How Rescue Dog Spanky Saved His Hero Human

Spanky helps ease veteran Dan Spangler’s chronic pain and also acts as his partner in rescue.

In 2003, Dan Spangler didn’t know where he was going, but he knew he wanted a dog. Facing medical retirement after injuring his hip as a U.S. Marine during the Iraq war, Spangler was having a hard time adjusting to losing the career he’d jumped into right after high school. It was a difficult time, and he found himself in an animal shelter looking for a distraction. It was the second time he’d walked along the kennels — he’d been in before and tentatively picked a pup, but someone else had been quicker, adopting the dog he’d had his eye on. Undeterred, Spangler turned his attention to another puppy in the shelter — a floppy-eared Norwegian Ducktoller mix he named Spanky.

“At the time I didn’t realize it, but Spanky is the reason I am alive today,” Dan explains.

The young Marine had never intended for his military career to conclude so quickly. He remembers the beginning of the end, how he felt a popping sensation and and a great deal of pain while jumping off a massive truck during a firefight. Initially, a doctor in the field assured him he’d just strained a muscle. When Dan rotated back to American soil another doctor concurred with the first, but the pain just wouldn’t go away.

“Six months later, I found out I had a hole in my hip,” Dan says. “What happened is my femur had crushed through my pelvic bone and pretty much made a hole where the bone had pushed through the cartilage.”

Dan says the Marine Corp didn’t have a place for him after his injury, and he didn’t yet know where he would make a place for himself. Facing unemployment, Dan threw himself into training little Spanky.

“I spent so much time at PetSmart training him that the store manager offered me a job as a dog trainer, so I sort of walked right into a job. It was perfect.”

For the next few years Dan continued to work as a dog trainer and later as a government contractor, but his life was far from easy.

“During that time I was dealing with pain, and issues from having come back from a war zone,” he explains, adding that Spanky was what got him through it. “He was by my side for everything. He was there licking my face when I would wake up at night.”

Inspired by Spanky, Dan decided to open his own dog business — A Dog’s Dream — in 2010.

“It’s a full-service facility. We do boarding, daycare, grooming, training — I have an indoor heated pool, a retail section, the whole gamut.”

One year after starting his business, Dan also started up a non-profit, A Dog’s Dream Dreamer’s Foundation. According to Dan, the 501 certified non-profit works with other rescue groups in eastern North Carolina to educate the public about dog welfare and to help market adoptable dogs.

“Spanky is the reason I’m alive, so I wanted to make sure other rescue dogs had the opportunity to get out and find their forever home,” he says.

Dan and Spanky raised tens of thousands of dollars to keep vets and pets together. (All photos courtesy Dan Spangler)
Dan and Spanky raised tens of thousands of dollars to keep vets and pets together. (Photos courtesy Dan Spangler)

While Dan was busy building a business and a non-profit, Spanky was busy building up his resume. He’s been a therapy dog for years, visiting hospitals and nursing homes, but in 2015 Spanky got another important certification, becoming Dan’s official service dog. By making things official, Dan is able to use the power of Spanky to reduce his pain management everywhere he goes. He’s had four hip surgeries now and finds that the love of his dog is a great medicine.

“As long as I have him by my side, I forget about the pain, I forget about me because I’m taking care of him. The pain doesn’t go away, but it’s more manageable because I’m not paying attention to it.”

Dan doesn’t know how long his hip is going to last. The next step is full hip replacement surgery, something he wishes he didn’t have to consider for several more decades. His bad hip could go at any time, but Dan’s not letting that stop him from doing anything. In 2015, he and Spanky joined forces with another veteran and his service dog to travel across the country raising money for a mission Dan calls Operation Keep Your Spanky.

“That program is designed to provide food and low-cost veterinary care to veterans and families who struggle financially,” he explains, adding that the foursome set out on their trip with just a couple of backpacks and $50 in cash. “We raised almost $30,000 in 30 days and travelled over 7,000 miles, and it was an amazing adventure.”

During their trip Dan and Spanky kept hearing the same story from veterans — over and over vets commended Dan for his efforts to help former soldiers keep their dogs, telling him didn’t know where they would be without their own canine companion. Those comments take Dan back to where he was 13 years ago, when his career was replaced by chronic pain.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen for me if it wasn’t for my dog. If I hadn’t had Spanky, I don’t know if I would be here today,” he explains.

Through charitable efforts like Operation Keep Your Spanky, Dan is trying to make sure financially troubled veterans don’t have to give up their dogs to pay the bills. He’s dedicated to keeping those dogs out of the shelter system, and educating people about the adoptability of shelter pets like Spanky. He may not have been the dog Dan went to the shelter for, but he was definitely the dog Dan needed.

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Heather Marcoux

Heather is a wife, new mom, and former TV journalist in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. You can follow Heather on Twitter and Google+.

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