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John Lundy, Forum Communications, Published August 06 2012

Wisconsin photographer's touching photo goes viral

BAYFIELD, Wis. - It’s an image that’s hard to look at without smiling.

A dog sleeps in blissful repose, head rested against the neck and shoulder of a ponytailed man standing shoulder-deep in water. The man appears in profile, and he wears dark glasses, but his eyes seem to be closed. The smile on his face matches the dog’s contentment.

The photo has drawn the attention of thousands of people since being posted on Facebook last week. The story behind the photo is touching.

Professional photographer Hannah Stonehouse Hudson took it off Bayfield’s Reiten Beach in Lake Superior on Tuesday. The man is her friend John Unger. The dog, an aging, arthritic shepherd mix, is named Schoep, after a brand of ice cream that’s popular in southern Wisconsin (the dog likes vanilla).

Unger and his then-fianceé found the dog 18 years ago at a humane society in Ozaukee County, Wis., when it was an 8-month-old puppy.

“We knew we wanted to work with an animal who was abused,” Unger said. “I just had a vision of working with an animal to bring out his full potential.”

Testing suggested that the dog had been beaten by a male, and it took Unger another eight months to fully earn his trust.

The relationship with his fianceé didn’t work out. They shared custody of Schoep for a while, but he has been Unger’s full time since his former fianceé moved to Colorado 13 or 14 years ago.

But the breakup with his fianceé caused Unger to enter a depression. One night, he said, he went to a breakwater in Lake Michigan off Milwaukee with thoughts 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.”

Unger has no other pets, but he said that while growing up he dreamed of having a house full of dogs. Like him, Hudson is a dog-lover. Self-employed as StonehousePhoto, she includes dogs in much of her work. “My dream … is to only take photos with dogs in them,” she said in a telephone interview on Friday.

It’s the right community for people who love dogs, Hudson said.

“Bayfield is a dog town,” she said. “We all love dogs. A lot of us have them, and basically we keep track of each other and our dogs.”

She hadn’t seen Unger for a couple of months and thought his dog might have died. But last week, Unger approached her with a request. “He said it’s been so warm in the lake I’ve been able to take Schoep into the water,” Hudson related. “He’s so relaxed he just falls right asleep.”

Unger, who found his way to Bayfield about six years ago, had a photo of himself with his dog in mind for several years. But that mission took on added urgency last week he said. Noticing Schoep limping, Unger took his dog to a veterinarian in Ashland. The vet prescribed pain-relief medication, but Unger doesn’t yet know how effective it will be. If Schoep isn’t able to get up without pain, it will be time to put him down, Unger said.

Unger stopped the conversation to regain his composure.

“What was going through my mind when Hannah was taking those pictures was that this may be the last time I’m going to be swimming with him,” Unger said.

When Hudson got to the beach on Tuesday, Unger and Schoep already had been in the water for about 10 minutes, so she only had about five minutes to take the photos. She didn’t know the results until she looked at them on her computer later on Tuesday, and she didn’t have time to post them to her Facebook page until Wednesday evening.

It didn’t take long for the image to go viral.

“About six hours later I was in complete awe that it had been shared, I think it was, 200 times,” Hudson said.

But that was barely the beginning. By Sunday evening, the photo had been shared 86,000 times, “liked” 150,000 times and viewed in excess of 1.8 million times. The more-than-17,000 Facebook comments on the photo include words such as “touching,” “tender,” “loving,” “breathtaking” and “precious.”

Hudson, 34, who didn’t charge Unger and doesn’t expect to make any money from the photo, accomplished what she set out to do. “A lot of the time if I find an interesting, cool story that’s positive about animals, I’ll just do it,” she said.

Unger, 49, works as a caretaker on the farm where he lives outside of Bayfield. He got his first computer in February and admits to being befuddled by the Internet. He has seen the responses to Hudson’s photo, but isn’t quite sure how to respond.

“He is not really keyed in to the Internet world,” Hudson said. “That’s what makes this all even more fun. Because I think he’s getting e-mails from women asking if he’s single.”

Unger — who is single — said the overtures haven’t been quite so blatant as that, but he has picked up hints of interest from some women online.

Which is fine, Unger said.

“Boy, is it tough to meet women up here,” he said, laughing. “So this might open up a new road.”

The photo of Unger and Schoep is the second photo taken by Hudson to cause a sensation since she started her business in 2005. The first was of a bear crossing the ice on the lake in front of the Madeline Island ferry. “I tend to be in amazing spots at the oddest times,” she said. “It’s Lake Superior, and weird stuff happens.”

Hudson’s husband, Jim, 34, also works on his own. A former police officer, he left the force 10 years ago to be a full-time fisherman. “We call it breathing into the bag of self-employment,” Hudson said. “But he’s having fun and we can do it and make a living and stay in Bayfield, which is very important to us.”

Hudson is having fun in her work, too, especially when dogs are involved.

“I have a blast,” she said. “I can’t believe I get to do this.”