A New Leash on Life

By:   Angie Carducci for PNC Bank

How one veteran’s new service dog brought him out of the basement and back into society, and how you can help others like him with this year’s Virtual Mutt Strut.

Earlier this year, just before The Tower at PNC Plaza largely emptied as Pittsburgh, like so many other places, tried to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, it served as a meeting point for U.S. Marine veteran Craig Hodgkins and Army veteran John Kelly with his service dog, Ranger.

Craig served in the Marines from 1976 to 1997. Instead of peacefully retiring after his 21 years of service, though, Craig brought home memories of the missions he was involved in that caused him to gradually retreat from family, friends and society as a whole.

“I’ve slowly become more of a shell, going inside myself, because I can’t talk about a lot of the things that are going on with me,” Craig said in early March. “I pretty much live out of my basement now. I don’t spend the time I need to with my children, with mygrandchildren. If I have to go to the grocery store, I go at 2 a.m.

“Through counseling and getting to meet people, I realized a service dog might be the perfect thing for me.”

After tackling some self-doubts – “I kept saying there’s others who deserve it more” – Craig applied and was approved for a Guardian Angels Medical Service Dog. PNC arranged for Craig to meet with John Kelly to talk about what to expect when he visited Guardian Angels in Williston, Florida – a trip John, a 10-year U.S. Army veteran who lives with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, had made in 2016.

You will find a connection with these animals unlike anything you’ve ever experienced,” John said, with Ranger at his side.

“Twenty to 22 [veterans] a day are committing suicide because we don’t have a good handle on the PTSD problem, and here we have companies like PNC and others helping to fund the $25,000 for a service dog, saying, ‘If this is something that’s going to help you have a better life after you’ve given so much for this country, this is the least we can do.'”

Craig was so excited that he had a digital clock in his basement counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to his Florida trip.Then came the crushing news that, due to the pandemic, the trip had to be postponed.

Finding a way

PNC and Carol Borden, founder and CEO of Guardian Angels, came up with a plan. As soon as travel restrictions allowed, two Guardian Angels trainers drove 17 hours in a rented 15-foot cargo van to Grove City, about an hour outside of Pittsburgh, with six service dogs in tow – all being delivered to recipients in the region.

The trainers, along with a couple of prior recipients who came with their dogs to help out, spent five days at a hotel working to acquaint the veterans with their new service dogs. Service dog recipients usually spend 10 days in Florida, so these teams had a lot of work to do in a compressed timeframe. The dogs have already been trained for 18 to 24 months to help recipients deal with everything from mobility issues to traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and other combat- related injuries. But the veterans need to learn how to work with their new canine partners, too.

Craig was paired with Foxy, a black German Shepherd sponsored by the Colcom Foundation. “I’ve smiled more in the last five days than I have in the last five years,” he said on the last day in Grove City. He also got an early glimpse into how the new relationship would unfold when, twice in those five days, Foxy jumped up on the bed to wake him from night terrors.

How PNC is helping

In 10 years, Guardian Angels has trained and placed more than 340 service dogs at no cost to the veteran, but the waiting list for a dog is long.

The cost to breed, raise and train a service dog is $25,000.

PNC and its corporate partners have sponsored 53 dogs over the past four years, primarily through PNC Community Mutt Struts in Pittsburgh, Erie and Dayton. These family- friendly events feature dog parades with categories and prizes, food, music, pet- and veteran-related vendors, auctions and more.

Like many events, Mutt Strut is going virtual this year, and we can’t wait to share how many of those in-person activities are going to translate to the online event. It takes place from Tuesday, Sept. 8, though Saturday, Sept. 12, which also happens to be National Suicide Prevention Week. Stay tuned to learn more on how we hope to help Guardian Angels save more lives, like Craig’s.

A changed life

“Foxy and I are doing so well,” he told us, five weeks after the pairing. “I’ve been able to go to the grocery store, the hardware store, anywhere I want to, more times since we have been paired than I have in the past five years.

“She’s already stopped me from getting hurt. We just moved into a new apartment that’s perfect for us, and I have been slowly decorating the walls. This past weekend, I started to climb the ladder, and Foxy got up and started whining. Respecting what I’ve been told about listening to her, I stopped what I was doing, and then it hit me. My vertigo went into overdrive, and I had to immediately sit down. I never expected she would be able to clue in on vertigo, but she did, and I believe I would have fallen off the ladder had she not warned me.

“I have not been this happy in years. This is so important, and I am so appreciative for what I have received. Last night, the words started flowing on a song I’m writing about Foxy and how this has changed my life. All I can say is the title of the song – that I have ‘A New Leash on Life.'”

PNC’s Mutt Strut is now accepting registrations, photo contest entries and previewing auction items! Registration is FREE. Simply text “MuttStrut” to 76278, or click the button to join in the fun.

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