Last month, the above photo of John Unger cradling his loyal dog, Schoep, in Michigan's Lake Superior melted hearts across the world. Unger had take Schoep into the lake so that the water could soothe the arthritic 19-year-old dog to sleep. Empathetic readers felt compelled to send cards, dog treats, messages of support, and money to Unger and his ailing pet, resulting in over $25,000 in donations.
Only two months ago, Schoep was facing euthanasia because Unger could not afford his medical bills; the worldwide reaction to their relationship, however, has given him a second chance at life. Schoep is now receiving weekly laser therapy, pain medication and glucosamine — all with encouraging results.
That stunning photograph of John lulling his arthritic dog to sleep in Lake Superior has touched so many people that John Unger, 49, and his dog Schoep, have started a foundation to help other dogs in need. The Schoep Legacy Foundation has raised more than $25,000 to help low-income families care for their aging dogs thanks to donations from people as far away as Saudi Arabia and Japan, all inspired by that gorgeous image.
Unger's good friend Hannah Stonehouse Hudson, who is a professional photographer, captured the heartbreaking moment between the man and his aging rescue dog in Wisconsin when Unger thought his best friend was at the end of his life.
Dr. Erik Haukass, Schoep's veterinarian, said that the 19-year-old dog is doing very well and that they are optimistic the treatments will allow Unger and Schoep many more months. 'Without treatment, John and I were talking about euthanasia at the end of July,' Dr. Haukass said.
Dr. Haukass was on the front line when the donations to Schoep's care came in, shocked by their magnitude. 'I've never seen anything like this before,' he said. 'We realized we had received more money than we would reasonably spend on Schoep's care.' Together with Unger and Mrs. Hudson, the three formed Schoep's Legacy Foundation.
'The idea is to pay it forward; give it to other organizations, to help out other animals in the area and use the money in the spirit it was given,' Dr. Haukass said. The $25,000 will be used in a variety of ways to help low-income families care for their animals, both in the care of older pets and the spaying and neutering of new pets. 'It could help another 30 or 40 Schoeps,' Dr. Haukass said. 'It's incredible to be in a position to help others,' Unger said.
But beyond helping other animals, Unger said that he's found himself counseling people who have had to deal with a devastating loss in their lives. Along with donations, people have been sending Unger their personal stories of woe. 'They're going through some depression of their own. They're very deep and emotional letters. Those are the ones that hit home a lot,' Unger said. 'But they look at the picture that Hannah took and it helps them have a better time with it. That's pretty extraordinary.'
Unger knows firsthand about love and loss. He and his ex-fiancée adopted Schoep 19 years ago, but when the relationship ended, Unger was on the brink of suicide. 'To be honest with you, I don’t think I’d be here if I didn’t have Schoep with me (that night). He just snapped me out of it. I don’t know how to explain it. He just snapped me out of it. … I just want to do whatever I can for this dog because he basically saved my ass,' he said.
BECAME BEST FRIENDS
John Unger, 49, adopted Schoep, who is named after a famous brand of Wisconsin ice cream, when he was just a puppy and it was love at first sight. He and his ex-fiancée had been searching for a rescue dog for a year, going to dozens of humane societies. 'We wanted every single dog,' Unger said to the MailOnline. 'We just hadn't found the right one.'
His then-fiancée spotted the pup at the Ozaukee Animal Shelter 19 years ago. 'We fell in love with him immediately.' Schoep was in a cage with another dog, possibly his mother, crouched in the back quietly staring at the corner with his back to Unger. 'I knew — that's him,' Unger said.
At the time Schoep was named Tramp by the shelter staff and showed signs of abuse. 'He didn't even know what toys were,' Unger said. 'I really wanted this dog because I wanted him to enjoy life.' The couple worked hard to establish the trust of the dog and eventually brought out its 'full potential'.
‘Schoep falls asleep every night when he is carried into the lake. The buoyancy of the water soothes his arthritic bones. Lake Superior is very warm right now, so the temp of the water is perfect,' Mrs. Hudson explained.
Unger could not afford the costly treatments, which at $200 dollars a session, would ease Schoep's pain. But after Mrs. Hudson's photograph traveled across the world, thousands of dollars came pouring in.
Schoep has been getting joint laser treatments, which reduce pain and swelling while healing the animal's limbs, as well as pain medication from the Bay Area Animal Hospital.
'He's walking so much faster,' Mr Unger said. 'His stride, his gait, is longer. It's unbelievable.'
Dr. Haukass has also seen a change in the animal. 'He sleeps through the night. He's interested in going for more walks during the day,' Dr. Haukass said. 'He walks with less of a limp. His ears are standing up and his tail is wagging better.'
Courtesy of Hannah Stonehouse
'I took Schoep in for a check up because he was limping,' Unger said. The doctor recommend pain medication, but said that it may be temporary or not help at all. Then, Unger said, the doctor told him, ' "If there isn't any improvement, we should probably..." a good vet won't say "put him down," but he said at that point I may start to want to think about it.'
Faced with the possibility of losing his best friend, he called up Mrs. Hudson for an impromptu session. She met the pair at sunset on Lake Superior, because Schoep's cataracts prevent him from seeing in sunlight.
'She couldn't believe he fell asleep in my arms,' Unger said. Mrs. Hudson watched the man and his dog float around the lake for maybe five minutes before Schoep began to get cold and shake. Unger said he had to take him out of the water to let him warm up and was worried she hadn't had the chance to snap an image. 'I didn't think she even took one picture,' he said. 'But then she told me she got what she wanted.'