The unconditional love of a dog is a powerful thing. Just ask John Unger of Bayfield, Wis.
For the past 19 years, Unger’s loyal companion has been a shepherd mix named Schoep. Unger learned two weeks ago that his dog had severe arthritis and may need to be put down soon. He was devastated — and also determined to help alleviate Schoep’s pain.
Unger knew that people suffering from arthritis respond well to water therapy, so he brought his aging dog to one of their favorite spots: Lake Superior. His idea was to take advantage of the lake’s higher-than-average temperatures this summer and let Schoep feel weightless and relaxed. Considering the grim prognosis from the veterinarian, Unger also called his photographer friend, Hannah Stonehouse Hudson, to see whether she had time to capture a special photo of Schoep just in case.
As of Thursday, the photo on her Stonehouse Photography Facebook page had nearly 300,000 likes and 32,000 comments. Since the photo went viral, Unger has been trying to adjust to his sudden popularity.
“The first four days I was literally in shock,” he told us. He said he spent the first two days reading every single one of the comments on Facebook. Most of them offer words of encouragement for Schoep and admiration for Unger.
“I would read about five of them and lose it for a good ten minutes and then come back to it,” Unger said. “To see that this photo has lifted their spirits … that right there lifts mine even higher.”
Unger actually began floating Schoep in Lake Superior 13 years ago — 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.
“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.
Unger 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. After Stonehouse Hudson’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. Unger 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?” Unger asked. His vet said, “See all the stuff behind me?” Unger looked, and there were packages of glucosamine, treats, and other treatments to help Schoep with joint pain.
Unger 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.”