Gunnar, Jason Parker’s best friend, faithful companion and hunting buddy, is gone; he died unexpectedly on Oct. 6 at home.
But the 10-year-old black Lab, partially paralyzed in 2014, will never be forgotten by the thousands of people he touched as Parker shared his story in a variety of ways, determined to show pet owners that handicapped pets can still lead happy, healthy lives, and then started a nonprofit in the dog’s honor – Gunnar’s Wheels – to help other injured animals gain mobility and live their lives to the fullest.
“I am not surprised, but am surprised just how many people cared for a dog that they had never met,” Parker said.
Close to 800 people, me included, reacted to Parker’s Facebook post at 2:19 p.m. Oct. 6, announcing Gunnar’s passing, and 728 people, including me, left comments.
“Once in your life, an animal comes along and changes everything,” Parker wrote. “They change who you are. They change who you will become. But, most of all, they change your heart.”
Parker and Gunnar had been together since the Lab was 8 weeks old. But, their life together almost ended on Feb. 16, 2014, the day before the dog’s seventh birthday. Gunnar was hit by a passing pickup truck, breaking the dog’s upper palate and some teeth, knocking him out and paralyzing him.
The day after the injury, Parker and Gunnar headed to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center in St. Paul, where a surgeon gave Parker four options, including euthanasia.
“I decided to roll the dice knowing how strong (Gunnar) is and give him the best chance” of walking again — surgery, Parker told me in March 2014.
In time, Gunnar was able to walk on a limited basis, but the Lab required more care than ever before. Parker had to express the dog’s bladder, had to wrap his rear paws at times and had to learn how to communicate differently with him, but the efforts were worth having his best friend beside him.
“Before he got injured, he always tucked me into bed at night, putting his front paws on the bed and gently licking my cheek,” Parker recalled. “Afterward, he would lie down next to the bed to sleep. After his injury, our roles were reversed, and I always tucked him into bed and kissed him and told him how good he was.”
Following Gunnar’s injury, Parker got him a cart, which supported the Lab’s back legs and allowed him to regain his mobility. Parker also got Gunnar a life jacket, so he could strengthen his rear legs by swimming, and the pair eventually were able to return to one of their favorite pastimes, something Parker was told his dog would never be able to do — duck hunting.
Along the way, Parker learned a thing or two. “I learned that handicapped is just a word,” he said. “I learned that together, Gunnar and I, could do anything.”
Knowing what a difference Gunnar’s cart made for him, Parker and his wife, Stephanie, launched an effort — Gunnar’s Wheels — in August 2016 to help other disabled animals by providing free loner carts to shelter dogs or pets whose owners couldn’t afford them. The only thing the Parkers ask is that a cart be returned to them after an animal no longer needs it, so it can be loaned out again to help another.
Initially, Parker was hoping to have at least 50 carts available, but almost 14 months later, Gunnar’s Wheels has more than 480 carts out and has helped more than 500 animals, mostly dogs, regain their mobility across the United States and the globe, and endeared Gunnar and Parker to thousands — staff at shelters, pet owners and animal lovers.
(This year, Gunnar and Parker were named GoFundMe Heroes, Gunnar’s Wheels was featured on the Today Show, and Gunnar’s story was included in Able Outdoors magazine.)
In his 10½ years, “Gunnar made people realize that a disability, a deformity or a disease was not a death sentence for animals and that there were options out there for them,” said Parker, adding Gunnar’s cart, now that he no longer needs it, is going to help another Lab, Bentley. And, “he also gave hope to many people facing trials of their own.”
While losing Gunnar has left a hole in Parker’s heart that will never heal, the man is proud that his beloved dog’s name is known around the globe.
“He wasn’t just my dog,” Parker told me. “He really was loved by all; he was everyone’s dog.”
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