedom Service Dogs, a Denver-based nonprofit that trains rescue dogs to work with veterans as well as other disabled people. Seven months later, he was matched with a soulful-eyed Labradoodle named Gander.
Lon and Gander were recognized as the 2018 Eagle Rare Life category winner for Survival.
From the moment they met, Hodge knew it was the beginning of a beautiful, life-changing friendship.
However, even though they bonded almost instantly, their relationship wasn't without growing pains.
Not only was he now charged with taking care of someone besides himself, Gander forced Hodge to get out in the world and be with people — something he'd avoided doing for nearly a year.
"Gander's a really cute dog, so everyone wanted to interact with him," recalls Hodge. "I was like, 'Oh my god, what have I done to myself.”
Suddenly he was fielding all these questions from people about Gander, and in turn, about himself. Since a service dog is meant to stay by you at all times, it's really impossible to distance yourself from the reason why you have one. While this was initially quite difficult for Hodge, it forced him to regularly confront his social anxiety, and slowly but surely it began to dissipate.
Gander comforting Hodge.
His heart rate also dropped down to a normal 80 bpm, and the suicidal thoughts he'd been having shrank away.
"If I’m really anxious, he’ll put his feet up on my chest, or he’ll lick my hand, or he’s taught to lean against me, and if someone comes to me too quickly, he’ll stand up and get between us," explains Hodge.
While they're small actions, it's Gander's incredible intuitiveness about when to employ them that makes the difference.
It was impossible for Hodge to ignore the effect Gander has on just about everyone he meets. He wanted to find ways to share that magic with more people who truly needed it.
So Hodge created Facebook and Twitter accounts for Gander where he shares messages of awareness for PTSD, veteran suicide, and other invisible injuries. Unsurprisingly, the pages quickly gained massive followings.
Around the same time, Hodge and Gander also started traveling around the country, speaking on behalf of veterans at various conferences.
In 2014, Gander won the AKC Humane Fund Award for Canine Excellence in the service dog category.
Since then, the pair have continued to spread awareness and hope to veterans. Hodge regularly calls for Planned Acts of Community Kindness (PACKs) on Ganders' Facebook page. These are just little things people can do to help out members who are struggling with something. For example, when Marine Corps Lance Corporal Dylan Bogue lost his dog, Hodge posted his request for help, and within a month, the two were reunited.
This past year, they've also performed 365 Taps at cemeteries all over the country in honor of service men and women who died by suicide. At each ceremony, Hodge reads 22 names of veterans in order to call attention to the fact that 22 veterans take their lives everyday, and give loved ones a sense of closure.
Helping people in turn helps Hodge continue to recover from his own PTSD. But he knows that he couldn't have gotten here without his canine companion.
That said, he wants people to know that a service dog is a major commitment. He's not just a friend — he's a mental and physical health support system.
"This dog is medical equipment, this dog is your lifeline, this dog is everything," says Hodge.
If you think you might need one, do your research first to make sure you qualify. Hodge is also happy to answer questions about his experience with Gander.
Even though you can't see it, PTSD is a real illness, and requires treatment. Sometimes the best medicine just comes with four legs and fur.