Hunting dogs regularly reward their owners with spectacular retrieves, unrelenting affection and unquestioning loyalty.

They forgive missed shots, empty water bowls and shabby motel rooms.

Rarely do humans get to pay back their canine companions with more than a scratch behind the ears, a pat on the head or the occasional biscuit.

But Tom Foster did recently — in spades — saving the life of his springer spaniel, Sparkey, with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after the dog fell into a water-filled hole and nearly drowned while the pair hunted pheasants in southwestern North Dakota.

"I just wanted to save my dog,'' said Foster, 72, of Hudson. "He's really special.''

Foster's near-nightmare is a tale of perseverance, quick thinking — and love.

Here's what happened:

Foster and Sparkey were hunting ringnecks in thick cover along one side of a river, while buddy Dan Hoffman, 65, of Orono, and his son, Nick, 34, of Waconia hunted adjacent on the other side. It was late October, just weeks after a snowstorm hammered the region.

"It was wet and muddy,'' Foster said.

Then Nick Hoffman shot a rooster that dropped into the river.

"Sparkey saw it fall and started running toward it,'' Foster recalled. "I made my way to the river to help him out. As I walked, I heard him splash. I didn't think anything of it because he had been running through water for two days.''

But Sparkey didn't return with the bird.

"I called him and he didn't come, then I blew my whistle, and he still didn't come," Foster said. "I knew there was something wrong.''

Foster retraced his steps to where he had last heard Sparkey and found him in an obscured 6-feet-deep hole with water at the bottom. Swirling high water had carved the depression, 4 feet in diameter, from the clay riverbank.

"He was on his back, with his head underwater, obviously drowning,'' said Foster. The 55-pound dog was unconscious.

"I jumped in the hole and grabbed him by the collar. It was deep enough that I couldn't just lift him up. I worked my way up the side, digging my feet in and pulling on rocks and roots, and pushing the dog up at the same time. My adrenaline was going pretty good.

"Eventually I got him out, and then me. He looked pretty bad. His eyes were rolled back in his head, his lips had fallen down. He looked dead. I started giving him chest compressions. I could feel his heart beating, then it got slower and slower and finally stopped.

"I said, 'Dan, I think he's dead!'' Dan shouted, 'Have you tried mouth-to-mouth?'

"So I pried his mouth open. It was locked shut, and it took both of my hands to open it. I got my face as far as I could get into his mouth, and blew as hard as I could. I immediately got a face full of water and slime. I blew a couple more times, and I could feel his heart start to beat. Then I blew through his nose three times.

"Within a couple of minutes, he lifted his head up and his eyes refocused.''

Meanwhile, Nick Hoffman ran back and got Foster's pickup and drove across a field to the site. Foster carried Sparkey to the truck, placed him inside and rubbed him.

"He was showing signs of coming around, but he had his head down and was shivering uncontrollably,'' Foster said. So he put Sparkey on his heated front seat, turned it to high and covered him with a jacket.

Just then a conservation officer showed up and gave Foster the name of a veterinarian in Dickinson, N.D.

"By the time we got there, Sparkey was sitting up in the front seat,'' Foster said. "He wanted to go after the cats in the vet's office. He was 100 percent back to normal. It was unbelievable.''

The vet examined Sparkey and said he had suffered no permanent damage. "She said, 'You're really, really lucky,' '' Foster said. He figures his dog was unconscious for seven to 10 minutes, but he said Sparkey's heart stopped for less than a minute.

Foster knew he was fortunate. "I thought he was dead,'' he said. "It took me a week to get over the feeling. I was traumatized.''

He suspected Sparkey tried to scale the side of the hole before falling back in exhaustion. "I must have found him immediately after he went under the water, because he didn't seem to have any water in his lungs or stomach.''

Three weeks later, Foster and Sparkey were back in North Dakota, chasing pheasants.

Foster said he has had many exceedingly good hunting dogs but Sparkey is his favorite.

"Not because he is the greatest hunting dog I have ever owned,'' he said. "But because he has a very captivating personality. My wife and I just love him.

"And he has a heart like the Eveready rabbit — he just never stops hunting.''

Doug Smith •

Twitter: @dougsmithstrib