Way back when I first started duck hunting, I came to the realization that I wanted a dog to share the blind with me, so after researching many different breeds I decided on a Labrador and began looking for puppies. Since I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, I found a guy named Jim Mortenson at an auto junkyard just north of the town I grew up in who had a litter of black lab pups on the ground. I drove there right away, and I think I only had about $100 in my pocket but I was going anyway. When Jim heard my sob story, he said he had this little female that may not make it because she was the runt, but if I wanted to try saving her I could have her for $50.
I suddenly found myself going home with this three week old pup in my lap that needed round-the-clock-care. Since she wasn’t getting all the nourishment she needed, I stopped at the local vet clinic on my way and picked up some puppy formula and a bottle and the rest was history. I named her Malley and we had 15 good years of hunting adventures together before she crossed over into that big marsh in the sky.
A couple years later, I was at our cabin, with my dad, talking about dogs, when he said, “Oh I forgot to tell you, Jim told me to tell you to stop by.” I asked why and he replied that he’d asked about how Malley was doing and he had to give him the sad news that she’d passed.
On the way home that weekend, I stopped by that old graveyard for cars and a flood of memories came rushing back. Out of the shop came Jim, wiping his hands on a greasy rag like mechanics often do, and after exchanging pleasantries he said “Go over to that shed over there, I have something for you.” When I opened the door there was this jet black puppy looking at me, a lab pup. “I want you to have this pup,” Jim said. “I always enjoyed hearing your dad talk about you and Malley.” Without hesitation I scooped up this big male pup and I handed Jim a hundred dollar bill. I had to give the man something for this beautiful dog.
On our 2 1/2 hour ride home, I kept looking at him on the passenger seat. I hadn’t planned on getting a pup, but holy smokes I couldn’t wait to begin training him! My mind was racing. By the time we got home, he had the name Gunnar, and when I whispered it his head popped up like he knew it. He gave a big puppy yawn, tongue sticking out of his mouth and I swear he smiled at me.
We started training the next day, slowly, with a tennis ball. I introduced him to water and feathers and the sounds of guns, and by the end of summer I thought he was ready for the blind.
On our first hunt together, I shot at a pair of wood duck drakes that came straight over the decoys. I shot and watched one sail down behind us into the thick swamp grass. Instantly I jumped out of the blind with little Gunnar in tow and began searching for the bird. Gunnar put his nose to the ground, rooted him out and came busting out of the grass with the drake in his mouth, bringing it right to me. The pride in his eyes was something I’ll never forget.
At 8 months old, I took him to South Dakota with me on a snow goose hunt, and after receiving praise from the guide on his behavior that weekend, it confirmed what I already knew… this dog was something special.
For the next 6 years, we were inseparable. No matter where I went or what I did, Gunnar came with me. We chased ducks and geese whenever we could and my new best friend grew into a 110 lb giant of a dog that was the most gentle animal I’d ever been around. Hiding him in the field became a bit of a problem sometimes though, but I bought a super magnum goose shell that he could hide under.
Gunnar and I have always had a deep connection, not just your ordinary man and dog bond, but something more. From the first time I laid eyes on him as a pup, I knew he was the one. His strong desire to please made his training fun, and he quickly mastered all the tasks it takes to become a great gun dog.
February 16, 2014 will be burned into my mind forever. While at work one day my beautiful boy was hit by a passing truck at the end of my driveway. It was one of the darkest days of my life.
When my wife Stephanie called telling me that he’d been hit and couldn’t move, I was sick to my stomach. I was in shock, my mind raced… ‘What do I do now? Would he live?’ My first call was to the vet clinic’s after hours phone line – there was no answer so I left a message. I rushed to meet Stephanie at the clinic where she was taking Gunnar, driving through tears the whole way. When I arrived, I ran to her vehicle where my precious boy was on the front floorboard. He was crying. I’d never before heard so much as a whimper from this dog before so I think this is what shocked me the most. It broke my heart to see him this way. Blood was coming from his nose and some of his teeth were missing. Soon after, the vet showed up. I scooped Gunnar’s limp body into my arms and carried him into the office and laid him on an exam table. The vet sedated him and wheeled him into x-ray. I was devastated.
The pics showed no fractures to his spine and we were told to take him home but Gunnar still wasn’t moving. I could tell something was very wrong with him.
The next morning changed my life forever.
All that night, I stayed next to Gunnar on the couch doing the only thing I could for him, gently stroking his head and telling him what a good boy he was. About 4a.m., the sedative wore off and he began whining again. Each whimper stabbed at my heart. The next morning, he still hadn’t moved so I called a childhood friend of mine who is a vet surgeon in Florida, Dr. Jodi Thannum. I told her what had happened and texted her pics of Gunnar and she instructed me to take him right away to a University vet clinic. She somehow knew he had a spinal injury. Stephanie and I secured him in my truck and headed for the University of Minnesota. We arrived just after dark and were met outside by a team of vet techs and a gurney. After an initial examination, we were given three options: they could do surgery, they could wrap him or they could euthanize him. Option 3 was out of the question! We chose surgery and were told to go back home and wait for the results.
The next morning, I received the call. Gunnar’s surgery was done but he would have to stay for a week. ‘A week?’ I hadn’t been away from this dog more than a couple days since he was a pup and now he was alone and hurting. I needed to be near him, to reassure him… and I couldn’t. It was one of the longest weeks of my life.
At week’s end Stephanie and I drove through an ice storm to go get him, and when they wheeled him out to us on a cart, Gunnar was sitting up! After leaving him with no movement in any of his legs, I thought ‘Wow! Maybe we have something to work with here.’ It was an emotional reunion as I was able to finally touch him and scratch his ears. Gunnar’s back end was still paralyzed so the staff showed us how to express his bladder and care for him before we took him home. They said he’d have a 50/50 chance of recovering.
A couple weeks later I noticed a lump on Gunnar’s back. When I took him to the vet we discovered the foot long rods they’d put in him were loose and migrating down his spine. After another call to the University, we were on the road again. We arrived, and after examining him the vet said they’d have to remove them surgically – and that there was nothing else they could do for him. Once more they asked if we wanted him euthanized. I don’t know why they kept asking me this idiotic question. My standard reply… ‘NO!’
We brought Gunnar home and started rehab two weeks later. I wanted to get him back up and hunting which I was told would never happen again. Suffice it to say, we had our work cut out for us. His hind end was paralyzed. He could move his back legs a little, but he couldn’t stand on his own, walk or run.
This became our daily routine: start each day at 5am, first order of business being emptying his bladder. I use a sling to support his hind legs to help him outside into the yard. I then use my knees to hold him upright and my hands to express his bladder to make him pee. Afterwards, he usually wants to sniff around for a bit so I put the sling under him and follow him wherever he wants to go. This limbers up his legs before we come back inside. As he eats a high protein meal, I massage his hind legs to help keep them in shape. Then it’s off to work for me and rest for Gunnar. Luckily, I’m able to return home for lunch to help him empty his bladder again. In the evenings, we wrap his feet, give him a good check-up and empty his bladder one last time before bed. It’s takes a lot more effort and care, but in my mind it’s never been worth ending his life over. I wouldn’t change a thing about my boy other than I wish he’d never been hit.
After Gunnar got out of the hospital, I became a vacuum… sucking up every bit of information I could about caring for a paralyzed dog, including rehab techniques. That’s where I came across the Walkin’ Wheels model of wheelchairs for dogs.
Initially, I got him in a water treadmill to help him build up his muscle. We did that for a while, among other things, but Gunnar never regained the use of his legs. I decided to order him a wheeled cart which I had dipped in mossy oak shadowgrass, of course, for hunting purposes.
Gunnar took right to it as if he’d been born with it. If a dog could smile, I swear he was grinning from ear to ear when I first strapped him in.
We have a small, one acre pond on our property where I took Gunnar to continue his workouts. He had to learn how to swim again so we started experimenting with different things to keep him afloat, like attaching a boat cushion to his cart or a life jacket made for dogs. We had a ton of trial and error, mostly error, because the cart kept flipping over in the deep water. We tried pool noodles and pipe insulation attached to it, but the chair wouldn’t stay upright. It simply wasn’’t made for the water. Stephanie finally bought a dog life jacket that we put on him, but he was hesitant because he’d never hunted with a vest on. Once he got used to it though, I ordered a camo one for him to wear. We worked all summer to get ready for duck season.
As opening day 2014 neared, I was both excited and scared of what could happen. For our first time back, I chose a spot at the headwaters of the St Croix River in northern Wisconsin. The water was calm and shallow there and would be easier for Gunnar to work in. As the sun rose over the decoys, I could hardly contain my excitement. Gunnar was finally at my side where he belonged, with that strong desire to please in his eyes. We sat for almost three hours with nary a shot fired. I prayed for a duck to come into the dekes, just one. I remember looking up, and setting its wings into the decoys came a lone Canadian goose. Instinctively, I raised my gun and fired. The goose buckled and instantly there was pandemonium at my feet. Gunnar was trying to launch himself off the bank to retrieve the goose. I loosened his harness, slipped it under him and helped him to the water as he clawed at the ground, and off he went. When I looked up, I saw the goose was wounded, not dead. I tried in vain to call Gunnar back, as a two-legged dog would be no match for a live goose, but that dog had his mind made up. I watched as they both went further and further down the river, until finally Gunnar caught up to his bird. He latched onto it and turned to swim back to me with one big wing covering his eyes. I called to him the whole way back so he could navigate by the sound of my voice. When he came to a log, it stopped him cold. Instantly, I waded out to help. By now the goose had expired. I took the goose out of his mouth and placed it on the log, then helped him over. Gunnar turned, grabbed the goose and continued his retrieve, heading toward our blind on the bank. I met him there and helped him back up to where we were sitting, then took the bird from his mouth. I’d never seen my boy so proud.
A man’s bond with his duck dog is something I can’t explain. Gunnar is my partner… he’s part of the family. He’s opened my eyes to so much more than I could have imagined, like when we’re getting ready the night before a duck hunt, driving to the boat launch, loading him into the boat or placing decoys and getting him into our hide; he’s more attentive too, almost helpful as if he knows how much we are doing for him to get him hunting. He sits behind me now, always scanning the sky with his head resting on my shoulder. He follows my head movements while listening for the sound of whistling wings. It’s worth it to me just to get him out there. Why? Because he loves it! When he’s retrieving a bird… I can’t put into words how remarkable it is to watch. I just can’t. Gunnar is an amazing dog and he came to me for a reason.
As we drove home that weekend, I reflected on the last eight months. The only bird we got that day was the goose, but it was a good one. When I took Gunnar’s bandages off that evening (I always wrap something around his back legs to protect them), I realized the toll that all our cart work and hunting had taken on him. His feet were raw and bloody. We got him on antibiotics and kept clean gauze and vet wrap on him at all times. Unfortunately he lost a toe as a result. It was infected and had to be taken off.
When duck season 2015 rolled around, Gunnar didn’t get to hunt. The tops of his feet were infected and it took all of a year to heal them up, (we are still healing as a matter of fact). We were advised to stay out of the marsh since there’s so much bacteria in the mud that could cause him to lose a foot, and I didn’t want to risk it so we took the year off. I went out twice by myself but my heart just wasn’t into it without him. I needed my boy by my side, and I knew it killed him to watch me get my gear together and pull out of the driveway.
We still worked together of course, sparingly, in his cart, making sure his feet were protected at all times.
In February, 2016, Gunnar turned nine. We entered him into a calendar contest for disabled pets. The rules stated: show your dog enjoying life to his fullest in their cart. Stephanie and I did our own photos and I was adamant that he be pictured in his camouflaged cart, retrieving his dead fowl dummy that is made to resemble a mallard. I didn’t have very high hopes that he’d win a spot in the calendar, but Gunnar proved me wrong again. He was featured for the month of May. My heart soared, and once again, he made me a proud papa. I was proud of what we had accomplished together. Little did I know that he wasn’t done yet.
When the fall of 2016 was upon us, I anticipated getting him in the duck blind again when I noticed a lump on his left front elbow. We made an appointment at the vet and I was heartbroken by the news. It was a tumor. ‘My poor boy just can’t catch a break,’ I thought. Another setback. Another thing to overcome. The tumor would have to be removed and our vet wasn’t sure she could close up the incision because of its location.
I opted to not do the surgery until we were done with the 2016 season. We were going hunting! I waited until late September to start bringing him out, not really caring if we harvested any ducks. Just to sit in the blind with him again and watch the sun rise over the decoys, that would be enough for me. We hunted a farm pond first as I thought it would be easier for Gunnar to enter the water and I could help him out if he got into trouble. At first light, a solo wood duck drake came in, I shot and it ended up on the far side of the pond. I still to this day don’t know how he did it, as we were 20 yards from the water, but before I knew it he was swimming out to make the retrieve, no life vest, no nothing. I watched as he grabbed the duck like an old pro, returning to me and placing it gently in my hand. I had a hard time seeing through the tears, but told him what a good boy he was as I helped him back into our blind under a willow tree.
Our next hunt was on a bigger lake, between two islands. I was set up for divers as he always seemed to enjoy hunting them as much as I did. Shortly after first light, a single drake mallard came sailing into the decoys, wings locked. I fired, and missed. The drake flared and I shot again, tipping him, but he continued flying. As I was cursing myself under my breath, Gunnar began barking, something he never does in the blind. I shushed him, and he began to whine. Again, I chastised him and told him to be quiet. About an hour later, we saw something floating about 200 yards out in the lake, drifting our way. I looked through the binoculars, and to my surprise, it was that drake mallard, dead. I waded out with Gunnar and sent him after the duck. He kept turning to the west, wanting to go where he knew the duck went down. I finally got him on a line and he scooped up the duck in his mouth, turning back towards me. Usually, I will take the bird from him as he swims by but this time was different. I let him continue back to the island and finish his retrieve. He dragged himself back up onto the island and sat waiting for me to return, duck in his mouth, and I swear he was smiling. I believe he was trying to tell me that I had killed that duck when he was barking. I don’t know how, but he knew.
The final retrieve
We set up on a man-made island in early November. By now the water was starting to get really cold, but it’s what duck hunters love. Again, I set up for divers as most of the local dabbling ducks had headed south for warmer climates. Since we were going by boat, we had to use his harness and his collar to hoist him over the gunwales. He can help climb out of the boat, but he needs help getting up on land.
On this glorious morning, Gunnar and I sat on an island, watching the sun come up and glimmer off the decoys. Because of his injury, we can’t hunt the way that we used to, or go to the best places, as I need to be aware of what obstacles he may encounter. I knew this would be our last hunt together for the year, and maybe ever. A flock of mallards buzzed the decoys. I picked out a drake on the crossing shot and pulled the trigger. The duck sailed and died 60 yards outside the decoys. Gunnar dragged himself off the island, and as soon as he hit deep water, began churning, big powerful strokes through the decoys. He made it out to the bird and grabbed him, turning almost instantly towards me. He paddled into the shallows, where I was waiting, placing the drake in my hand. Gunnar finished this year with just 6 retrieves, but I will remember each one for the rest of my life.
In closing, I would like to express my desire to share another sunrise with my boy Gunnar, watch him do the job that he was put here to do, to have one more day with him in the blind. I have been blessed to have Gunnar by my side, and I am the lucky one that gets to tell his story, one retrieve at a time. We never took ‘no’ for an answer, never believed we couldn’t and never regretted the choices we made. So until next season, keep on rolling.
Sometime after Gunnar’s accident, via social media I was alerted to a dog in Houston, Texas, that had also been hit by a car and paralyzed. I decided right there we were going to help get this dog a chair like Gunnar’s. Her name was Hope, and I located a used cart in Green Bay Wisconsin, drove there, bought it and shipped it to Texas. Hope, much like Gunnar, took to her new wheels right away. It was crucial in her recovery process. She now runs like the wind without assistance. She was adopted on Christmas Eve and is enjoying life with her new family. But I knew I had to do more. I thus created Gunnar’s Wheels. I knew I wouldn’t be able to fund each cart so I started a GofundMe page to help offset some of the costs, but no dog in need will ever get turned down by us.
In the past two years, we’ve sent out over 250 carts, helping dogs from Texas to New York to California… and one dog in Alberta, Canada, get a new chance at life. We have also sent these carts around the world, to Portugal, Scotland, the Bahamas, and most recently, Tehran, Iran.
I do all this because of Gunnar. I know how much joy he’s brought to me and I don’t want people to have to give up on their best friend. There’s already too much sadness in the world, we thought we’d spread a little hope instead.
Gunnar’s GoFundMe is https://www.gofundme.com/2z89y8hs. We also accept donations at Alliance Bank, P.O. Box 187, Osseo, WI 54758 – ATTN: Gunnar’s Wheels.
Please help me keep Gunnar’s spirit alive.