It was a Facebook friendship that brought him to Grand Rapids this week, and it’s the power of social media, along with tried-and-true in-person travels, which are helping him spread his message about the importance of service dogs for those who have suffered trauma.
Lon Hodge, along with his service dog, Gander, were in Grand Rapids for a visit this week, starting with attendance at Thursday’s 9-11 emergency services memorial service and ending with a talk at the Grand Rapids Library Friday evening.
Hodge, a Vietnam veteran and former college professor, received Gander about two years ago due to his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and severe arthritis.
He and his wife were living in China where they were both teaching, Hodge explained. He was battling PTSD when he adopted a cat, which helped calm him a bit.
Everyone was flabbergasted by the relationship, Hodge recalled, explaining that in Chinese culture, they do not have the same relationships with animals such as Americans do.
“The ironic thing is I was doing PTSD counseling when it snuck up on me,” Hodge said. “Before the dog, I was on different medications. Gander changed everything.”
While still in China, he started doing online research about service animals and then, due to both his mental and physical health, made the decision to return to the United States to undergo treatment through the Veterans Administration.
Hodge learned about the organization Freedom Service Dogs of America, located in his home state of Colorado, through his research. Seven months later, he found he was approved for the dog.
Gander, like all the dogs provided by Freedom Service Dogs, is a rescue dog. It was through a DNA analysis Hodge had performed that showed Gander is a labradoodle.
In the two years since Hodge has been matched with Gander, his heart rate has slowed from a constant 120 beats per minute to 80 beats per minute. There are more than 100 tasks Gander can perform, including picking up a dropped credit card or turning on lights; and he is attuned to stress.
“He just knows it,” Hodge said of how Gander senses stress levels. “He just seems to know it.”
It was never Hodge’s intention to be in the public eye promoting service dogs. The man who used to give speeches on a weekly basis had, due to his PTSD and anxiety, gotten to the point of not being able to leave the house before Gander came into his life.
Freedom asked us to participate in the American Humane Society Hero Dog Awards, Hodge explained. As part of that, he set up a Facebook page for Gander.
The page “grew and grew,” he said.
“People would ask how to get a dog, they would tell their stories about PTSD,” Hodge said. Every private message he would, and still does, answer.
“It struck a chord,” he said. “‘Thanks for showing we can beat this.’”
She’s not quite sure how she found about Gander’s Facebook page, but Cohasset resident Mary Corwin liked, then followed Gander’s Facebook page. The avowed animal lover messaged “Lon and Gander,” suggesting that the “Planned Acts of Community Kindness” or PACKs, which Hodge promotes on the Facebook page and blog, could be called BARKS – Beautiful Acts of Random Kindness.
She then, later on, stated she’d love to meet the two. To her surprise, Hodge said he’d come.
As he does on other trips, he tells of the importance of service dogs.
“What’s the good in having 200,000 followers?” Hodge asked. “It’s not about being famous, there’s no sense in it unless something good is attached to it.”
Part of his message is speaking of suicide among veterans.
“We celebrate their lives, not as victims of mental disease, but as casualties of war,” Hodge explained. “We also speak of post-traumatic success, people who have overcome this horrible disease.”
He also wants people to understand that service dogs are similar to medical equipment.
So much of PTSD is about invisible wounds and people don’t mean to make it worse, Hodge said, explaining that can happen when a seemingly non-disabled person is questioned, and sometimes questioned a lot, about his or her service dog.
“You want to be good, but people need to understand,” he said. “You wouldn’t ask someone ‘hey, what’s with that peg leg?’”
There are alternate ways to get people healthy, Hodge said, reaching down to affectionately stroke Gander’s head.
“He’s a non-addictive crutch.”
To find out more about Hodge and Gander, visit Gander’s Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/Ganderservicedog.