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Love, Devotion and a Remarkable Journey

July 27, 2013

John and Schoep

Schoep has passed away.
The nicest man in the world, John Unger, has lost his companion. Schoep had just had his 20th birthday. A huge milestone considering Unger was contemplating euthanasia late July of last year.
But after what was supposed to be a final photo of Unger and Schoep went viral on the Internet, Unger was able to spend a few more precious months with his friend.
I never met John Unger or Schoep, but I followed their almost daily posts on Facebook and marveled along with thousands of others at the transformation in the elderly mix breed. For those who don't know – that “final photo” of Unger holding Schoep as he floated in the balmy waters of Lake Superior touched many lives.
Schoep, a shepherd mix, then 19, suffered from debilitating arthritis, barely able to walk and unable to sleep restfully. Unger would take Schoep to Lake Superior and would hold him up in the water, the buoyancy allowing him to relax and sleep less painfully sometimes for an hour or more.
Ungers friend, Hannah Stonehouse Hudson, a professional photographer, took a picture of the two during one of these therapy sessions — Schoep with his head resting on John's shoulder, his eyes closed. John holding Schoep, his eyes closed as well, both blissfully relaxed and comfortable in the moment. It was as if nothing else existed but the two of them.
The image captures a moment of sweetness, contentment, happiness, trust and love; and perhaps resolve, especially on Unger's part.
After the photo went viral and the story got out, Unger received many monetary donations from all over the world. Schoep also was the recipient of many gifts, including a heated dog mattress which Unger attested that Schoep enjoyed immensely and had begun to sleep through the night.
Many of Unger's first posted photos were of Schoep sleeping peacefully on that mattress, sometimes with a blanket Unger had placed on top of him. Unger often thanked the person who gifted that blanket to Schoep.
Soon after the photo went global, enough money was accumulated to allow Schoep to receive laser treatments for the arthritis, along with medicine and treatments that had been otherwise cost-prohibitive.
It didn't take long for the amount of donations to far exceed what was needed, so Unger, wanting to give back, created the non-profit Schoep Legacy Foundation, which is dedicated to the improvement of animal and human welfare. The funds that exceeded the cost of the care for Schoep will go toward helping low-income families in the area near Unger’s home in Bayfield, Wis., take care of older pets as well as assist in the spaying and neutering of pets.
When the money started pouring in, Unger spoke with Hudson as well as Schoep’s veterinarian, Dr. Erik Haukass, and they suggested creating the foundation.
For those of us who stayed with Unger and Schoep through to the end; the journey was remarkable. Schoep was almost his old self, according to Unger. Their daily walks took them to trails they hadn't visited in several years because of Shoep's condition.
Everyday I looked forward to Unger's posts. Usually there were new photos of Schoep along with a brief description of the weather, how it effected Schoep, what Schoep did during the walk and I got to see the amazing recovery the old boy was making.
The images that I remember best were of Schoep doing what dogs seem to love to do most, digging for what appears to us to be nothing, but to them something wonderful must be there because they keep digging and digging with increasing furiousity.
One photo of Schoep shows him smiling (yes they do smile; I don't care what anybody says) with his nose in the dirt, or snow, eyes wide with excitement, paws digging to China, as John Unger described; another photo of Schoep with his head poking into a bush of pink roses, ears up, eyes wide, alert, happy, coat shining, thick and full; still another of Unger carrying Schoep over his shoulder at a fall festival because his buddy was tired. And finally, the last photo posted was Schoep sitting drowsily in the grass, his front legs in front of him, his sleepy head haloed by little yellow flowers.
This isn't really a story about a dog. It's about kindness and goodness. This story didn't get the attention it should have, in my humble opinion. Perhaps because Unger didn't exploit Schoep, or use the donated money inappropriately, or seek fame for himself, or, God forbid, call somebody a derogatory name. The whole thing was about Schoep and what he could do for him.
It was simply a love story.
Unger's posts on Facebook were never bitter, angry or whiny. He never commented on anything other than how Schoep was doing, the weather, his work and often how grateful he was for the outpouring of care he received. He never asked for anything more than what he got.
I don't know John Unger personally. I've never met the man, and he never responded to any of my silly comments on Facebook. I've never stood face to face with him or talked to him on the phone and probably never will, so I can't say that I know with absolute certainty that he is the nicest man in the world. The emotions I am experiencing following the shock of July 17 are still with me, pushing at the back of my throat and behind my eyes, threatening to release the torrent.
It's making my head hurt.
But I'm at work among people who I think are not like me and I'm afraid will put in that last piece of the puzzle and conclusively decide that, “Yeah, she's bonkers.”
But, that's OK because John and Schoep have left an indelible mark on my life. I do know definitively that there are good, loving, compassionate, understanding people out there. Knowing that and anticipating the next heartwarming story are what keep me going.
Nothing I can say here would even begin to describe what all this has meant to me. I just hope the story of a man who loved his dog enlightens someone else who has animals in their lives or that it just makes someone happy.
Thank you to John Unger, Schoep and Hannah Stonehouse Hudson for making my life tons better. I'll miss the daily posts, but I have your picture on my wall to remind me to always keep my eyes open.
For more information on the Schoep Legacy Foundation, go to www.johnandschoep.com

To contact Andreia Medlin call the Herald at 263-7331 ext. 234 or email life@bigspringherald.com

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