Gunner is a good dog.
In December, he’ll be getting a pretty distinguished treat to prove it. The 3-year-old Great Pyrenees from Richmond Hill is being honored by the American Kennel Club with a Canine Excellence Award.
Gunner is a familiar sight in Bryan County, where the service dog can be seen out and about with his human, Hamilton Kinard. In fact, the two are never far apart.
“I don’t like being without him,” Hamilton said this month during an interview along with his wife, Britnee Kinard, the president and founder of the nonprofit named after Gunner. Their organization, the SD Gunner Fund, has been turning heads lately by training service dogs for military veterans and children.
“We provide service animals to disabled vets and disabled children or special needs children completely free of charge, and we also handle all their veterinary care and anything that the animal may need that the family at any point in time cannot afford or cannot do,” Brittnee said.
The Kinards have been honored for their work with the fund before, including being recipients of the Lincoln Award in Washington. Locally, Brittnee has been named a Generation NEXT star by Business in Savannah and Savannah Magazine, and she has been named a distinguished alumna by Middle Tennessee State University.
This time, it’s a bit more dog-oriented. The five winners of the Canine Excellence awards (in addition to Gunner, there are winners in the K-9, therapy dog, search and rescue dog and companion dog categories) receive $1,000 to donate to a pet-related charity of their choice, a one-year pet insurance policy and a silver medallion.
Gina DiNardo, a spokesperson for the American Kennel Club, said in a news release that Gunner and the other winners “illustrate the devotion, loyalty and unconditional love that dogs give us.”
“Each of these dogs has changed the life of a person or a whole community, and they all deserve to be celebrated,” DiNardo said.
Gunner has a direct impact on the Kinard family, and that impact in turn inspired Britnee to start the nonprofit.
As she tells it, Hamilton “was in a dark place” before Gunner. Hamilton, a U.S. Army combat veteran, was injured in Iraq. He came home with nerve damage, a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Department of Veterans Affairs considers him 100 percent disabled and, in 2013, recommended he get a service dog.
At first, Hamilton said, he wasn’t completely sold on the idea. He had never really been a dog person, and puppy Gunner was a handful.
“It’s day and night,” Hamilton said. “He goes with me to the bathroom. He’s beside the bed. He’s in the car. He’s in the store. He’s at the barber shop. I was getting a bit overwhelmed. It was almost like my freedom was getting tamped out.”
But that changed. Gunner is trained as a mobility service dog, and he can help pull Hamilton if need be. If Hamilton falls, Gunner will even brace himself like a table so Hamilton can get up. He also just provides unconditional friendship and can act as a barrier if Hamilton needs a bit of space.
“It was just the bonding,” Hamilton said. “It was being around each other and seeing what he does, knowing that I don’t have to worry about if my left leg doesn’t want to take that next step.”
The transformation inspired Britnee to help others achieve the same thing.
“If you can take a dog like Gunner, and Gunner saved my marriage, that’s one more family we’ve kept together,” Brittnee said. “That’s one more child we’ve helped connect back with their father or mother, whoever served — that’s one less divorce statistic in the military. That’s one less issue, and it doesn’t require prescription medicines that cause addiction or cause kidney failure or anything else — it’s a dog.”
Now the SD Gunner Fund is going strong. The Kinards and a trainer they work with can provide service dogs to areas within about a three-hour radius of Savannah. In addition to military veterans, the dogs they train can also be used to help children with social issues, trauma and autism, Brittnee said.
“We’re learning, but everything seems to be pretty good so far,” Brittnee said. “At the end of the year, we will have done 14 dogs this year.”