John Lundy, Forum Communications, Published September 01 2012
After Internet frenzy, dog and man go on with lives
After nearly two decades together, John Unger and Schoep, the fruit farm caretaker and 19-year-old shepherd mix from Bayfield who have become an Internet sensation, seem to resemble each other not so much in appearance but in personality.
“This is great!” Unger exults when visitors arrive at the slightly cluttered cottage-cum-bachelor pad where he lives in the heart of Bayfield County’s fruit country. He’s referring to an Internet radio program that’s on, featuring the music of Smokey Robinson.
Breaking into a ready smile, the 48-year-old Unger ushers in his company. He shows an immediate affinity, openness and humble spirit toward people he hasn’t previously met. In a two-hour interview and photo session, no questions are avoided; every request is quickly granted. The message Unger conveys is: Welcome to my life; I’m not going to pretend to be anything I’m not.
Which is the same message one seems to get from his dog.
Schoep makes his appearance moments after the guests arrive, gently rubbing the leg of one of the newcomers. The aged dog is blind and hard of hearing, but seems still to have a good sense of smell. He walks slowly, with a pronounced limp, and his legs splay awkwardly when he stands at his feeding bowl. Unger has to lift Schoep up and down the steps outside the cottage and into and out of his Honda van.
Nonetheless, Schoep seems content and up for anything, whether sprawling with John on the Tempur-pedic dog bed donated by an admirer from California, walking the grounds of the fruit farm or going for a stroll on Rittenhouse Avenue in Bayfield, where man and dog can’t make it one block without being greeted by well-wishers and inquiries about Schoep’s health.
“He’s doing great!” Unger unfailingly responds.
Among those to greet them is Hannah Hudson, the photographer whose image almost five weeks ago of Unger holding a sleeping Schoep in Lake Superior sparked an online frenzy that seems to have touched thousands of lives and changed the lives of the major participants – including Schoep.
The dog has rallied considerably since donations came in that paid for laser treatments and two medications at Bay Area Animal Hospital in Ashland, Unger said.
“His range of movement is absolutely improved,” Unger said. “He’s holding his head high again. He’s excited to go for walks again, especially to go swimming. I’ll say, ‘Wanna go to the lake?’ And he’s: Yes.”
Schoep’s energy and movement have returned to where they were about a year and a half ago, when Unger first noticed signs of deterioration, he said.
Hudson has seen the difference. “Schoep is definitely perkier, more responsive,” she said.
Dr. Sarah Myers, a veterinarian at Bay Area Animal Hospital, confirmed that there has been some improvement.
“I can definitely tell he’s got a little bit more bounce in his step,” she said. “He’s got a little more of a comfortable gait.”
Joint problems are common for German shepherds and related breeds, Myers said. But the typical life span of such dogs is 10 to 12 years, not 19. And outside of arthritis, Schoep still is basically in good health.
Unger attributes the recent improvement not just to medications and laser treatments. Since he got the new bed, Schoep has been sleeping through the night, Unger said. Also, the dog is eating better food, thanks to a special diet donated for Schoep via the animal hospital by Hill’s Science Diet. The Kansas company has promised Schoep’s food will be provided for the rest of his life.
Because the food is unfamiliar to Schoep, Unger mixes a little of one of the dog’s favorite foods with it: croutons. Proving that an old dog can learn new tricks, Schoep is learning to eat and drink from elevated bowls. A donor provided them so that Schoep doesn’t have to bend down so far to eat and drink.
One thing hasn’t come back: Schoep’s bark. The dog “lost his voice” about a year and a half ago just as his energy started to diminish, Unger said. Although Schoep is not a big dog, he had an “incredibly loud” bark, Unger said. The bark is meaningful, because after Unger took Schoep in from an animal shelter as an apparently abused 8-month-old puppy, he had to wait months to hear his dog bark.
“That was when he really started becoming a dog – a real dog,” Unger said. “I cried the day he found (his bark). It was an amazing thing.”
In a sense, Unger rescued Schoep, and Schoep returned the favor. Unger has told about the depression he went through after a relationship ended, and how Schoep lifted his spirits one night when he was standing at the Lake Michigan breakwater in Milwaukee, contemplating suicide.
Hudson’s compelling photograph, along with John and Schoep’s story, seems to have touched many people.
Unger, who has no TV and only has had his computer since February, had received 836 personal emails as of Tuesday.
“I’ll get a letter in the mail, or an email, from someone who is hurting,” he said. “It’s still overwhelming that we have this impact on people’s lives.”
He also has had several marriage proposals. “We’re taking that one slow,” Unger said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of opportunity there.”
In town, he gets some good-natured teasing about his celebrity status, Unger said.
“The thing I had to get used to … was that the tourists now recognize us,” he said. “And if we’re just walking in our normal paths, all of a sudden people will come and basically say: ‘Are you that guy, and is that that dog?’ ”
They are easy to spot: Unger, a big man with long, thick, graying hair in a neat ponytail, and the medium-sized Schoep, mostly black with brown, tan, white and gray splotches, walking slowly but steadily together with numerous stops to check scents.
Hudson said she has gotten thousands of phone calls and has had to clear out her voice mail three or four times a day to make sure she doesn’t lose contact with her clients. During one 24-hour period, three groups of strangers drove up to her house. They didn’t have business motivations; they just wanted to talk about the photo.
Orders continue to come in for prints of the picture, said Julie McGarvie Unger, who is John Unger’s sister-in-law and is managing public relations for Hudson and Unger. And donations continue to arrive for Schoep’s care at the animal hospital. Schoep’s medical care will be covered for the rest of his life, she said.
Both Unger and Hudson expect some financial gain from all of this. But they also have thoughts of setting up a nonprofit, tentatively titled the Schoep Legacy Fund. One of Unger’s dreams, he said, is to be able to provide dogs for veterans returning from war.
Perhaps that was even the reason for the astonishing change in his life, Unger said.
“There is a spiritual thing going on here, and I truly believe that,” he said. “I’m not a religious person, but I do believe in – not in a freaky sense – the spiritual things in our life here. … I really do believe this is happening for a reason.”
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John Lundy writes for the Duluth News Tribune