As a volunteer firefighter, Jason Parker deals with a lot of stress. As part of the jaws team, Jason helps free people from their vehicles after highway collisions. There were days he couldn’t talk to any person about the things he’d seen — but he could always talk to his black Lab, Gunnar.
“He was almost my therapy dog after difficult calls,” Jason tells Dogster.
Gunnar was always there for Jason, but on February 16, 2014, their roles reversed when Gunnar was hit by a car after trotting too far down the driveway. Now, it was Jason’s turn to be the support system.
“I was working that evening, and my wife called me and told me he had gotten hit — I was just in shock — and that he couldn’t get up, couldn’t move.”
Jason told his supervisor and left work, and then raced to the after-hours veterinary clinic to meet his wife, Stephanie. When Jason looked in the back of Stephanie’s car he saw his best friend was in bad shape.
“He’s a 110-pound Lab, and he’s never ever shown pain before. His nose was split open, he was missing teeth, he was crying — and I’d never heard this dog so much as whimper.”
X-rays didn’t reveal Gunnar’s spinal injuries, so the vet sent him home with stitches in his nose and told Jason to monitor his condition. The duo slept on the floor together, and in the morning, Gunnar still couldn’t stand.
Jason reached out to a childhood friend — now a veterinarian — who lives in another state.
“I texted her pictures, and she instructed me to immediately take him to a university vet hospital.”
The closest one, the University of Minnesota, was two and half hours from Jason’s house. He fashioned a makeshift gurney from a piece of plywood and got Gunnar into the car. This was the beginning of an expensive medical journey.
“Right up front they wanted about $6,000 for an MRI, and they wanted about $2,000 for the surgery,” says Jason. “We maxed out our credit cards right there at the University of Minnesota.”
Of course, the expense was worth it to Jason. He was willing to do whatever it took to get Gunnar better. A week later, with a stretcher borrowed from his local vet clinic, Jason brought Gunnar home. Gunnar had the love of his people, but he needed one more thing: a $600 Walkin’ Wheels cart.
The Parkers were on a pretty tight budget after spending thousands of dollars on Gunnar’s surgery and ongoing vet care.
“My friends stepped up and donated the money for his cart,” Jason explains. “I knew we would pay it forward someday.”
With the cart and a special sling, Gunnar was able to stay active despite the paralysis in his back end. His family helped him with physical therapy, even taking him down to his favorite pond for water therapy. Every day, Gunnar got stronger.
Meanwhile, Jason got busy online, connecting with others with paralyzed pets. Eventually, a Facebook friend asked him if he could help Hope, a Pit Bull mix in Houston, get a cart like Gunnar’s.
“She was picked up by BARC in Houston. She’s been hit by a car and crawled under a house to die.”
Jason found a secondhand Walk n’ Wheels cart — the same kind Gunnar uses — on Craigslist. He cleaned it up and sent it down to Houston for Hope. That’s how the non-profit Gunner’s Wheels was born.
“When I saw the video of Hope, I turned to my wife and said ‘this is how we’re gonna start giving back.’”
Gunnar’s Wheels has provided 130 wheelchairs to 152 animals. When an animal passes away or recovers, the cart comes back to Jason to be refurbished and sent to another paralyzed pet.
A crowdfunding campaign has raised more than $80,000 for the cause, and Gunnar’s Wheels was recently dubbed GoFundMe’s April hero.
As for Gunnar, he is now 10 years old and still loving life on wheels. Jason says their relationship got even stronger after the accident. Before Gunnar was paralyzed, Jason used to talk to Gunnar about his day — now, Gunnar talks back, using a series of soft barks, grunts and meaningful looks to communicate his needs.
“I don’t know if he knows it, but he’s helped a lot of dogs,” Jason says.