Aug. 10, 2012 at 7:07 AM ET
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.
Stonehouse Hudson 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.
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 TODAY.com. 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.
“Whenever he got into the water he wouldn’t swim and would just put his paws on my shoulders and want to be held,” Unger recalled. “One of these times, all of a sudden, he was asleep. We’ve been doing it periodically since then.”
He’s stepped up the soaks in the lake since Schoep’s diagnosis. Unger said he can already see an improvement in Schoep’s limp, although he doesn’t think it will ever go away.
Unger adopted Schoep as a rescue dog with his then-fiancée nearly 20 years ago. Schoep had been abused as a puppy and it took months for him to trust Unger. But Unger 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 Unger 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.
Unger 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 Unger 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.
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. “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 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.”
More from TODAY Pets:
Sponge Bob the 33-pound tabby dies
Video: No one home in Arizona house but a bobcat
RIP Baby Beluga: Whale that inspired famed kids' song dies
Deformed puppy, rescued from trash, learns to walk with water therapy