Adopted 17 years ago from the Ozaukee Humane Society as an abused puppy, Schoep the wonder dog becomes an Internet sensation with his devoted owner
John Unger and his canine companion Schoep became an Internet sensation late last summer when a photo of Unger cradling his aging, ailing dog in the waters of Lake Superior as the waves lulled the dog to sleep went viral.
It was a poignant photo that touched hearts across the globe and gave the pair an international following of people who continue to check on them through their Facebook page.
That photo captured a moment that has its roots in Ozaukee County, where Unger and his then-fiance adopted Schoep from the Ozaukee Humane Society’s former shelter in the Town of Grafton in 1996, when the German shepherd mix was just a young dog.
“He’s probably one of the most famous dogs adopted from the Ozaukee Humane Society,” said Angela Speed, director of community relations and development for the Wisconsin and Ozaukee Humane Societies.
The pair’s Facebook page has 106,000 “likes,” and many people log onto it daily, following their exploits like a soap opera.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Unger. “Who would ever have thought this would happen?”
Their story began when Unger said he and his fiance, who were living on Milwaukee’s east side, were looking to rescue a dog that had been abused.
“You go into a shelter and see so many dogs who are cringing, and you know they’ve been abused,” said Unger. “It breaks your heart to know that in their short life they haven’t been able to be themselves.”
The couple went to shelters throughout southeastern Wisconsin searching for the right dog to adopt, a process that Unger said took about eight months. That was when the Ozaukee Humane Society called to tell the couple of a pair of dogs that had been turned in.
“They had been roaming the countryside together for months,” Unger said, and the animals would frequently visit a school. A woman — he couldn’t recall if it was a neighbor or a teacher at the school — fed the animals and eventually brought them to the shelter.
When Unger and his fiance went to see the animals, they were greeted by a lively, friendly female who crowded the front of the cage. In the back, cowering and with his back turned to the couple, was Schoep.
Schoep stayed close to Unger’s fiance, cowered when Unger raised his hand and didn’t respond when they threw a ball and a Frisbee, all signs he had been abused by a man.
“He didn’t know how to be a dog,” Unger said. “We looked at each other and nodded and said, ‘This is our boy.’”
The couple wanted to adopt both animals, but their landlord wouldn’t allow it. Schoep, who was between 1 and 2 years old, came home with them, and Unger worked day and night to get the dog to trust him — a process Unger said took eight months.
When the couple broke up, they shared custody of Schoep until Unger’s fiance moved out of state. Schoep then came to live with Unger full time, and the bond between them deepened. Unger even credits the dog with knocking him out of a deep depression in the wake of the breakup that had him suicidal
About five years ago, Schoep and Unger moved to Bayfield on Wisconsin’s northern tip. It’s an idyllic life, said Unger, who lives and works on a berry farm there.
The famous photo came to be late last summer. Schoep developed a limp in his front left leg last winter, but recovered in spring. The limp returned later, and by late July Schoep’s veterinarian X-rayed the animal, prescribed pain pills and tried to prepare Unger for the worst.
“He said, ‘I don’t know if this will work. If it doesn’t, then it’s time,’” Unger said. “I did not expect that at all.”
Fearful he might have to put the dog to sleep, Unger went to his friend Hannah Stonehouse Hudson, a local photographer, and asked her to take a portrait of him and Schoep.
He told her of their frequent visits to Lake Superior just a few blocks from their home, where he would take Schoep, who is a poor swimmer, out in the water and support him. The water, Unger said, seemed to ease the dog’s arthritis, and he would fall asleep in his arms.
The next day, Stonehouse Hudson came out and snapped away for the three minutes or so the pair was in the water. Unger said he feared she hadn’t gotten a good picture, but she knew better.
She posted the pair’s picture on line a day later. Within hours, it went viral. Thousands of people not only viewed the photograph, they commented on it.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Unger. “It was overwhelming. There were thousands of people saying pretty much the same thing — this is a great message of devotion, of compassion, love and caring. That’s the thing that caught on.
“People said, and are still saying, what that represents is something everybody in the world wants, love and compassion. They’re looking for the good in life because of all the negativity. That is what Hannah captured in the blink of an eye.”
In addition to comments, people made donations that have paid for weekly laser therapy that Unger said he could not afford.
“It doesn’t necessarily cure the animal, but it helps reduce the swelling in the joints and stimulates good cell growth,” Unger said.
The therapy has helped the 19-year-old dog immensely, he said. Schoep still walks with a limp, but otherwise gets around “pretty good.”
The donations have exceeded the amount Schoep is likely to need, so Unger has established Schoep’s Legacy Foundation to help other dogs in need, particularly shelter dogs.
Some of the money goes toward spaying and neutering animals owned by low-income families in a neighboring community, while other funds are used to pay for operations needed by animals who are up for adoption.
It’s been a rewarding venture, Unger said.
Unger said he’s realistic about what the future will bring.
“I told myself when he was 12 or 13, this is his last year,” Unger said. “He could go at anytime. He is getting older.
“But he’s my boy. He’s been everywhere with me. I wouldn’t be the person I am without him.”
Image Information: ENJOYING THE SNOW that fell Tuesday at their Bayfield home, John Unger and his dog Schoep posed for a photo. Schoep, who was adopted by Unger and his former fiance from the Ozaukee Humane Society, donned the bandana he was given when he left the shelter for the photo.