Guide dog ‘Pastor Jessie’ up for Hero Dog Award

Audrey Gunter’s guide dog Jessie often helps ease the tensions when Gunter serves on jury duty and will even let out a vocal yawn when someone gets too long-winded.

Audrey Gunter not only credits her guide dogs to providing her with independence and safety as a legally blind person, but to leading her to her religious faith.

And she is vying to share that testimony by having her current dog, a yellow Lab named Jessie, win the 2015 American Humane Society Hero Dog Award.

The winner is being determined by an online voting campaign through May 15 (see accompanying voting details) and will appear in a show broadcast on the Hallmark Channel later this year.

Struggling with poor eyesight throughout her childhood, Gunter, now 67, is completely blind in her left eye and only has 1 percent vision in her right eye. She recalls having many reasons to think that God didn’t care about her.

When she was 13, doctors told her family that her father had cancer and it was among the worst they had seen.

Six months later, her mother got a call to rush to the hospital if she wanted to see him alive for one last time.

“She stood up and fell backwards,” she recalls of her mother, who had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.

The next day, her mother, who was in a hospital room one floor below her father’s, died. Her father ended up living another 16 years.

Then when Audrey was 19, she went to see an ophthalmologist about her ever-declining vision. He advised her to get a cup and some pencils to sell “because that was the only thing she was going to be able to do.” She had retinitis pigmentosa and would eventually be legally blind.

Through all of these crisises, Audrey was told to pray.

She soldiered on, defying that dreadful conventional thought about her future, got an associate’s degree and worked at the Medical University of South Carolina for nearly 20 years, retiring in 2001 as the general manager of transportation services. She was in charge of 35 people.

She soon realized staying at home with nothing to do was boring. A friend told Gunter, a lifelong cat person, that she needed a guide dog. In January 2002, she went to Florida for guide dog training and got her first dog, Zach.

“When I got Zach, I was angry with God. I believed in God. I knew there was a God. But I thought he had ignored me. If he wasn’t going to pay any attention to me, I wasn’t going to pay any attention to him,” recalls Gunter.

At guide dog school, Gunter met a woman who was totally blind, had poor hearing and a speech impediment and she told Gunter that she was going to pray for her.

“I wondered how could you (the woman) love a God that made you like you are,” recalls Gunter, who started praying with her.

“At the end of the 26 days (at guide dog school), I realized that God had not ignored me. He had answered my prayers.”

When Gunter came back to Charleston, she found a church that would accept her and Zach without making a fuss.

On Palm Sunday in 2003, the pastor asked if anyone wanted to come to the altar to accept Christ. At the same time Gunter felt the spirit move her, Zach stood and led her down the aisle to the altar.

Gunter and Zach were a team until 2010 when, for health reasons, she retired Zach as a guide dog and put him in charge of “homeland security.”

Little did Gunter know, however, that Zach would lead her indirectly to her new guide dog when the two returned to the Southeastern Guide Dog School in Florida for a fundraiser.

They were in a restaurant when the waitress told Gunter of a couple from Texas who had just trained their first guide dog but were grieving because they had to give the trained dog back. Gunter wanted to thank them for their sacrifices and selflessness.

“Zach and I stood up at the same time and, without commands, he led me through that restaurant, which was darker than a kangaroo’s pouch, to (the couple),” recalls Gunter.

The couple, who had determined they weren’t suited for training another dog, saw Gunter and Zach navigating their way toward them and realized they had to change their minds and keep training dogs.

When she went back to the guide dog school to get her second dog, the staff notified that her new dog, Jessie, was raised by a couple, the same couple that had been grieving about giving up their first dog in 2002.

“Zach not only led me to God but indirectly to Jessie, too.”

Gunter counts her blessings that she could afford to keep Zach, who had developed congestive heart failure, because most blind people live on limited incomes.

A year ago today (April 11), Gunter says “Zach left my arms and went right into the arms of God.” The dog that had made such an impact on her life was 13½ years old.

Gunter, who is now active in Grace United Methodist Church in West Ashley, carries on with “Pastor Jessie,” who she says has an uncanny ability to connect with people. That connection is demonstrated when Gunter takes him with her when she serves on the Charleston County grand jury.

As a guide dog owner, Gunter has to be strict about not letting people interact with Jessie when he has his harness on and is working. But when Jessie’s not guiding her, Gunter is more flexible with letting people interact with him, largely because Jessie seems to know when people are suffering and how to comfort them.

“At grand jury, we hear some bad stuff. At jury duty, I take his harness off until we’re ready to go somewhere ... If someone gets upset or emotional, he’ll get up and walk over and put his head in his or her lap. Or if a police officer gets too long-winded, Jessie will lets out a loud yawn and makes everyone laugh.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.