Ten Things to Know About My Service Dog

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

–Antoine de Saint-Exupery

(Kea Grace did a wonderful article not long ago about the ten things handlers want you to know about their service dogs. Here is my personal ten. Here is Kea’s article: http://www.anythingpawsable.com/10-things-service-dog-handlers-want-know/)

1.) Gander is Always Working..

 Gander, my service dog has the most inviting demeanor and lovable face of any animal I have ever owned.  That and our seeming gregariousness in public make it hard not to engage him. And because he has a number of trusted friends that are allowed to interact with him it might appear we are not working. Gander is always on duty. Those that know us understand that Gander will drop everything, even his beloved tennis balls, to attend to my needs. People often whistle, click their fingers, bark, pet, call him to them or try to feed him treats. Please ask permission to interact with him and try not to reinforce him for being off task. He rarely loses focus, but in the event he does, please ignore him and let me engage him again. Please don’t ask him to “Sit”, “Shake Hands” or do tricks. He is a professional and he speaks a professional language. Most of the time he will not respond to your requests. Don’t feel ignored. He is on the job and his loyalty is to me.GANDER Dog

2.) Gander saved my life and continues to rescue me
I love this dog as much as anyone or anything in my life. He allows me to function in situations that are otherwise difficult. I respect his skills, his loyalty and know every nuance of his special and complex personality. He is my friend, my family and my connection to all that is good. Please recognize him, not as a dog, but as a essential part of my life and well-being.

3.) I am open about my conditions…

I am happy to discuss PTSD and other issues, but  not every wants to disclose why they have dog. For the first few months I had Gander I simply said: “He is a medical service dog.” After we started his page and began to advocate for suicide prevention and trauma survival I became more forthcoming. There are many invisible conditions that many people are reluctant to share. Please don’t ask: “Why do you need him?” As I have said before, the most common answer for me when people say I do not look like I need a service dog is: “It is because I have a service dog.”

4.) I may seem short on occasion if you ask questions

It is because I am asked the same questions 10-80 times a day: His age, his breed, his agency, his function. I am happy most days to share. I love to chat.  But, you may well be the 50th person that day who has queried me. And I may be trying to get a package mailed, a blog post written or help someone who in crisis. Please give me and my good intentions the benefit of the doubt. And know that many handlers, especially those with psychiatric issues, may not want to connect at all. We are all in varying stages of recovery,  and our dogs are part of our treatment plan.

5.) Yes, He is a Labradoodle and he is a real service dog

Gander was trained by Freedom Service Dogs in Denver. They use rescues: Poodles, Labs, Mutts of all kinds as do many services now. As Kea said in her article, many “fake” service dogs have created a hostile environment for us with non-standard pups. The barking, snarling purse dogs that people but vests for have made us suspect. Watch the behavior of the dog. If he is disruptive, you may ask them to leave your space and not be in violation of ADA regulations.

6.)  Gander is spoiled beyond belief….

Recently, there was a fire alarm in the complex where we live. The noise was deafening to me, so I cannot imagine how terrifying it was to Gander. I rushed him outside and held him until he stopped shaking. My wife was a little jealous 😉 …. he is well fed, massaged daily, and I put protective waxes and creams on his feet depending on the weather. I would stand in front of a speeding train to protect this dog. I think most handlers feel the same. We are grateful and protective.  I spend 24/7 with Gander, and we have a special correspondence system that alerts both of us to needs. I know when he is tired, hungry, thirsty, afraid or bored. I attend to his needs the way any good father or mother would care for his child.

7.) Gander is, by law, Medical Equipment
To paraphrase Kea here: “My Service Dog is medical equipment, just like a wheelchair, crutches or an oxygen tank. She is medically necessary and anywhere in public medical equipment is allowed, so is my Service Dog. Additionally, please treat her like medical equipment. You wouldn’t walk up to someone you didn’t know and just randomly start pushing their wheelchair” nor would you chat up a peron’s cane, so please don’t touch, talk to, pet or otherwise engage with my partner without consent.

8.) Gander Is Protected Under Law

Gander goes where I go. He has the same rights as I do. It is my responsibility to see that he does not infringe on anyone else’s rights. I understand some folks are afraid of dogs and that some religions do not hold them in high regard. I will do my best to respect those boundaries, but I will expect the law to be followed. Gander and I work hard to remain calm and educate those who do not know or understand the federal rules of access. We are all in this together.
9.) Gander has no “Papers”…

Gander was trained by an Assistance Dogs International certified trainer and passed a required access test that is pretty comprehensive. He performs about 50 difficult behaviors that are needed for the exam. He can back up in a crowded space, load and unload properly from a car, avoid any food or strange objects on the floor, sit and stay without me in sight for several minutes, position himself under tables in a restaurant and many other tasks directly related to my needs. IF a dog has papers or certifications (there is really no such thing for service dogs), they have no legal weight. In Illinois, business owners may ask only two questions: “Is that a service dog?” and “What two tasks does he perform for you?” There is a movement afoot to develop enforceable standards but as yet as long as the dog is not disruptive and the handler can answer those two questions you must allow access.

10.) “I would love to go everywhere with MY dog.”
I heard this at a local sandwich shop recently from an owner. And people often tell me they envy me. I would happily trade my night terrors and social struggles for a chance to retire Gander and give his vest to someone who needs it more. And please keeping mind that the extra work required to take him everywhere is akin to that of a mother or father with an infant child. It takes great preparation and constant vigilance. We are never apart.






Before you get a service dog

gander You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

(This article was written back in April. I revised it so it could be used as part of a teaching manual for Freedom Service Dogs. 

Much more attention needs to be paid to the mindset, environment and special emotional and psychological needs of anyone getting a service dog. we are, after all, in the process of healing. A dog is not a cure-all and cannot replace psychotherapy. It is a valuable adjunct and counselors, social workers and psychologists,especially those working with PTSD and trauma clients, need to be briefed on how best to anticipate issues and to enable solutions to make for the best possible outcomes for both client and service dog.)

So, you think you want a service dog? Think again….

I was reading a story on Facebook about a woman with Lupus. She illustrated for friends how hard life can be when you have to accommodate a debilitating, unseen illness. Her examples especially hit home as I remembered a dear friend from high school who took his own life rather than endure the primitive treatment available at that time. He could not handle a lifetime of shielding himself from the sun and the outdoors he loved so much.  And he did not want to face the judgement of those who couldn’t understand his suffering, much of which was invisible, even to his friends.

The author of the post used dinner spoons as a metaphor. She gave the same number of spoons to each member of a group of friends. They were amused at first when she verbally walked them through a day and took away a spoon to represent the terrible toll taken by every simple task they normally took for granted. She let them make decisions in her stead and then assessed the difficulty of each decision from her own experience until they were all soon out of utensils and forced to decide whether or not to borrow from the next day’s rations.

The analogy, as simple as it was, rang true for me. I have often likened my day to the nearly worthless battery on my iPhone: I have to ration my energy over a variety of tasks:  a movie requires me to choose a time and place with few people, easy entry and exit and now, a place for Gander, my service dog, to rest comfortably where people won’t stumble over him. A restaurant has to have a booth, an understanding proprietor, and be open at at non-peak hours so I don’t encounter too many people who might not like the idea of a dog in their eatery. I do not invite conflict and don’t feel I have anything to prove or teach when all I really want is a meal.

And there are many new and old preparations in advance: emergency medications ( I used to carry pills in every pocket and keep them in every drawer to avoid the possibility of a panic attack), a water bowl for Gander, snacks, service vest, bathroom breaks and so on. A day in public has been and still is exhausting for me. The first few weeks with Gander were infinitely worse: The added stress took a savage toll on my body and my serenity. And all of this while people assume I am training my service dog because I don’t appear to need one. As silly as it might sound: Having a service dog is like being pregnant. For women it is the first time you publicly show people you engage in sex. For me, it is an admission that something in my life is under repair.

Yesterday, I stopped to eat at a restaurant not far from the hotel where I stay. I sat outside in the car for a few moments and brought the anxiety of venturing into a new place down from a boil to a simmer. I have my usual haunts and stick to them. That night I wanted a change of pace. But Gander is a handsome and lovable mutt who draws attention, and it may come as a shock to some that attention is something I have loathed for years. And he sparks conversations about feelings and elicits memories that are not often shared with strangers in public venues. I brace for the usual questions: “What breed is he? How old is he? How long have you had him? Why do you need him? What does he do? Can I pet him?…” And then I wait, The conversation will end, become deeply personal or we will be rejected and asked to leave because Gander is one of only two service dogs I know of in Lake County, so few people have an understanding of service dogs and certainly not his role in my life–especially since I “look normal”.

The manager, an attractive lady, appeared quickly and immediately wanted to know if Gander was a “blind dog.” I resisted the urge to tell her that while he might have some hearing issues I thought his sight was fine. Then she wanted to see his service dog certification. Keeping with the battery analogy: My system was now flooded with current. I was working hard to keep from marching, like an overwound Christmas toy, into an emotional or wall or to angrily let her know that asking such questions is illegal in Illinois. Gander sensed that all was not well and leaned against me. He provided a way for me to ground and discharge excess energy. I calmly explained state rules about assistance animals and went about my dining business. During that particular meal I was asked several questions by people at distant tables and a young Indian boy racing by shrieked after realizing he’d seen an animal under the table. It was not a relaxing meal.

After dinner, the manager stopped me to invite me the two of us back sometime. And then she owned up to her discomfort: she disclosed severe physical, familial and care related difficulties she was facing in her own life. She has a lot on her plate: late stage cancer, a blind grandmother, a recent divorce and more. She expressed a longing for a pet to be there for her in what must she described as very difficult evenings alone. I give her a couple of suggestions and a card and told her to call me with any questions. I hope she does.

At our frequent visits to the area VA hospital, Gander brings literally dozens of smiles to the faces of people in the halls, and waiting rooms and especially those lost in thought and preoccupied with health concerns. Several vets have asked me how to get a dog because they are alone, lonely or just in need of something to do with the excess of time illness demands for recovery. Others have balance issues, relentless anxiety or problems picking things up…

When veterans say they want a dog, I generally ask them to ask themselves if it is a service dog, a canine buddy, a good friend or a girl/boyfriend that is really needed.

I explain that a dog becomes an extension of self and will immediately be one more thing to take care of to in the course of a difficult day. And I ask them to remember that not everyone in their lives, kind and generous friends they might be, are going to feel the same way about their dog. Other people have trauma associated with their past that has nothing to do and everything to do with you if you bring a symbol of their trauma into their life. And other cultures are not as devoted to their canine companions as we are. Some religions restrict contact with dogs and you are likely to get a less than warm welcome from a Muslim cabbie, the law not withstanding, because adhere to teachings you find superstitious or disrespectful.

Not only will you need to prepare better for your day and yield to new limitations, but now you will have a sentient being that requires you to attend to a multitude of needs: It is a lot like having an infant with you. You are now responsible for a life other than your own. It can help heal or help hinder you depending on your needs and your ability to accommodate these changes. a lot of owners blame the difficulties on bad training, or a poorly performing dog. It is neither. You need to discover when, where and how this new piece of living equipment can best assist you as you honor his or her limitations and respect his or her need for love and care.

Scientists have known for years, what the VA pretends it has never heard about: that the body’s chemistry is dramatically and positively changed by just by stroking the fur of a animal. It effects the release of important hormones like serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin and the results are lower blood pressure, decreased levels of the primary stress hormone cortisol which is the adrenal chemical responsible for regulating appetite and cravings for carbohydrates. And if you are spiritually inclined you might believe that the compassion and unconditional love of a pet is a direct link to the divine.

I think that Gander and I were fated to meet. I think he was a Tibetan Lama in a past life who decided to hang around this world wagging, kissing and loving me into a better understanding of compassion and unconditional love. A dog in your life is a blessing you can cherish forever if you have reasonable expectations and a commitment to loving and caring for a new member of your family.

One of the tasks Gander was taught to perform was to flank me on the side open to height to give me some distance and comfort. What happened was he became so tuned to my emotional state that he began to avoid heights himself. My wife says I have given my dog PTSD. I did make him more cautious of open spaces. Is he failing me? Should I be angry or disappointed? No. I now walk down the center of bridges so we both feel more comfortable. I don’t take elevators with glass floors. The scope of his aid to me goes far beyond  these simple things. we will work on them together as a team. My guess? As I heal and become less anxious, so will he. He will be a living barometer of my progress. We have important things to do. And I am not about to stress my best friend needlessly as we romp though these rough trails together.

Spend some time visiting with others that have dogs. Volunteer at an organization like Freedom Service Dogs, read as much as you can, speak to the proprietors at places you frequent, talk to your treatment team, review your finances–this will be expensive especially if there are medical needs later! Treat this like you might an adoption of a child from a foreign country. It is an enormous undertaking that is done thoughtfully and honestly will teach you more about yourself, your disability than you can possibly imagine. It will positively inform your future relationships and make you a better friend, a better employee and a better person.


In Dogs We Trust: Tales of Canine Love, Inspiration, and Service



Join a Host of Best-selling Authors and Dog Lovers to Create a Book for the Ages that will Honor the Profound connection between Dogs and their Humans and benefit PTSD and Suicide Prevention efforts

To Love is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. –C.S.Lewis

Born of my journey with PTSD and serious health issues to being an active crusader for Suicide Prevention, Trauma Recovery and Service Dog Awareness,always with the help of my battle buddy. Gander, In Dogs We Trust will combine moving stories of canine love, tenderness, and sacrifice from Patricia McConnell, Mike Ritland, Ted Kerasote, Kevin Hanrahan, Stephanie Weaver ( check out her kickstarter project:http://bit.ly/BuddyGirl ) , Bruce Littlefield, Cheryl Arnold Moseley, Alan Paul, Paul Owens, Anthony Bennie and a host of best selling-authors in a true celebration of dogs and the impact they’ve had on us.

You’ll be able to add a short paragraph at the end about yourself, your dog, your charity or cause, to be read by thousands.

Worried that your writing doesn’t quite convey the tale you have to tell?

Good news: our editor, Alexandra Thurman will help you explore the true heart of your personal story and put a free professional polish on it that you approve before press.

How to Submit:

Stories should be 5-1600 words of humor, inspiration, or remembrance. Short poetry will also be included but no longer than 5-15 lines. Previously published work may be included if the author has publishing rights.

Send your stories to veterantraveler@veterantraveler.com Please include your: Name, Address , Phone, Email and a brief bio of yourself


You will receive one contributor’s copy of the book upon publication and the right to purchase any additional copies at the wholesale booksellers discount. Your name will be included in international publicity and you’ll be invited to launch parties and book signings when they occur. Stories selected will be announced about October 15, 2013 on Gander Service Dog’s Wall: http://facebook.com/ganderservicedog and he Http://veterantraveler.com

D ownload the submissions PDF here: http://veterantraveler.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/fifth-love-pdf.pdf

Dog Eat Dog: The AHA Hero Dog Awards Part I

Hero Dogs

“I am somewhat exhausted; I wonder how a battery feels when it pours electricity into a non-conductor?”
― Arthur Conan Doyle

At one point in the competition a representative of the American Humane Association answered a tsunami of criticism about its design and execution and the violent in-fighting that many competitors were experiencing by acknowledging the contest contestants to be “spirited.”To euphemistically call the madness of the social media contest “spirited” is skin to labeling the Nanjing Massacre a “skirmish.”

The American Humane Association Hero dog Awards just concluded the first round of voting (actually more like fifteen rounds without a bell) and they have now moved into the final selection phase where one of the dogs will be crowned AHA Hero Dog and will walk the red carpet in Hollywood with canine loving stars like Pauley Perrette, Betty White and Miranda Lambert. Gander and I staggered out of the last day with him in second place in the service dog category only to find that even the officials had already abandoned the finish line:  A powerful metaphor for the worst, yet most strangely rewarding three months in recent memory. I will explain….

I signed Gander on for the awards having no idea what to expect. The promise of the awards was that, at the worst, we could up the profile for the charity that provided me Gander and, at the best, snag a tiny cash prize, a dubiously important title and bragging rights that could mean positive exposure for my charity and the causes and agendas we promote: PTSD Awareness, Service Dog Access, Veterans Rights and Suicide Prevention. And we’d be supporting the Association by bringing in new donors to support the work they do.

I started or renamed accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for Gander. I began recruiting supporters and implored people to follow the everyday heroism of a dog I credit with saving my life and bringing joy and inspiration to thousands more. The cohorts in the quest to elect Gander to public accolades were and are my saving grace: The kindest, most generous and thoughtful people I could ever imagine. While the competition was an example of all that is wrong with social media, the people supporting Gander were all that is right with the Web. And I felt that way, not because they backed my battle buddy, but because they trusted the intention of our involvement and created a community of grace and goodwill. Within a month Gander had 10,000 followers on Facebook, 60,000 on Twitter and 5, o00 on Instagram. I was ready. OK, I thought I was ready.

I began to look at other dogs entered in the competition. There were some extraordinary stories of courage and accomplishment. Surely, any of these dogs were worthy of an award and many were already bona fide heroes: Military war dogs who sniffed out IEDs, a  guide dog who did triple duty as guide, service and therapy dog for a Sergeant Major who was blinded in Iraq, and stories you hoped would be collected into a book and shared with the world. To think only one dog would emerge on top already seemed unfair.

It was soon evident that, though a month early, I was late to the party. A team of candidates had already formed and mounting a charge. At the front of the formation was last year’s winner with nearly fifty-thousand likes using his celebrity to back five dogs running in different categories. My work was cut out for me. Work was cut out for all of us. Not to self:  “Healey’s First Law Of Holes: When in one, stop digging.” ― Denis Healey. But, I am stubborn and what is life without challenge?

“The difficulty in dealing with a maze or labyrinth lies not so much in navigating the convolutions to find the exit but in not entering the damn thing in the first place. I am a stubborn warrior. I grabbed my sword and headed out to fight a digital sea. Had I known then how vicious and vile the fight would be I would have quit on the spot. Had I known in advance that the AHA would turn a blind eye to competitor transgressions and put page view,  celebrity and sponsorship opportunities above integrity, I would have never started.

G.K Chesterton once said that a good novel tells the truth about the hero while a bad one tells us about the author. While the awards could have been a bestseller, the AHA penned a weak tome….

Part II Saturday
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
― Abraham Lincoln

Gone to the dogs…

“All his life he tried to be a good person. Many times, however, he failed. For after all, he was only human. He wasn’t a dog.” ― Charles M. Schulz

Recently, I changed many of my social media account names to support Gander IMG_7288 in the Hero Dog Awards. while I never thought I would be a member of the cute overload club, but here I am: PR agent for a dog–and all that goes with it. Some things were unexpected… Reactions to the change varied: One long time friend on Instagram asked: “When did I start following a A DOG??!” The food critic, and generally cantankerous curmudgeon, promptly quit following. I had followed and “liked” his epicurean forays into places, where even Anthony Bordain might balk, for years. But, loyalty has limits for those who don’t understand our relationships with animals as perfect metaphors for how we live our lives with humans and how we should be living and loving each other with their unconditional love and loyalty as a guide.

And while Gander’s bearded muzzle has been on Chicago news channels, graciously featured and promoted by the kind souls at Dogington Post, featured in area newspapers and described on area radio, the military community has been relatively silent. Gander is the only veteran service dog in the competition and one of our goals is to heighten awareness of PTSD and offer dogs, not drugs, as one alternative to the horrors of anxiety disorder caused by trauma. But, suicide and invisible wounds are still conversational IEDs.

Bear with me as I digress for a second: We don’t talk about military sexual assault because there is a part of us that does not completely believe the victim. We don’t speak loudly enough about suicide because we are afraid that weakness may be a factor in that choice, and we fear even more the part of ourselves that might one day answer our own panic, depression or chronic pain with an overdose or a bullet. We don’t recognize the pandemic, insidious presence of PTSD because we see too many who malinger and draw benefits for wounds they do not have. So, we doubt those who exhaust themselves daily to give the appearance of normalcy while they are so terrified by everyday events they can barely breath–those who, if they dared, would scream for help. And many who suffer night terrors and daily panic won’t admit to dysfunction for fear of being thought of in these ways. It dawned on me: If people cannot understand why a pet owner would vocalize, tweet, photograph or wax poetic about their companions, they sure as hell were not going to follow the deeper bond someone with invisible wounds would feel toward a dog that saved them from social or self annihilation.

In a recent phone interview someone from Freedom Service Dogs, where Gander was trained, told a reporter that Gander and I were well matched because we were both so gregarious and social. What spending 24/7 with Gander has taught me is that both of us as orphans and trauma survivors respond to stress similarly: In Psychology it is called a reaction formation. That is, we do the exact opposite of what is expected of someone with anxiety disorder. Some sufferers of panic disorder and PTSD take up extreme sports, force themselves into public speaking roles or become overly talkative and friendly. That is us. Gander and I reach out and do what we can to connect to people when it is daredevil tough for us to do so.

Imagine yourself on a high balcony. Remember a time when it unexplainably made you a little afraid to be there. Feel for a second that wave of anxiety that starts in  your legs, travels to your stomach and then, like emotional hemlock, travels to your brain where you question whether or not you might fall, even when a secure railing is in front of you. Worse, you believe that you might lose your senses altogether and jump. Double, if you can, the dread and apprehension you feel and THAT  is what I experience in a conversation with a stranger, while eating a meal in an unfamiliar restaurant, or when driving a car over a bridge, and when having even a simple medical or dental procedure done.

Now, I want you to don a parachute and base jump from the balcony just when your knees are their weakest, your breath is shallow and your chest is so tight you are sure you are close be having a heart attack. Imagine your descent to be hours, not seconds long. It is like a day at an adventure park: After you arrive home safely and and the adrenaline wears off, you are exhausted. You can feel muscles that the stress wrapped around you to keep you from flying apart. Your day was so extreme that you have trouble remembering parts of it. You are left to wonder if it was worth it and whether or not you will do it again. You repeat visions of the day in in you mind as you try to fall asleep and they pervade your dreams. You are jolted awake and drenched in fear. You start your morning exhausted.

How we arrived is different for all of us: Every soldier, sexual abuse victim, accident or terror incident survivor has his or her own threshold and hence, their own path to recovery. I made it through beatings, medical and physical torture, starvation, and a number of very real near-death accidents. But, although I myself was once an accomplished counselor in the Army guiding people back from the horrors of war, I could no longer even counsel myself. Once a long distance runner, I could no longer stand to feel my heart beat quickly or powerfully in my chest; once an accomplished actor, public speaker and professor, I could not collect my thoughts or calm my nerves enough to talk to a service club in my hometown; once honored as the national outdoorsman of the year, I couldn’t even imagine myself climbing above timberline to watch the sunset as I once did daily. Once a martial artist and a champion debater, I was no longer able to protect myself either physically or verbally. Once a nationally recognized poet and writer I no longer believed that I could find the words to describe my inner or outer landscape.

We wear the marks of our masters and mine are PTSD, anxiety disorder and autoimmune disease. They are getting better. They are better, not because the VA had me on addictive medication for years, but because of the support of friends, and the comfort, service and protection afforded me by Gander. Far from being ashamed of my reliance on a four-leeged palliative, I want to shout to the rooftops about what he has done for me. I want people to know how much better life is without daily thoughts of suicide–for my benefit and the poor souls who had suffer the symptoms of my troubles–and without medication that narcotized me, altered my personality for the worse, robbed me of sleep and had me staggering though life without ambition or purpose. Gander Service DogAmbition for most of us with PTSD is the desire to live just one stress-free day. Ambition for me now is to share hope with others, to tell people there are other ways to cope, and to demonstrate by example, for the VA and others, that PTSD service dogs are powerful adjuncts to any therapy they currently prescribe.

The most I will ever ask you for in support of my new dreams: stop by once in a while and let me know what is on your mind and in your heart, repost and retweet my status updates when they offer good information and encouragement to veterans and others suffering with anxiety and mood disorders, and yes, cast a daily vote for Gander in the Hero Dog Awards to help make the mission of Freedom Service Dogs and groups like them a national priority for the VA and other mental health organizations. And with this being National PTSD Awareness Month, help spread knowledge and understanding.. It takes only a second to retweet a kind word, a helpful article or an uplifting picture or video.

Yep, I have gone to the dogs and I am damned happy about it.   For those who still do not know the love of a good dog: I am sorry. And to those of you who are lucky enough to have a canine hero in your life: Cheers. And to those who support our journey: Thank you.

To vote for my personal hero go here: HERO DOG 

Hero Dogs

Gander Dog

Please Vote in the Hero Dog Awards

Mark Twain said” “Heaven goes by favor; If it went on merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” Those of us lucky enough to have dogs think of them in much the same way new parents think of their children. We are insufferable: our dog is smart, adorable, and different or special in some way others will never hope to be.

A dog doesn’t have to have a fancy obedience school degree or be a member of SEAL Team Six to get rated as your personal hero. And nothing can match the saving grace of a dog when loneliness or anxiety drive us to isolation or tears. Nothing compares to the quiet comfort of a trusting muzzle in your lap, a dog kiss on the cheek or that psychoanalytic tilt of the head as they listen to your troubles. Understanding us is heroic enough, but they selflessly run in to rescue us when our emotional houses are burning down.

Then, there are dogs that are called on to go above and beyond the call of canine duty to do things we mere mortals cannot: Scouring dangerous terrain for the scent of IEDs, combing debris for survivors in an earthquake zone or still buried in a Himalayan avalanche area, or bringing down alive an armed robbery suspect. Much is expected of them and they perform with little more for reward than gentle rough-housing, or a toss of a tennis ball. So, every year the American Humane Association honors these extraordinary canine and their sacrifices with the Hero Dog Awards. They recognize dogs in several categories: Military, Law Enforcement/Arson, Therapy, Guide (hearing and sight), Emerging Hero and Service. The awards build an audience for the tremendous work of the AHA, applaud the agencies and owners who have trained and loved these canines into action and literally roll out the red carpet for the dogs at the Beverly Hills Hilton. The AHA says:

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.

Gander is a nominee in the Service Dog category. I think, having being rescued from death row by the prison training program at Canon City Penitentiary, Gander knows adversity and is especially suited to his job.

You only need to look at the pictures of him then and now to see how being of service has changed Gander. I look similar and I am more mobile and healthier by the day.IMG_8021  He has saved my life many times and provides help to me  24/7 as a PTSD dog and assists me when my autoimmune issues make mobility painfully difficult.

He could easily be in the Therapy category: I allow him to be social at VA hospitals, coffee shops, schools and meetings. He is an extrovert and naturally empathic. He seems to know how and when to to engage and connect equally with children, wounded veterans, widows and widowers, and lonesome travelers who just need a belly to scratch or a quick game of fetch.

Webster defines a hero many ways:

One who shows great courage: Gander hasn’t been in combat, but he has placed himself in harm’s way for the benefit of a small girl being attacked by a stray dog. Like his military friend in the competition, SSD Honza, he posted himself out front and ignored the danger to rescue his friend.

One admired for achievements and noble qualities:

Gander’s purpose in life is to serve. I love him, but I try not to sing his praises too loudly. He wins his own lasting praise by being a serious professional, a playful companion and caring friend. I have watched him head straight for people who need him the most. I have seen warriors and proud blue collar laborers weep when Gander opened a space in their hearts.

I most admire people in my life who naturally gravitate toward those in need. I personally define a hero as anyone who puts themselves in danger or gives up freedoms so that others may enjoy theirs: That would be Gander.

An illustrious warrior:

Friends call Gander by many names: Professor, Ambassador, King. I think of him as a warrior in the fight against Veteran Suicide. He has made me a living testament to the healing power of service dogs.

The VA abandoned funding for PTSD service dogs at the time they were most needed. The battle now is to show them they were wrong. Every vote for Gander gives us more visibility which gives 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.

Visit Gander’s profile here: HERO DOGS and while you are on the site, look for Bodacious, SSD Honza, Leisel and Dublin. They are Gander’s battle buddies competing in different categories. You can vote for them in addition to Gander. Any money awarded to these dogs goes to a service agency they have chosen to support. Of course, Freedom Service Dogs is Gander’s charity!

Thank you. Follow Gander on Facebook GANDER SERVICE DOG and on Twitter at VETERAN TRAVELER and on Instagram at @GANDERFORHERODOG



The Fifth Love

“Nobody can fully understand the meaning of love unless
he’s owned a dog. A dog can show you more honest
affection with a flick of his tail than a man can
gather through a lifetime of handshakes.

Gene Hill – The Dog Man

I just returned from the meal offered to veterans every year by the kind folks at Applebees. I go less for the food than to see the 100 or so other vets there from every era from WWII to Afghanistan. In fact, I feel a little guilty about the free food and always donate the cost of the meal to a charitable cause. Though, I am grateful to Applebees for making present and former service personnel feel valued and for bringing back a nostalgic spirit of comradery. There is a special love and respect that exists between those who served regardless of their country of origin or the job they performed. We are a sentimental lot looking for validation that our time in uniform meant something. It becomes more and more of my persona the older I get. But, already I digress–a little…

A man in his sixties wearing a black ball cap with embroidered Vietnam service medals quietly approached my table and leaned over to stroke Gander. His eyes were swollen as he told me, without looking up, that he wished he could bring his dog with him on trips and into restaurants. “I have a Boxer. And since my wife died, that dog is everything to me.”

It’s far from the first time Gander has evoked powerful feelings and memories for people around him. There was a widow in a department store who said she wished that she could have a dog in her living facility. “It’s so lonely there.”

And there was the 6’2″ muscular and intimidating retired SEAL who, two weeks ago, barreled through the lobby of the complex where I live. He had been drinking and his face told me he was mentally far away and not happy about what he had found there. Gander uncharacteristically went against his training and headed straight for the man and leaned all 65 pounds against his shins. The tension drained from his face, his voice became scratchy as he gently stroked Gander and spoke with a powerful gentleness about his canine companion of 14 years that he had just freed from the pains of age and infirmity. He went on to talk about his fears about an upcoming trip overseas and the panic attacks he was having and how he now knew what invisible wounds and suffering were and wondered out loud why more victims didn’t kill themselves. And wished his “battle buddy” was still here to help him through this.

If Gander can do this with total stranger, imagine what he does for me. I am asked a dozen times a day what job Gander performs for me. I never know how to adequately answer. “He is my best friend”, “He saved my life” are a couple of my replies. More playfully I might muse: “He is a Bodhisattva here to guide me to compassion for myself and others”… But, truly? If I were Buddhist it would be easy to believe this dog was the newest incarnation for some wise Tibetan Lama.

I read The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis when I was in high school and it helped me make sense of the myriad feelings that relationships can conjure and kept me from confusing different types of connections. And after I had accumulated a few more experiences in my life, I came to believe that there other were types of love that Lewis and the Greeks didn’t record.

Ancient Greeks had four names for love:

  • Storge:”It is described as the most natural, emotive, and widely diffused of loves: natural in that it is present without coercion; emotive because it is the result of fondness due to familiarity.”
  • Eros: Sexual love. The madness and fire that consume us and fell our ego boundaries.
  • Agape: Unconditional love for others. A spiritual mandate to be kind and charitable.
  • Philia: Friendship and the strong bond existing between people who share common interests or activities.

Most of us are confused about love and what is means to love someone or something. People who love their animals understand a special kind of affinity that is borne of fidelity not unlike that of soldiers who have relied on a comrade to carry them physically or emotionally through difficulty without the thought of reward. This love transcends Philia and is deeper felt and longer remembered than Storge. It is a love that knows it can never repay the other for what he has received. It is a love that knows fidelity is not required, as Lili Palmer once wrote, but that it is a mutual gift. And it is a love so powerful and positive that the receiver grieves the loss of the other, long before he has departed. Marjorie Garber said, “If you have a dog, you will most likely outlive it; to get a dog is to open yourself to profound joy and, prospectively, to equally profound sadness.”

It has been a while now since Gander entered my life. Prior to that I was being tested by the VA for heart disease because my resting pulse was routinely above 110. It now averages 80. I sleep better. And I don’t reach for the phone in the car to quiet fears or shunt an overactive imagination because his muzzle is always resting on my shifting arm. And I don’t move him, just as you don’t wake a sleeping infant for the sense of peace he provides–something I have not known for a while.

I don’t have a name for this love yet. I am still understanding it as I learn more about my new friend and earnestly work to improve the private communications we share, the ones that allow us to better care for each other. I will be writing more about those in posts to come.

When I was at my worst with panic attacks and night terrors I could not remember what it meant to be normal. When I left Freedom Service Dogs last week–I was there for Gander’s graduation–I remarked that I could not remember what life was like before Gander. And I don’t ever want to .

Here is to battle buddies past and present and their selfless sacrifices for all they hold dear.

The Triple Rescue

“You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” –John Wooden

In athletics “3” is an auspicious number: Whether its the Triple Play, Triple Axel, Triple Somersault, or other achievement all of them on the far edge of excellence. This week, I witnessed the volunteer sector equivalent of a Triple Crown, the Triple Rescue.

Rescue One:

I drove from Chicago to Denver to meet my service dog Gander. Eighteen hours on the road did not dampen my enthusiasm. As soon as I was settled in the Extended Stay America Hotel near the foothills of my youth in Colorado, I headed straight to the Freedom Service Dogs’ Kennels hoping someone might be there on a Sunday to introduce me to Gander.I was jazzed, like a teenager about to get my driver’s license or the first kid up early on Xmas. I couldn’t wait….

But, Gander was being pampered at a home stay with his trainer–he is a bit of a canine rock star with the staff–so, I wasn’t able to chat with him before our training, scheduled to begin on Monday. Instead, I was invited into the exercise yard to meet a rambunctious program drop out who was being exercised by one of the Freedom handlers. The dogs who fail to make the grade are cared for until they are adopted into a good home. Being sent down from the majors didn’t seem to bother him. He was more interested in chasing his rope toy.

So, instead, I had a chance to visit with the handler. Being around dogs has a way of dissolving barriers and opening people up to more authentic conversation, and Sunday was no different: She told me about her years in a Colorado women’s prison during which she became involved with a Freedom Service Dogs partner program that teaches inmates how to train dogs. A similar program in Texas has a 0% recidivism rate among the graduates. She went on to express her gratitude for the “second chance” given to her by Freedom and talked briefly about how rewarding the work there was for her. The entire staff talks with great emotion about the positive changes they have seen the dogs make in client’s lives.

Rescue two:

I was running on no sleep when I headed to training. It is no small undertaking to bring a service dog into your life. I was about to be responsible for a very expensive and well trained addition to my life. I am sure I did not feel any less excited or anxious than the adoptive parents I so often greeted in Guangzhou, China when they were preparing visas and custody papers for their new infants. He was to be more than companion: He would become a family member who would also faithfully perform much needed duties if he was properly managed and cared for during the years to come.

Gander looks like one of the furry sidekicks for an old TV western anti-hero or the canine version of a forgetful old literature professor in a corduroy jacket with patches at the elbows. He was on-task all day: He watches you with almost unnerving intensity to be alert to cues about what he should be doing. When off-duty, he was affectionate and gentle. He loves to lean against you and kisses are a big part of his free time repertoire.Later, I would learn that his only real distraction is chasing and retrieving a tennis ball. You couldn’t get anyone more hooked to heroin than Gander is to fetch. But, I digress….

Gander was brought to the prison at Canon City, Colorado from a shelter–all the dogs at Freedom in its 25 year history have been rescued. Luke, his name in stir, only did a short stint before being paroled to Freedom Service Dogs. Cool Dog Luke was then re-branded as Gander the wonder dog and the rest, as they say, will be history.

Gander was finally pardoned and set free to come home with me on Thursday. We have had a couple of outings, though they are discouraged during the first 30-day bonding period. But Gander, who has been in a Subaru commercial already, handles fame pretty well.Everyone adores him and he attracts a lot of attention. I am planning on buying a t-shirt that says, “Yes, my dog is awesome, but what about me?”

Rescue three:

Ryan and Stevie

My classmates are a pretty diverse group: A mental health therapist who will use her dog Sprocket (aren’t these cool names?) as a canine mediator during supervised court visitations when children of divorce and separation are afraid and confused; Two Iraq war veterans with PTSD. One of the vets, three IED explosions and a mortar attack later, suffers from traumatic brain injury (TBI) in addition to three vertebrae that were replaced after being thrown 50 feet from his Humvee. Their dogs, Doppler and Stevie, respectively, are perfect matched for them; A man from Wyoming with brace and balance problems brought on by Cerebral Palsy (CP) and seizure issues will use his dog Cash to improve mobility and the quality of his life; and the mother of an autistic child who will use Agave an enthusiastic and loving Lab to keep her son focused on tasks outside of himself.

In five short days I have watched near miraculous transformations in some of the personalities and the bonding has begun in earnest. The dogs have trained their humans to be more open, communicative and focused. These dogs, each costing some $30,000 each to train, are “gifted” to the clients who must agree to watch over them as much as they are watched over by the dogs. And I think that is an easy sell: From quiet and reserved, the PTSD veterans have already become more open, engaging and even playful. Cash’s human already gets tears in his eyes as he talks about the new friend he has waited almost two years to greet.

This has been a wonderfully exhausting week. I now know 20-30 commands that Gander already had mastered and will soon move on to the dozen or so ways to cue him to perform duties specific to my needs. We are doing well. Gander and I slept through the last two nights like a couple of long time barracks buddies.

Me and Professor Gander

This was rescue number three, times five. The only real question left is like the bumper sticker tag line I saw this week: “Who rescued who?”

Roger Caras said, “Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made. ” Well, it is certainly the best deal I could have ever made.




Dog Bless Freedom Service Dogs and the incredible volunteers and financial supporters who made this happen. I will never be able to repay them for these perfect days, but I will try. And if you are ever so inclined: Freedom Service Dogs























About that “hero” thing…

Today is National Navajo Code Talker Day. Twenty-nine Navajos volunteered for the Marines during a time when casualty figures in the Pacific Theater were horrific. They created an unbreakable code based on their language during and helped the U.S. retake the eastern Pacific. The Japanese had successfully cracked earlier codes, but never managed to conquer Navajo thanks to the cleverness of the code talkers. Some examples: The Navajo word for buzzard, jeeshóóʼ, was used for bomber, while the code word used for submarine, béésh łóóʼ, meant iron fish and Hitler was the “crazy white man.”

The code talkers joined the Marines for many reasons: patriotism, money, false promises: Samuel Holiday joined because, he said he believed the recruiters when they said they were going to take care of his mother: “They told me they’d pay to buy me a house like the white man’s, with running water – which I never got,” Holiday, like all the others was sworn to secrecy until 1968 when the government declassified the code.

President Reagan declared August 19th National Code Talker Day in 1982 and in 2001 George Bush presented four of the five living code talkers with the Congressional Gold Medal for their service to the country. The Navajo nation still honors them annually. Last year a Navajo elder said, “It’s important that the accomplishments of this group of men are recognized because our language was used to change the tide of the war. In Navajo society, we hold our warriors in high esteem and with this group, this is their day.” Only one original code talker, Chester Nez, remains. He lives in Albuquerque with his son. There are 40-70 other code talkers estimated still living.

I have watched with dismay recently as Twitter and other social media sites have grown increasingly negative. The word “hero” has even drawn heavy digital fire: A man purporting to be an Iraqi Freedom Vet declared that heroes didn’t work for money. And another pundit declared that Representative Joe Walsh had been right to assail Tammy Duckworth his opponent in the upcoming election. Walsh had called on listeners to believe that Duckworth couldn’t be a real hero because he believes that “real heroes” don’t talk about their accomplishments. Duckworth was a helicopter pilot who lost both legs and partial use of one arm in a war time crash. Duckworth endured grueling rehabilitation and went on to become the director of veterans affairs for Illinois. Recently, a Walsh supporter tweeted that Duckworth could never be called a hero, at least not as long as she belonged to the wrong political party. Anyone, it seems, can be muster boldness on TV, Twitter or Facebook. Drunk on attention, large or small, they attack without regard for the consequences. Boldness is not bravery.

A hero is not created on the battlefield or in the midst of crisis. A hero receives recognition for public courage, but their a selfless character and inherent nobility preceded their actions. A person who accepts a daunting assignment and does it well in spite of fear or adversity is a hero.20120820-003448.jpg And that definition fits those who will never have an audience to applaud their bravery.

I view teachers, healers, volunteers, warriors, community activists, poets, parents, supportive spouses. journalists, aid workers, caregivers and human rights activists as heroes. Few celebrities or sports figures are heroes for me save those that used their immense power to make a difference. As Brooke Foss Wescott said, “Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to the eyes of men. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak; and at last some crisis shows what we have become. ”

My role model heroes are: The woman down the street who spent her life raising a disabled child with love and grace; the women in my OCS class who endured harassment and abuse to be the first to pin on bars; the draftee medics and social workers I met at Brooke Army Hospital who cared for burn victims evacuated there from Vietnam who were not going to survive their injuries; the dozens of addicts, alcoholics and convicts I have known who have restarted their lives while making amends to those around them in the process; the boyfriends who shielded their lovers from the Aurora gunman; and men, like my former father-in-law, who gave up his artistic pursuits after WWII to ensure that his children would go to college in hopes it would prevent them from ever going to war.

The Tuskegee Airman, Japanese-American Soldiers, and the Navajo Code Breakers were paid for their service, but they were hardly compensated for their sacrifices. Very few of us could have performed as well in the face of brutal racism and lack of materiel and command support for missions.

Tammy Duckworth is twice a hero for her immense losses and for being a role model for anyone hoping to overcome terrible challenges. I hope she talks often and with great pride about her journey. I am hoping November brings to an end these politically motivated assaults that put to question a person’s patriotism or character of service.

We owe it to our brothers and sisters in arms, combatants and service support personnel alike, to honor their extraordinary work by welcoming them back to civilian life by finding them jobs and caring for them on their return. And by defending them, heroes all, against the bold and unappreciative among us for whatever reason. The Navajos left their reservations headed for the pacific on behalf of a country that held them in low regard. Some of them fought side by side with white marines, the first non-indians they had ever known. And they joined knowing that a third of the soldiers that would fight at places like Iwo Jima would not survive. They should have been celebrated long ago. And we should applaud all those who leave their homes and we should do it now–before they are no longer here to honor.

Today’s call to action:

Drop by the Navajo Code Talkers Museum site and give of your time, talent or a few dollars to preserve and important history.


It is about the journey…

I was watching Discovery Channel this week. They were re-running a special on situational blindness. They taped experiments that proved we humans really can’t see the proverbial forest for the trees, even when we choose to, because we are hardwired to blur out certain distractions: Our brains have minds of their own.

One of the tests employed a circus clown on a unicycle riding circles around students walking to class while engrossed in conversations on their cell phones. When questioned later, asked if they had noticed anything unusual, they said “no”. The most startling clip  involved a fake customer wearing an eye patch, a neck brace and a hat. During several planned distractions for a real sales clerk the customer removed his hat, shifted his eye patch, took off the neck brace and even changed the color of his shirt. The salesman, though  he knew “something happened” could not say what exactly had changed.

This blog will strive to make visible people and events to which we have become blind: I will be visiting with and interviewing some of your friends and neighbors and hope to share wonderful stories about them and their lives, that for whatever reason we lost sight of as we moved, head down, toward work, class or home.

I was a devoted fan of the nostalgic heartsongs of On the Road and have always felt a kinship with journalist and historian Charles Kurault. And like Kurault I was first drawn to the stories of the road by Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley where he journeyed in his camper Rocinante, shed his Nobel garb and listened with deep respect and love to the authentic voices of America.My most profound lessons in life have been learned with cabbies as teacher or convicts and recovering alcoholics as mentors. If there is no room in your life for wonder, mystery, or lessons learned from ordinary people, common soldiers or those often counted as unforgiven then this is not a blog you should waste your time reading. And if compassion and reconciliation are not part of your ethos I think you will be disappointed here. This is a hate free zone: My only agenda is to promote America and the Americans, natives and newcomers, who made it, make it what it is. There are plenty of forums for political debate. This is not one of them.

I  just returned from seven years in China. There, I battled illness, betrayal, and government interference while all the while falling in love with a culture that below the surface of an oppressive, totalitarian government is incredible because of the people that still practice and live the best of its traditions. I have a home there and live as Chinese a life as any expat can hope to experience. When there, I reside in an area rich in history, religion and folklore. Along the Silk Road in Gansu Province I have many dear friends and have collected a host of cherished memories. The region is the only one with all fifty-six recognized ethnic groups. The kindness extended to me by everyday Chinese people in Gansu informs everything I know about the Middle Kingdom. There is good to be found everywhere. And I make it my business to find it. I don’t wear rose colored glasses, but I don’t discount the good someone has done or can do based on rumor, digital innuendo, ethnicity, country of origin, political views, religious practice or economic status

I returned to America in November to care for long neglected medical needs. I have spoiled myself into 20 extra pounds and continue to bathe myself in all that is different about this country. I love America and say without hesitation or reservation, after years of travel, that this is the greatest country on earth. There is as much diversity here as in China and unlike Gansu, the law protects differences. I have seen centuries old relics in Inner Mongolia, listened to the singing sands of the Gobi and argued with Tibetan and Muslim merchants all along the Silk Road. But, I now feel a need to explore the depth and breadth of my own beautiful nation. There is more than enough history and majesty here to keep a returning expat busy for a lifetime. I have taken America for granted and I intend to make up for that…

Like Steinbeck, and the comparison will stop here, I long to be a magician of a story teller: Now you see them, and me you don’t. The archetypal magician manifests the mysterious and the unknown and his illusions turn into allegory.  I love to be mystified and I write because I long to share that experience–nothing more, and hopefully nothing less.

I am a capital E Expat:  Over thirty years of my life have been spent abroad wandering through languages, cultures, sins and salvation. Half of that time was foisted on me by the military as a dependent, and later as a soldier and a government contracted professor.  I don’t regret anything that has happened to me. No, not anything. And though I’ve often longed for the connections and normalcy of friends and family that have stayed in one place over the years (except for maybe a brief foray off to war, volunteer service, or some spiritual quest), I have never felt regret.

That said, Veteran Traveler will attend most to those who have seen military service. That is because I know that culture better than any other. I am fluent in the dialects spoken by conscripts, volunteers, wounded healers and warriors. I will do my best to teach them to you. And my stories will not be limited to American veterans. We did not win WWII alone, nor have we been a solitary force in any conflict since then. I feel the same admiration and respect for anyone who has donned a uniform in service to their country.

Thoreau posited that we should come home from adventures, perils, and discoveries with new experience and character. Memories are assured when we move out of our comfort zones, but a change of character is dependent on the force of our encounters, our willingness to change and our capacity to translate dramatic events into life lessons that will shape our futures. I will do my best to share those happenings that alter my life in ways I hope might have similar impact on you.

Lastly, the tag line for this blog, “It’s about the journey”,  may seem a bit prosaic or cheesy, but I mean it. I will tend toward the corny from time to time. Just know that I gave up my need for destinations long ago and relax into this trip with me. And please! lead me to anyone or anything you think I should experience or write about. Those of you who are my friends on Twitter, Instagr.am or Facebook know my internal compass point me toward interesting people and places. With your help, may it always be so….

Welcome. Please take a moment to read a bit more about me and this upcoming journey on the About Me and PTSD pages in the navigation bar. And do peek at the travel store from time to time as my meager pension cannot possibly finance this trip by itself. If you find something there you like it might well be what is needed to sponsor the next blog post.

And I rarely spell check and I often screw up grammatically because I write posts in my head and then download them via phone or laptop (as I did with Onemanbandwidth) to the blog. So, I welcome corrections and I value you and your feedback, so please comment from time to time and speak your mind and most importantly, your heart….