Beloved dog from Vernon Hills wins national service dog award

Rick Kambic
rkambic@pioneerlocal.com | @Rick_Kambic
Aug. 12 6 a.m.

Gander was nearly euthanized in a Colorado animal shelter, but he holds no grudge against mankind and is now being nationally recognized for his work as a service dog for a disabled Vietnam veteran from Vernon Hills.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) is an organization that started in 1884 and holds the largest registry of purebred dogs in the world, while also promoting sport and dog ownership rights.

AKC also has a humane division that for 15 years has given out four awards to dogs that have made a difference. On Aug. 6 they announced the 2014 recipients, and Gander won the “Service Dog” award.

“I had no idea what was going on when they called,” said Lon Hodge, Gander’s owner. “They said numerous people nominated Gander. At first I thought it was a prank, because the AKC focuses on purebreds and Gander is a labradoodle.”

The committee that reviews nominees did in fact approve Gander as the first ever mixed breed to win an AKC award. The group said Gander has made major strides in raising public awareness on how dogs can help disabled veterans.

The journey for Hodge began three years ago when he was prescribed a service dog for his post-traumatic stress disorder and severe arthritis caused by an autoimmune disorder. At that time, Hodge was so overwhelmed by fears that he couldn’t leave his house and barely slept.

Gander was days away from being euthanized when the organization Freedom Service Dogs rescued him and trained him at Canõn City Penitentiary in Colorado.

After their first seven months together, Hodge became fully mobile. Gander is trained to retrieve anything Hodge needs, and he calms the veteran through physical contact when he senses anxiety building up.

Gander and Hodge are known by employees and patrons of almost every coffee shop in Libertyville and Vernon Hills. The two like to sit and read together or meet friends while enjoying a cup of coffee.

The dog has also become a Facebook icon after Hodge began taking Gander on visits to VA hospitals and charity events throughout the country. Most of the posts shared stories of people they met, or stories of how Gander showed compassion to the injured vets.

In 2012 Gander’s Facebook page had about 8,000 likes. It now has nearly 239,000 likes.

On a whim last year Hodge entered a social media-based contest for service dog of the year, conducted by the American Humane Association. Gander took second place. By showing how Gander eased his pain, Hodge became connected with a vast amount of other veterans.

Throughout that campaign, Hodge also met several New York Times best-selling authors. The veteran took stories from other veterans and poems from the best sellers and created a 139-page book titled “In Dogs We Trust,” which came out earlier this year.

Each book cost $20 and all proceeds were donated to benefit service dog organizations.

Kevin Kane co-owns Hansa Coffee Roasters in Libertyville, and after meeting Hodge he created a brew called “Gander’s Choice.” A portion of each package’s cost gets donated to service dog charities.

Over time, Hodge also became connected with Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker, who also advocates for service dogs. Decker immediately fell in love with Gander and the two teamed up earlier this year to raise $80,000 during an event in Denver.

Just last month a woman in Denver who used to volunteer at Freedom Service Dogs, the group that saved and trained Gander, fell ill and she asked the organization to donate a dog to her for a few weeks during her recovery.

Hodge volunteered to visit the woman and let Gander do double duty. After the woman got better, she donated $75,000 to Freedom Service Dogs — enough money to train three more dogs — and dedicated the donation to Gander.

“The woman said she knew what Gander did was a noble job, but she apparently didn’t realize quite how valuable and loving the task is until she benefitted from the service,” Hodge said.

For winning the AKC award, Hodge received $1,000 to donate to a dog-related charity, a one-year insurance policy for Gander, and a week-long trip to Orlando, Fla., in December, when he and Gander will receive the plaque and enjoy all the AKC national events.

Hodge chose to donate the money to Freedom Service Dogs.

“I’m bound to do this mission of representing disabled vets,” Hodge said. “I have no choice anymore. Gander is so personable and so loved, that my message actually carries weight and thousands of vets depend on me to tell their stories of pain. I sometimes question whether I want that responsibility because I relive their pain, but it’s a noble task that I now realize I’m addicted to.”

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