Agway

Craig Hodgkins, with Foxy, is welcomed by the folks at Eighty Four Agway in North Strabane Township.

As is the case no matter what the circumstance, Craig Hodgkins’ medical service dog, Foxy, accompanied him during a recent hospital stay.

So the dog was present when he received a visit from his neurosurgeon.

“All of a sudden, she sits up,” Hodgkins said of Foxy. “She looks at him, and she starts crying.”

The doctor took a look at his smartwatch, which revealed his pulse to be 147 beats per minute.

War lore: Peters Township resident discusses animals turned heroes

“He said, ‘But I did just ran up six floors to get to you,’” Hodgkins recalled. “He was a younger surgeon, and that’s what he did for exercise while he was in the building.”

Whatever the case, Foxy had detected the abnormally high rate.

“He was amazed,” Hodgkins said. “He brought in the nurses. When the next group of doctors came in, he talked about her and that she recognized he was having an issue.”

For Hodgkins, the experience was nothing new. In his year and a half of constant companionship with Foxy, her alerts have saved him from at least two potentially life-threatening situations.

She also has boosted his self-assurance, from a point where he basically was a recluse to his gaining the ability to speak confidently in front of groups of people.

A Mt. Lebanon resident who saw combat during his 21 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, Hodgkins is happy to spread the word about Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans, the regional nonprofit that connected him with Foxy.

He spoke during a recent fundraiser for the organization, organized by Peters Township resident Faith Bjalobok and hosted by Eighty Four Agway in North Strabane. Hodgkins described what his service dog has done for him.

“I was in a bad place,” he said. “I felt like I couldn’t take care of my family. I couldn’t relate to people anymore. I got to the point where I was living in my basement. I never went anywhere.”

And Hodgkins said before meeting his canine friend, he had planned to take his own life. Today, he has no such notions.

“I see my grandchildren, easily, twice or three times a month now,” he said. “I’m spending time with my daughters, with family.”

Foxy is among the graduates, so to speak, of a two-year, 1,500-hour training program by Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs of Williston, Fla. The cost is about $25,000 per dog, and Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans was founded in 2015 to raise money toward preparing more canines.

“We made a commitment to raise enough money for 22 dogs over 22 months, at $22,000 apiece,” said co-founder Tony Accamando Jr., an Army veteran who lives in Somerset Township.

He explained the significance of 22 as the number of former members of the military who commit suicide daily, as reported in a 2012 analysis by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Marine Corps veteran Bill Jeffcoat, who succeeded Accamando as the organization’s president, said $1.5 million has been raised to date.

“We’ve paired 30 veterans with 30 dogs and have enough for 30 more,” he said. “They’re trained to mitigate the visible and invisible disabilities of our veterans.”

Further funding is being pursued toward construction of a second Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs campus, in Robinson Township, Washington County. For more information, visit www.medicalservicedogs.org/donations/pittsburgh-campus-campaign.

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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