Q&A with Veteran Lon Hodge and Gander, His Service Dog
Veteran Lon Hodge struggled for many years with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder until he was paired with a service dog named Gander.
Gander is a 3-year-old labradoodle and 2014 AKC ACE Hero who travels with Lon to hospitals, community groups and businesses to advocate for veterans, trauma survivors, service dogs, and suicide prevention.
Honest Kitchen (HK): How did Gander get his start as a service dog?
Lon Hodge (LH): Gander was in a kill shelter and was literally on death row. He was then taken in by a prison program system that trains dogs in basic obedience to make them more attractive for people to adopt. Gander was a rock star and they referred him to Freedom Service Dogs in Denver, CO. They did more intensive work with him for a few months. He had probably close to 100 tasks he could perform before I got him. We’ve been together 24/7 for three years. Everything we do now is almost intuitive. I don’t have to train him or reward him to do anything. He seems to know what needs to be done. I talk to him just like I talk to you. He has an immense vocabulary.
HK: What’s he like?
LH: As a kid, I had a 3-speed bike, and you always want a 10-speed bike or a 20-speed bike. Gander is the 20-speed dog. He has probably the most complex personality I’ve ever known in any animal, ever. He can be a dog-dog or he can be a great companion or he can be a super pro service dog. He has all these speeds. It’s super cool.
HK: How does Gander help you?
LH: For PTSD, when Gander hears my voice escalates, he immediately comes to me. First thing he does is lick my hand. If I don’t respond, he’ll literally get up and put both feet on my chest and look me in the face, like ‘Is this okay? Are you okay?’ If he hears any kind of loud noise, he’s right there. Even if I go to shake hands with someone, and that person is loud, he’ll immediately get in between the two of us and act as a barrier. He can pick things up, he can open doors, he can turn on lights, and he can act as a brace if I’m having trouble getting up off the floor. He loves doing it.
HK: What inspired you and Gander to help others with PTSD?
LH: The way I’ve survived any kind of trauma—and there’s been a lot of trauma in my life—is to do for others. I’m a teacher by trade and heart, and a coach. When Gander gained some major celebrity, it was clear to us to leverage it to do something good as well. I decided to put him to work to make people more aware of PTSD, veteran suicide and invisible injuries for all people. I also wanted to raise awareness of the human-canine bond and how that can heal people. I then started advocating for access [to support] so people coming home from war or recovering from trauma or disabilities can get into the public and reintegrate into society and not feel like an outsider.
HK: Why do you think service dogs are helpful to humans with physical or mental disabilities?
LH: Dogs by nature are almost immediately forgiving. My wife, who’s a Chinese historian, said she thought Gander was a “bodhisattva,” which in Buddhist lore is a character that has reached enlightenment, but has decided to stay on earth to teach compassion and love. I think a lot of dogs are that way. They are perfect guides for us in unconditional love and caring. They ultimately reflect to us what’s inside of us. I don’t think humans are capable of that kind of immediate forgiveness and compassion that dogs are. Dogs are about as close to the divine as I think we can get.
HK: What do you want people to know about service dogs?
LH: We are a team and they should treat us as a team. People need to understand that Gander isn’t a dog, he is an extension of me, and he is medical equipment. He is as important to me as a wheelchair is important to a person with a physical disability. I owe this extension of me an incredible debt of gratitude. My wife says if I get reincarnated, I’ll come back as Gander’s servant. He does so much more for me than I think I can ever do for him.
HK: What does Gander love to do when he isn’t working?
LH: It’s a misconception people have that service dogs don’t have a lot of fun. Oh, man! He gets a massage in the morning and a massage at night. We go to the forest reserve or to the lakeshore at least once a day where he’s allowed to just romp and do whatever he wants to do. He loves to watch fish. Gander is absolutely obsessed with balls and fetch. He’s an extension of me, so I’m going to make sure that he’s happy and healthy. Love isn’t just a feeling; it’s a decision. You make a decision to care for something, and that means you alter your schedule to make sure that happens. He doesn’t need to be at work all the time.
HK: You and Gander have a new book coming out. What’s it about?
LH: It’s called “Fetch: Travels with Gander.” It’ll be about our travels around the country. We’re going to be talking about different veteran suicides and their lives. We’ll be fetching vet memories and kind of a new perspective about America. Gander was a conduit for all the information. People wouldn’t have told me a lot of things if they hadn’t played fetch with Gander. When they engage with Gander, you can see immense emotion happening inside of them. It just opens them up, and they become more sharing and more caring. It becomes a powerful connection real quickly. It’s all because of him.