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From Life Sentence to Life Saver: Anatomy of a Hero Dog

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Gander was in a kill shelter scheduled for death when he was rescued by Colorado Penitentiary Inmates

Gander is a 2½-year old Labradoodle who has become an ambassador for service dogs and an advocate for suicide prevention among wounded warriors. Gander spends his working day assisting a Vietnam Era Veteran by opening doors, turning on and off lights, clearing rooms, retrieving dropped objects and acting as a gentle go-between with strangers.  And because of his outgoing manner, he does part time as a therapy dog at area VA hospitals and conferences where he is an ambassador of kindness and healing. This year alone, Gander has travelled to sixteen states and made friends with everywhere he has been.

Gander At Arlington
Gander on a recent visit to Arlington Cemetery.

After his initial orientation and basic training at Canõn City Prison he was paroled to Freedom Service Dogs in Denver where he was taught the skills he would need to work. Freedom has been gifting dogs to physically and emotionally handicapped civilians and veterans for 25 years.  Few dogs make the cut, but Gander was at the top of his class from the very beginning and won the hearts of volunteers and staff.

Earlier this year Gander proved to be a real life hero by rescuing a young Indian girl from a stray with teeth bared and snarling. He placed himself sideways between the angry dog and the girl and refused to let her assailant come near. Since then, he’s been adopted by staff at the hotel near where the attack took place. Gander lives with his veteran at a long-term hotel in Chicago while he is being treated at the area VA.

“Gander and the treatment team at Hines saved my life.” Veteran Lon Hodge said, “I had several life-threatening problems last year. Then, Freedom brought Gander into my life. I can barely remember life before he came along. And I don’t really want to. When my problems began my resting heart rate was dangerously high and I was having up to five long panic attacks a day. I could not leave my house and I often thought of suicide. Besides my anxiety and depression, my arthritis became so bad I could barely get out of bed. But, in the last year, my heart rate has come down nearly thirty beats per minute, my nightmares have almost vanished and my doctor gave me a clean bill of health last week the first time in a decade. I owe it to Gander.”

Gander - Hero Dog

The experience has changed Gander too: You only need to look at the pictures of him then and now to see how being of service has changed Gander.

Because of this selfless actions and unconditional loving nature, Gander has been nominated for Service Dog of the Year in the American Hero Dog Awards.

According to the Hero Dog website:

The American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards™ were created in 2010 to celebrate the remarkable bond between dogs and people. This annual national competition searches out and recognizes America’s Hero Dogs, who unconditionally avail themselves to us in so many important ways, whether it’s saving lives on the battlefield, lending sight or hearing to a human companion, providing therapeutic support to children suffering from cancer, or just greeting us with a wagging tail at the end of a hard day.

“Our hope is that the awards will help us bring about more awareness of service dogs, how important their job is. And we want to engage businesses and the public to help them understand how to help be part of the healing process in accordance with disability laws, says Veteran Hodge. “In our area, very few shop owners or restaurants have ever seen a service dog. We have been greeted with open hostility more than once. I take a few moments to calmly explain access laws and introduce them to Gander. They quickly see that he is not an ordinary dog.” Gander and Hodge say they are happy to visit schools, service clubs, business groups and hospitals anytime to spread good cheer and offer up a short talk on service and therapy dogs.

Gander is the only Veteran’s Service Dog in the competition. Veterans advocates think this is important because recently the Veterans Administration discontinued providing service dogs to veterans with PTSD. “The VA wants to study their effectiveness in treatment. With 21 suicides among veterans and more wounded warriors leaving the military there needs to be more therapy alternatives available to treat a growing number of PTSD cases. Every veteran with a service dog, myself included, will tell you that having a canine companion saved their life. The more we put this out there, the more pressure we can put on the VA to consider this viable treatment. The VA abandoned the PTSD dog program last year.  The battle now is to show them there is a need and that dogs can facilitate healing. Every vote for Gander gives us more visibility which will give us the power to change hearts and minds. Twenty-one Veterans committed suicide today. More has to be done to save our nation’s heroes. Dogs, not drugs is the battle cry.

You can vote for Gander at the Hero Dog website:  www.herodogawards.org  (look for Gander under the Service Dogs category!) and for his Facebook page’s updates and pics visit: www.facebook.com/ganderservicedog

Dogington readers who follow Gander on Facebook and mention Dogington Post on his Facebook page will be entered in a drawing for four tickets, for Dogington Post readers only, to the Hollywood Hero Dog gala. Plenty of stars, like NCIS’s Abbey, will be there to walk the red carpet with the dogs. Voting starts May 7th and continues through July. 

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  1. This story of Gander is truly a heroes’ story. Gander is most certainly a hero and our military are true heroes. It is sad to learn that the VA has discontinued this valuable service of providing these dogs for our military heroes returning from active duty protecting our freedom and safety. Our veterans are returning home with these disorders due to the fact of all they have gone through for us. It makes better sense to pair two heroes together to get through this life than to just leave heroes to die alone.

  2. Avatar Of Dee



    What a special and gifted dog! 🙂

  3. Avatar Of Carolyn



    I don’t see where to vote for him.

  4. Avatar Of Debz Jones

    Debz Jones


    What a lovely dog Gander is, gorgeous!!! xxx

  5. Avatar Of Deb Occhiogrosso

    deb Occhiogrosso


    what a sweet dog Gander is. Only if more people could be as good and decent as he has proven himself to be,, this would be a much better world. God bless the K 9 heart of gold !

  6. Avatar Of Janet Margrave

    Janet Margrave


    How noble he is.

  7. Avatar Of Jane Procacci

    Jane Procacci


    Gander & his human are both TRUE HEROES!

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