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Would you risk your life to save your dog?

by Mike McFeely

Would you risk your life to save your hunting dog?

Somewhat unwittingly, guide Jeff Katzer of Devils Lake, N.D., did just that. He was successful in saving Cooper, his 9-year-old black Labrador retriever, from drowning in icy cold water -- but Katzer nearly lost his own life in the process.

He made his story public on Facebook and received some nasty feedback from online "friends." 

But Katzer doesn't apologize for rescuing Cooper.

"Was I going to sit there and watch him die? Absolutely not," Katzer said.

 Cooper.

Here is the story:

Early this week Katzer had some clients in a field near Devils Lake for a waterfowl hunt. One of the hunters downed a duck, but didn't drop it dead. The crippled bird flopped down into a nearby slough, which had a thin coating of ice.

Cooper, Katzer says, always goes after crippled birds first -- "I didn't train him that way or anything, that's just always what he's done," he says -- so the dog ran several hundred yards to the slough to retrieve the bird.

Cooper didn't return after several minutes, so Katzer walked to the edge of the slough. He heard the dog whimpering and spotted Cooper about 50 feet from shore, struggling to bust through 3/4-inch ice. It appeared the dog had made it off-shore OK, only to fall through the ice a short distance from land.

"I tried to coax him and encourage him, but I could see that wasn't going to happen," Katzer said. "So I dropped my gun and went in after him."

While the decision was instinctive, Katzer also didn't think it would be a big deal. The dog was only about 50 feet from shore.

Katzer broke ice to get to the dog -- "(Cooper) was going down, he was exhausted," he said -- and grabbed its collar to yank it up on solid ice. The dog slumped back slowly to safety.

But now Katzer was in a bind. He was fully clothed in heavy cold-weather hunting gear and boots, and wasn't wearing chest waders. He was in chest-deep water and stuck in the mucky bottom of the slough. And the water, of course, was frigid.

 Cooper.

"That's when I thought, this is nothing but a recipe for disaster," Katzer said.

The guide said he eventually got turned around, but then found out he couldn't move. Between the chest-high water, the muddy bottom and the cold water, he was stuck.

It didn't take more than a couple of minutes and Katzer's lower extremities were numb. He screamed for help from his clients, but they were too far away to hear. Then he got so cold he couldn't catch his breath.

To make his outlook worse, the path through the ice he busted to reach Cooper had closed because wind move the sheets of ice.

Through an apparently Herculean effort, Katzer moved one leg at a time and moved ever-so-slowly to the shoreline. It took him more than 30 minutes to move fifty feet. When he reached shore he crawled onto land ... and found out he was so cold, stiff and exhausted he couldn't stand up.

Eventually he used Cooper and his shotgun to stand up and shuffle toward his pickup, which thankfully was nearby. Katzer shed his soaked, frozen clothes and sat in the cab of the pickup with the heat blasting to warm up.

It was a close call.

"I was like, 'Oh crap, this is it. We just had our little boy, I've been married 19 years, everything is good," Katzer said. "That was some scary crap. That was an escape and I have to thank somebody."

Katzer related his tale on Facebook and received some positive feedback from people thankful he and Cooper are OK. But he also received some nasty comments that he deleted.

"I've gotten some crappy feedback on this. 'He's just a dog,' stuff like that. I'm sorry, this dog has been a part of my life for nine years. He is a part of my family," Katzer said. "You just do this stuff. You don't think about it. It's like a lady lifting a car off a baby. You just go because this is your hunting buddy."

Katzer made an instinctive decision. It didn't seem like Cooper was all that far from safety. And, most important, Katzer survived.

But it is something to think about. Would you -- should you -- risk your life to save your hunting dog?

You can hear Jeff's story in his own words Saturday at 11 a.m. on "Mike McFeely Outdoors" on 790 KFGO.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)