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Service dog nominated for American Humane Association honor


Age: Four


How to vote:

Online voting ends at 11 a.m. July 30

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Updated: July 19, 2013 2:16AM

Gander was days away from being euthanized when he was rescued from a shelter and trained to become a service dog through an inmate service program at Canõn City Penitentiary in Colorado.

More than two years later, the labrador-poodle mix — or labradoodle — is in Vernon Hills and nominated for a national award for having saved the life of his companion, Vietnam War veteran Lon Hodge.

“If you talk to any veteran with a service pet, they’ll tell you their dog saved their life,” Hodge said. “I’ve read reports that say 21 vets commit suicide every day, plus at least one active duty soldier. If only there were more Ganders.”

Hodge, 59, said he was opposed to the Vietnam War when he enlisted and he chose to join the medical division to avoid combat zones. Instead of seeing carnage first-hand, he saw the never-ending trauma his patients would endure in the aftermath.

Nightmares were common, Hodge said, but about 10 years ago they became overwhelming. He also began to have debilitating panic attacks during the day, which would last between five and 25 minutes. He was soon diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hodge said he hit rock bottom two years ago when he was also diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that causes severe arthritis. He said his challenges outweighed his good faith and he soon became addicted to medications.

At one point, Hodge said, he lost his disability benefits because he couldn’t physically or emotionally leave his house to get examined by a doctor.

“I used to be an instructor at the Army Academy of Health Sciences and I was named soldier of the year at one point,” Hodge said. “To go from that to being unable to leave my house was very depressing.”

Doctors from the Veteran’s Affairs hospital suggested a service pet to help with both problems and shortly thereafter Freedom Service Dogs sent Gander to Vernon Hills.

After seven months with Gander’s help, Hodge can physically get anywhere he wants and his resting heart rate has dropped 30 beats per minute ­­— allowing for better rest.

“Gander can sense when I’m getting anxious or frustrated and he will put his paws on my chest and nestle his head against me,” Hodge said. “I’ve gone from five attacks a day to virtually none at all. I don’t want to think about what would have happened if I didn’t get Gander.”

The two formed an inseparable bond and Gander was in the operating room during Hodge’s three most recent surgeries for his arthritis. The duo are now regulars at many coffee shops and restaurants, and Independence Grove Forest Preserve in Libertyville has become their second home.

Gander became so well-known in Vernon Hills and Libertyville that someone anonymously nominated him for the 2013 American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards. The winner receives $5,000 for charity, which Hodge said he would donate to Freedom Service Dogs.

“The only reason I agreed to let Gander be involved in the contest is to promote veteran needs,” Hodge said. “It costs about $30,000 to train one dog and Freedom exists solely on donations. It’s a first step toward saying ‘Thank you.’”

Gander already has roughly 8,000 followers on Facebook and more than 70,000 followers on Twitter, all of whom are now being encouraged to vote for him at the American Humane Association’s Web site.

He is one of 24 dogs in the service category. Online voting ends at 11 a.m. July 30, and then a committee reviews the stories and votes for their selection. A formula that combines public votes and committee scores decides the winner.

The American Humane Association began in 1877 and has successfully lobbied for many animal rights laws, including the humane treatment of animals in the entertainment industry. Recognizing heroes is part of a new effort by the association to study human and animal relationships, and the mutual benefits to using animals for therapy and treatments.

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