The unconditional love of a dog is a powerful thing. Just ask John Unger of Bayfield, Wisconsin.
For 19 years, John’s loyal companion had been a Shepherd mix named Schoep. John learned that his dog had severe arthritis and may needed to be put down soon. He was devastated — and also determined to help alleviate Schoep’s pain.
John knew that people suffering from arthritis respond well to water therapy, so he brought his aging dog to one of their favourite spots: Lake Superior. His idea was to take advantage of the lake’s higher-than-average temperatures that summer and let Schoep feel weightless and relaxed. Considering the grim prognosis from the veterinarian, John also called his photographer friend, Hannah Stonehouse Hudson, to see whether she had time to capture a special photo of Schoep just in case.
Hannah met them at the lake for about five minutes and snapped a few shots. A few days later on Aug. 1, she uploaded her favorite image of the man and his dog to Facebook — and an Internet sensation was unleashed.
The photo on her Stonehouse Photography Facebook page had nearly 300,000 likes and 32,000 comments in the first few days. When the photo went viral, John had to adjust to his sudden popularity.
“The first four days I was literally in shock,” he said. He said he spent the first two days reading every single one of the comments on Facebook. Most of them offered words of encouragement for Schoep and admiration for John.
“I would read about five of them and lose it for a good ten minutes and then come back to it,” John said. “To see that this photo has lifted their spirits … that right there lifted mine even higher.”
John has always wanted Schoep to experience everything, so he takes him everywhere he goes. They regularly go on three walks a day.
John actually began floating Schoep in Lake Superior 13 years earlier — but for different reasons. It started because Schoep was a terrible swimmer and didn’t much like the water anyway. It took him several years to be convinced to fetch a ball in the lake, let alone swim in it.
“Whenever he got into the water he wouldn’t swim and would just put his paws on my shoulders and want to be held,” John recalled. “One of these times, all of a sudden, he was asleep. We’ve been doing it periodically since then.”
He stepped up the soaks in the lake after Schoep’s diagnosis. John said he soon saw an improvement in Schoep’s limp, although he didn’t think it would ever go away.
John adopted Schoep as a rescue dog with his then-fiancée nearly 20 years before. Schoep had been abused as a puppy and it took months for him to trust John. But John didn’t give up. He stayed up with him that first night and then many nights after, coaxing him to trust him by sometimes getting on all fours. He said he wanted Schoep “to think of me as another dog and not a man trying to hurt him.”
A year or so after John and his fiancée adopted Schoep, the relationship broke up. The two shared custody of Schoep for a while until she left for graduate school in Colorado, and then it was just the man and his dog.
John said he has fought against depression for a lifetime, and after his relationship ended, he endured some tough years. On one particularly difficult night he took Schoep down to Lake Michigan, their usual evening walking spot back in those days.
“I went out on the breakwater and I was thinking about committing suicide,” he said. “And I was out there for about an hour just thinking about things and it came to the point of me thinking, ‘OK, this is the time.’ And I looked down at Schoep and I don’t know what it was … he had a look like no other time he looked at me. I look back at it now and he knew something was wrong.”
It took that look by Schoep to help bring John back from the brink. “He just snapped me out of that moment … we walked around the rest of the night until dawn.” The next day he thanked Schoep for saving his life.
John broke down and cried as he reflected on how much Schoep has given him, and how he has tried his best to always give him what he could. “I’ve never had a lot of money and especially going through the depression I couldn’t hold a job,” he said, adding, “Schoep has given me his all, no matter what the circumstances, even when I can’t get him the best food.”
After Hannah’s photo made such wide rounds online, strangers began reaching out to help. “A woman from Virginia basically paid for the latest laser therapy on his joints,” he said. “She paid for a full treatment, and I don’t know how much it is, but I know I couldn’t have done that.”
Schoep just had his second installment of treatments Wednesday, and has four more to go. John got a surprise when he took Schoep in for his latest appointment. As he walked in, his vet smiled at him. “What’s going on?” John asked. His vet said, “See all the stuff behind me?” John looked, and there were packages of glucosamine, treats and other treatments to help Schoep with joint pain.
John cried as he said, “People from all over are doing this. I can’t believe it. So much has come in already in donations that I don’t have to worry about anything at the vet anymore.”
All of the donors are anonymous. “How do I thank them?” he said. “It’s just such an amazing thing.”
And then in July 2013 there was a different headline
Dog Pictured Floating To Sleep In His Owner’s Arms Has Died
Schoep, the arthritic dog who became an Internet sensation last summer when he was photographed floating peacefully in Lake Superior in his owner’s arms, has passed away.
The 20-year-old dog’s owner, John, announced the death of his best friend on Facebook on that evening.
“I Breathe But I Can’t Catch My Breath…” John wrote “Schoep passed yesterday. More information in the days ahead.”
The bond between Schoep and John captivated tens of thousands of animal lovers when their photo and story began circulating. Then in the July of that year, John feared that he was mere days from needing to put then-19-year-old Schoep down. In anticipation of his loss, he asked a friend to take one last photo of them together.
That friend, photographer Hannah, met them at Lake Superior, where John liked to help Schoep float to take pressure off his arthritic joints. She captured a photo of the two of them in the lake and posted it on her Facebook page.
That image ricocheted around the world and resulted in an outpouring of online donations and support. The help John received allowed him to afford treatments to alleviate his dog’s condition.
“As best as I can guess, the treatments turned back the clock on his life about a year-and-a-half to two years,” in September 2012 John said. “I’ve taken him for walks on trails that we haven’t been on in three years. He’s not dragging his back legs like he was before. To be able to do that again with him, words can’t even describe the feeling.”
John posted a happy update about Schoep on Facebook along with a photo of the shepherd mix falling asleep in the sunshine, surrounded by bright yellow flowers:
“A fantastic day we had. Up early to walk and go to the beach, eat, nap, go shopping, eat, laundry, go to the beach, eat, nap and one more walk. All without the humidity, that’s what made it fantastic — especially for Schoep!”
Hannah, the photographer who made Schoep and John famous, posted this on her Facebook page.
“RIP Schoep. He had an amazing life and touched us all. Please keep John in your thoughts.”
….And then John invited a new dog, named Bear, into his home. He posted the news to his Facebook page on Feb. 24 2015 saying,
“I am whole again…
Ladies and Gentlemen – This Is BEAR!
The journey continues with the addition of Bear into my home, heart, soul and OUR lives! Please give him a Big Hello! Bear is a 1 year old, 70 lb. Akita/Shep/Lab mix. I am a very happy man, and proud to introduce him to you. Please join us as Bear and I learn, grow and help in the days, months and years to come!”
John and Bear
Here’s to John and Bear celebrating their future together!
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