Americans love their underdogs.
The comeback story is an age-old reminder that you can’t count someone out till the final whistle, bell, buzzer, or fat lady dropping the mic. Of course, some of the best comeback stories aren’t about people.
In this case, they’re about literal underdogs — hunting dogs, specifically. What follows are four legendary stories about the canines we love and the fact that they’re steadfast at our sides doing what they were born to do, despite being shot in the head, frozen, stabbed in the neck, and written off for dead — twice.
Dogs, especially good hunting dogs, are family. The bond forged between hunter and dog is something more akin to a blood relation than a mere pet-and-owner relationship. The unconditional love and loyalty of a good dog remind us that we, too, have enough grit to outlast and overcome even the most dire circumstances. Good dogs embody the most admirable qualities that we aspire to ourselves — and these four dogs have them in spades.
Long live the underdog.
How Talon the Lab Froze to Death
Talon was the last puppy of Sackett, a yellow Lab and lights-out waterfowl dog that belonged to Lee Kjos. After Sackett passed, Kjos hoped like hell that Talon would become a dog like his dad was.
“I wanted another Sackett badly,” said Kjos. “You have no idea how much I missed that damn dog. Tal never was much to look at — slow to mature, never seemed serious about anything. I nearly gave up on him a number of times.
“When Tal hit 3, we were on a miserably tough snow goose hunt on the west coast of Hudson Bay. A switch flipped, and Tal grew up out there. He was relentless in deep snow and ice water, retrieve after retrieve. His ‘go’ came outta nowhere, and that day, I saw Tal’s old man in him. Felt like I was watching a ghost. Choked me up some.”
“Years later, I was on a mess of ice-mallards in North Dakota with my nephew Troy,” Kjos said. “The slough was shoulder to shoulder, and our plan was to wait the birds out. They’d soon leave to feed, and then we’d slide in to back shoot ’em on their return to water. I knew two limits wouldn’t take long. Problem was, once we broke ice to the middle of the slough, there wasn’t anywhere to get Tal out of the water. Tough hunt, but Tal seemed up for it.”
When the mallards came back, Kjos and his nephew smashed them, and Talon went to work.
“Talon marked every one, breaking ice and fighting through thick cattails — and then, just like that, Tal was gone. I heard him let out a long moan and knew I lost him. I followed his broken path through the ice and found him floating upside down, completely hypothermic. I picked up his lifeless body and trudged to shore, knowing I’d killed him.”
The nearest vet was 17 miles away. So, Kjos called ahead to make sure he knew they were coming.
“The doc was ready when I jammed on the brakes. He gave Talon a warm enema, and I hosed him gently with warm water. Thirty minutes of eternity later, his tail thumped. Then it thumped again. Tal’s eyes opened. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He was alive, and I completely lost my shit.
“Cats have nine lives. Tal had two, and damn if we weren’t happy to see each other.”
Ellie Survived a Shotgun Blast to the Head
Ellie, a black Lab born in September 2016, was the first dog Brian Ketchum had ever professionally trained.
Ketchum is an avid duck hunter hailing from the Finger Lakes region of western New York who was able to put Ellie to work her first two full seasons. He shot 300 to 400 birds over the dog each year.
“In the summer of 2019, she was diagnosed with Addison’s disease,” Ketchum said. “If you’re a history buff at all, President Kennedy had Addison’s disease. Basically, the adrenal glands quit working. Every six weeks, she needs to have a site Zycortal shot that balances her blood’s potassium sodium levels. We still managed to have a good season that year.”
Two days after the September season of 2020, Ellie tore her ACL during some routine training and needed to have tibial tuberosity advancement (TTA) surgery. She healed quickly and was more than ready for the September 2021 season.
Ellie had already retrieved 148 birds when the early season was coming to a close. On the last day of September, Ketchum went for one more hunt on a favorite pond, accompanied by a friend whose wife also came along. She was a deer hunter but had never been duck or goose hunting.
“We had seven birds come in, and they totally did the opposite of what they should do,” Ketchum recalled. “They landed on the far side of the pond and then swam back to our decoys.”
After jumping the birds and knocking down two, Ketchum and the husband were able to follow and shoot two more birds over a hayfield behind their A-frame blind. Ketchum lined Ellie up on the bird furthest out on the pond and sent her.
As Ellie swam toward her bird, a single whistled in, and Ketchum dropped it quickly. His dog decided to head for the bird that had been shot last since it was closer. Ketchum and the husband headed out into the hayfield to locate their ducks.
While the men searched the field, he heard his friend’s wife say, “Oh my god, this one is still alive.”
“Walking back to the blind with our ducks, I can see the dog in the water. I can see she’s struggling like her rear legs aren’t working, or she’s hung up on something. She’s just going in a circle, no bird in her mouth, but there’s a bird probably three feet from her.
“I’m like, what’s wrong with my dog?! I can see her face. She’s bleeding. That’s when the wife says, ‘Oh my god, I shot the dog!’”
Ketchum sprinted to the pond, calling for Ellie, who was about 15 feet out into the water.
“I’m calling her name, you know, ‘Here, here, here,’ and I’m not getting any response from her at all,” Ketchum said. “I go into the pond a little, and now she sees me and comes swimming towards me. I get her up on shore, and the left side of her face is just bleeding profusely. Her right eye was totally messed up. It was just like really big and wide and almost not the right color.”
The 2 3/4-inch shell pumped roughly 94 No. 2 pellets through a skeet choke toward Ellie’s head at less than 25 yards. With dozens of pass-throughs, Elli amazingly survived with 16 pellets lodged in her skull and jaw.
“She’s got a pellet behind her right eye,” Ketchum said. “One broke her nasal cavity bone. She has a couple in the nape of the neck that you could feel when you pet her. Broke two molars, hit her canine, and put a hole through her tongue. But she has one in the cerebrum. The cerebrum controls hearing, eyesight, touch, and pain. It’s basically the control module for the senses.”
Ellie is blind in her right eye, with the exception of a very small bit of peripheral light or movement recognition. She’s also deaf, unable to hear her field whistle but able to pick up on the percussion of gunfire or a loud vehicle passing by.
Ketchum says he still doesn’t know exactly how the accident happened.
“I think she just plain saw the dog swim, saw movement, and shot the dog,” he said. “I want to believe that the dog had a mouthful of bird and a wing folded back behind the dog’s head, and she didn’t see her.”
After a mere month of healing and some training with new communication tactics, Ketchum took Ellie out for the October season opener with two close friends. He wasn’t sure what to expect.
“Two birds came in, and the guys each knocked one down. I got Ellie lined up and sent her. She went out and got the first bird and brought it right back, but she got about five feet from me, stopped, and dropped it, which is a no-no. They should come all the way back to you.
“But she had already turned and sent herself for that second bird. Well, that one was flopping and wanted to run, but she just plowed right into it, tackled it like Refrigerator Perry. She brought it all the way back, turned, and sat right next to my side. I had tears in my eyes.
“We’re walking back to the guys; she had one in her mouth, I had one in my hand. It just worked out perfect.”
Since October, Ellie’s had 107 birds shot over her, and she’s showing the ropes to a new black Lab pup, Raven.
Gepetto the Pointer Was Stabbed in the Throat
As a sporting dog veterinarian, Shawn Wayment knows as many stories about hunting dogs that didn’t survive injuries as those that have. It’s a hard reality in his line of work. Fortunately, his English pointer, Gepetto, is one of the happier stories.
Gepetto is a direct granddaughter of Bob Wehle’s world-renowned pointer, Snakefoot. Wehle is the father of the highly prized Elhew line of English pointers. (The line is his name spelled backward).
“One time, we were hunting valley quail back in the heyday of valley quail north of Boise,” Wayment said. “My dog would have a tendency to just disappear. Well, she disappeared, and when she came back, she just didn’t seem right. The entire trip, something was wrong with her, but I couldn’t figure it out. I started her on antibiotics and just supportive care until we got home. About a week later, her neck and head just swelled up huge.”
Wayment discovered a tiny sliver of wood that had worked its way out of her neck and figured that might be the culprit. The swelling kept up for roughly three months, and more slivers popped out. But there had been no bleeding or an external wound.
“Finally, I took some contrast agent, injected it deep into the swollen area, and took an X-ray of her neck. I had a surgeon look at it because I wasn’t sure. The surgeon called me up and said, ‘There’s a four-inch stick stuck in your dog’s neck.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’”
Once Gepetto was in for surgery, Wayment and the surgeon figured out exactly how she got stabbed.
“The only way it could lodge the way it lodged is to go through the bottom of her mouth,” Wayment said. “As she was running, she got stabbed through the floor of her mouth right down toward her chest. It was, like, a millimeter from punching into her chest. It would have killed her if it had.”
The stick was lodged so close to her jugular vein and vagus nerve that it took the surgeon four hours to remove the stick, even with Wayment scrubbing in to assist. Unfortunately, the surgeon had to ligate the jugular because he couldn’t get to the stick without lacerating the vein.
“[The stick] was chokecherry, too. I’m not kidding,” he said. “It was smooth as can be and the length and the width of those old pencils we used in school.”
Gepetto’s head was swollen for another month as the blood flowing into it was bottlenecked until her collateral circulation took over and replaced the flow of her jugular vein.
“From the time that she injured herself until I got the stick out of her was probably about five months. The next year, she was back to hunting again,” Wayment said. “Man, she could just run, and I never had a problem with her again. But that stick should have killed her. I mean, sometimes it’s just dumb luck.”
Lead the Lab Ran Until He Broke
Brady Davis bought Lead, a black Lab, from Ridgetop Retrievers in Iowa. Lead’s dad was a 2-time Purina High Point dog of the year, and his mom was a qualified All-Age Derby dog. The pup came from top-shelf stock.
Davis named him Lead because, while he can’t shoot lead shot at waterfowl, at least he can still hunt with Lead.
“Lead’s the dog that if anything can go wrong, it will,” Davis said. “One day, after bringing him home, a house cat swatted at him and lacerated his cornea. The vet was like, yeah, we can just remove his eye. I said, ‘I’m not removing an eye on an 8-week-old gundog.’ The vet said, ‘We can give him this drug and see if he heals, but he probably won’t.’ He healed up, and he’s got perfect eyesight.”
Davis sent Lead to a trainer in Kansas City when he was 6 months old. When he was 9 months old, he suffered a broken shoulder while still in training — an injury that vets see in young dogs whose growth plates aren’t fully closed and have simply run too hard.
With one more month at the trainer, a titanium screw in his shoulder, and another bad luck box checked, Lead came home ready to train with Davis for the next season.
“Fast forward a year. We’re hunting Lead, and he’s doing good,” Davis recalls. “We had a group of about eight guys, and we were just smashing geese. On one of the last groups of the day, we rained a couple out, and I sent Lead after them. He’s just running out cleaning up geese.
“Running back with a bird in his mouth, he jumps this little ditch about 6 or 8 feet from me. As soon as he hits the ground, he drops the goose and just starts screaming, just freaking out, like he’s in massive, massive pain.”
Davis managed to get him back in his kennel and as comfortable as possible.
An MRI showed that the tendon that runs over the front of Lead’s shoulder had several cuts and looked like a frayed piece of rope. The vet figured it was from the screw but wanted to perform surgery on the tendon.
Davis balked at the $9,000 price tag and wondered if he was going to have to put his dog down.
“I grew up with livestock horses and cattle and working dogs. I love my dogs like family, but I have a little different take than some guys,” Davis said. “I also understand that shit dies. I know this will sound harsh, and I don’t mean it to, but I’m perfectly okay putting a dog down. Obviously, it’s not my first choice. But if Lead is going to be miserable and in pain and not happy, then I’m not going to.”
Instead, Davis got in touch with a former colleague of his in the veterinary school at Colorado State University and sent him all of the X-rays and MRIs.
“The vet said there was a steroid treatment we could do, but there would be less than a 50% chance that Lead would ever be sound again,” Davis said.
After a month of shots and crate rest, the vet told Davis to take him out in the backyard, take the leash off, and let him run.
“This son of a bitch darts off like his ass is on fire,” Davis said. “The vet basically at that point told me, ‘Okay, don’t get your hopes up. Keep in mind I told you he had less than a 50% chance. Put him back in a working routine training.’”
Lead was back in the lineup for the 2020-2021 season and picked up over 2,100 birds without a misstep. This season, he had already picked up over 1,000 by the end of December with months of hunting left. Considering that each bird weighs between 12 and 14 pounds, that’s a lot of weight for even a structurally perfect dog.
“That dog just goes so damn hard at everything he does. He just has no sense of self-preservation,” Davis said. “I’m convinced if there was a goose on the other side of a forest fire, he’d run through the flames to go get it. As he’s gotten a little bit older, I’m starting to see him settle down a little and actually think shit through. I’m hoping that that leads to a little bit more self-preservation.”