The Bayfield, Wis., man got that photo -- and world validation, too.
When Unger's friend, professional photographer Hannah Stonehouse Hudson, posted the unusual photo -- of Unger holding his sleeping dog in the waters of Lake Superior -- on her Facebook page Aug. 1, it went viral. A week later, the photo had been shared 156,911 times, prompted 28,695 comments and received more than a quarter million "likes" (264,433 -- and counting -- at press time).
"In the shot, the dog is completely relaxed, with his head on John's shoulder, eyes closed, out cold. John's eyes are closed, too. The water is calm. It's completely serene," Stonehouse Hudson told the Pioneer Press in a Page 1 story that was published Wednesday, Aug. 8. "In this photo, people have said they see everything from pure love to hope for the world. They see peace, kindness, the relationship between man and dog."
Now, Unger shares how the photo -- and his dog -- have both been turning points in his life: "Schoep developed a limp. It went away for a while, then it came back," says Unger, 49, who lives and works as a hobby farm caretaker and a carpenter's helper in the Town of Bayfield.
"The vet said that part of it is age, and there's not much we can do, besides pain meds. I knew the vet was not going to say, 'You'll have to put him down.' They never say that, but the writing is on the wall, that it would be cruel to keep him going if he is in a lot of pain. That hit me like bricks.
"That night, or the following day, I saw Hannah, a photographer I've known ever since we moved to Bayfield five or six years ago. I knew she was insanely busy in the middle of wedding season, but I asked if she could get a nice picture of Schoep and I together soon because I didn't know how much time he had left, and I didn't really have a picture of the two of us. She said, 'Tomorrow would be great.' I said, 'Meet us at the lake at dusk.' (Schoep has cataracts and he can see better when the sun goes down.)
"I knew I wanted a picture in the water because, for years, he has been falling asleep in my arms in the water. I told her about it and she said, 'That can't be!' I know it's strange. It stems back to teaching him to swim. He's not a good swimmer. I used to take him to Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. Swimming is a natural thing for dogs, but for some reason when he started doing the 'doggie paddle,' he never did it fast enough -- he would sink!
"So I would just hold him, cradling his belly, like you do when you are teaching a child how to swim. Soon enough, he started putting his paws on my shoulders and I would hold him like a small child. He started falling asleep in my arms.
"I knew it was unusual, but it's something we've always done, especially when it's hot. And now, I do it as hydrotherapy for his arthritis and joint pain.
"I told Hannah to meet us at (Lake Superior) at 7 p.m. (July 31). I told her that I wasn't going to speak because if I did, Schoep would wake up, and sometimes we have only five to 10 minutes in that water before he gets cold. I said, 'We will be in the water when you get there. Just come and start taking photos.'
"When we were in the water, I saw Hannah on the dock and the walkway, but I did not think she was shooting yet. When Schoep started shaking, I said, 'I've got to take him out already, we might have to do it another day.'
"She said, 'Why? I already got some great shots.' It happened that fast.
"Hannah said, 'OK, I'll post the photos (on Facebook) within the next day or so. See what you think.' I pretty much saw 'the photo' when everybody else did.
"I thought it was a fantastic photo. Of course, it moved me, seeing him on my shoulder. I was so happy that we got a photo that I can have for the rest of my life and remember those swims."
When asked what he was thinking at the moment the photo was shot -- his eyes are closed as his dog sleeps in his arms in the water -- he breaks down.
"Hold on," he said. "That moment just hit me again. Well, OK, I was thinking this could be the last time."
A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP
Schoep -- named after the Wisconsin-based Schoeps Ice Cream -- is a rescue dog.
"My ex-fiancee and I found him at the Ozaukee Humane Society in Wisconsin in 1996. He was estimated to be 8 to 14 months old. He was in a cage with his sister.
"His sister seemed like a normal rescue, acclimated to her surroundings and to people. Schoep basically was sitting as far back in the corner as he could get. My ex got him to come to her, but he walked with his head down.
"He looked like he was absolutely defeated, I'll never forget it. We basically nodded and said, 'He's the one.' I guess I just wanted to help a dog who needed help."
The timid shepherd mix -- who they suspect may have been abused -- didn't want to interact with Unger.
"At the shelter, he warmed up to my ex, but he would not come from behind her legs to meet me. So I got a tennis ball and started rolling it between my knees with my hands. Slowly, that attracted him. His ears went up. He was curious.
"I did that for a good half-hour, but he never caught on enough to play catch with me. That's when I realized he had never played before -- he didn't know how."
A year later, it was Schoep's turn to help Unger.
"My ex-fiance broke up with me abruptly, and I felt myself falling into a depression," he said. "About a month later, I went down to the breakwater in Milwaukee with thoughts of suicide. Schoep was with me.
"I looked over at him, and he looked up at me in a way that sounds like a story, but he looked up at me with a furrowed brow, almost squinting, a concerned and confused look that I've never seen him ever make again.
"Right then and there, I decided I couldn't go through with it, because if I did, who would take care of him? I had just adopted him, I was not going to abandon this dog. Even on the walk home, I began to focus more on the dog than myself. I was still depressed, but I have never been suicidal again.
"I decided to use my energy not to focus so much on what I was feeling but to give my dog the best life I could. In the process, I helped myself, too.
"We give animals as much as we can; in return, they give us their all, no matter how little or how much we give them. I have given Schoep as much as I can, although it was very little at that time. He has always given me his all."
Like the photo, this dog just keeps going and going and going: People tell Unger it's unusual for a large-breed dog to live almost two decades. Unger can't explain his dog's longevity, but he thinks it has helped that the dog went on long runs for many years, still eats vegetables for snacks and, of course, is loved so much.
"Not too many years ago, I realized that he was not going to be here much longer," Unger says. "I started having anxiety issues about it. But I came out of my deep depression (resulting from the breakup with his fiance) about two years ago, and so now I'm ready -- as ready as any owner can be when faced with saying goodbye.
"I know my life will be completely changed. My whole schedule for years has been based on Schoep.
"But I know the time to say goodbye is drawing near. I hope, when it does happen, it will be a peaceful thing for him. I have thought about what a huge change it will be for me. What am I going to do? I will cross that bridge when I come to it, but I think I will be OK."
A BEAUTIFUL WORLD
Unger didn't expect the world to help him say goodbye.
"When I first saw the photo, I noticed a couple of comments, but I got my first computer in February and I've been on Facebook for only a couple of months. I'm an infant when it comes to the computer. The jargon that people use, I have no idea what they're talking about. When someone said, 'Hey, I think this picture is going viral,' I had to ask what that meant."
He certainly knows now.
"I started reading the comments and couldn't stop," Unger says. "I stayed up most of one night reading every single one. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The kind things they were saying.
"It's still tough for me, coming from a depressed place. I didn't think very highly of myself. To have that mindset for decades and then literally overnight to have thousands of people saying these things to me ... it was ... I am still at a loss for words. The kindness of these words was the exact opposite of everything in my head for decades.
"The comments that affect me the most are the ones where a person who was having trouble, the photo made a difference in their day, or that they just lost their pet and the photo made them smile. When I realized that this photo is actually helping some people -- that, in turn, helped me."
Unger is amazed that one photo has led to so much attention. "When the Duluth paper called and wanted to do a story, even then I was like, 'Really?' "
That story led to the duo becoming media darlings.
"The Huffington Post did a story," he says. "I, um, sort of know what the Huffington Post is."
Eight days after the photo was first posted, the attention continues: At press time, CNN and Fox were calling.
"Hannah and I still say to each other, 'Can you believe this?' "
Some of the reaction has amused Unger, such as queries whether he's single.
"Are they joking, or is that a real question?" he wondered.
The answer, just in case: Ladies, he's single and ready to mingle.
"I would be embarrassed to tell you the last time I went out on a date," he said.
He isn't sure anyone would really be interested.
"I'm penniless," he says. "I live paycheck to paycheck. Right now, I have less than $5 in the bank."
Hopefully, that will change soon: The photographer is selling prints (and coffee mugs) at http://lakesuperiorcards.com/p96728378 and splitting proceeds with Unger. In addition, an anonymous donor contacted the Pioneer Press on Wednesday, Aug. 8, with an offer to pay for all of Schoep's medical treatments and vet bills.
A GIFT TO THE WORLD
"This has been a gift from the world, this kindness," Unger says.
Unger has spent some time considering why the photo has affected so many people.
"I guess it's nice to see a story like this among all the bad news in the world," he says. "What has amazed me is how this photo has brought everybody together in a positive way. Isn't that what we're striving for in the world?
"That's what I can't believe -- that I have something to do with something like that. Are you kidding me? I'm still dumbfounded. A picture can join the world together in joy and happiness? It can cross barriers of language, culture, religion? And it has crossed barriers -- it has crossed every one."
Share your turning point with Molly Guthrey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5505.
Here's a sampling of what Pioneer Press readers are saying about Hannah Stonehouse Hudson's photo of John Unger and his dog, Schoep (to read more comments, or to make a comment, go to twincities.com/ci_21254327):
-- "I became emotional at first glance, for several reasons. One of them being, that I too, have an aging shep-mix with arthritic issues and it just resonated with me. Animals = Love"
-- "I've rescued a few dogs over the years. I can only try to be as good to them as John is to Schoep. He is a good man, and Schoep knows it. :-)"
-- "I put it on my desktop so I can access it any time. I just can't stop. It's mesmerizing in its beautiful simplicity and deeply soul touching effect."
-- "I wish I had one last picture with my dog."
-- "The MOST amazing story I have read in a LONG time!"
-- "Dogs are such a special part of our life."
-- "It's just a great story about a man and his dog. God Bless both of them!"
By Molly Guthrey