DULUTH, Minn. (WCCO) - A picture has changed the lives of a Bayfield man and his dog. In August, John Unger had photographer Hannah Stonehouse Hudson take a picture of him and his dog, Schoep, floating in Lake Superior.
Ever since that photo was posted on the internet, Unger has a newfound celebrity status. Mail from all over the world fills his Bayfield home. The letters and gifts come from complete strangers, but in every package, he finds an instant connection because all that mail is from someone who cares about Schoep.
"It's amazing. Because we've opened up our lives, people are opening up theirs to us," said Unger.
All write about the photo that captures the commitment of an owner trying to relieve the pain of his aging pet. The water helps relieved the pressure on the dog's arthritic joints.
At 19, the years have slowed the shepherd mix, but lately, Unger has noticed signs of a younger Schoep returning.
"He has a much better life. He is not in pain as much, and he's enjoying himself again," Unger said.
All those letters contained much more than a heartfelt message. One woman from California sent a Tempur-pedic bed.
"He's sleeping through the night, which is huge. He would get up at least four times a night," Unger said.
A man in Connecticut sent special supplements for the elderly pet and hundreds have sent donations to Schoep's veterinarian, Bay Area Animal Hospital.
"One person donated three times over three days. She just kept calling, wanting to give more," said Pam Lightner, a receptionist at Bay Area Animal Hospital.
Nearly every day, for the last several weeks, the vet clinic receives correspondence from all over the world from those who aren't ready for an 18-year partnership to end.
"Without treatment it was time to say goodbye to Schoep," said Erik Haukaas, Schoep's veterinarian.
More than $10,000 has been donated. The money pays for a weekly laser therapy to stimulate old cells in Schoep's body. The cells then reproduce faster, reducing swelling and pain.
"This is the best response I've ever seen with these treatments," said Haukaas.
The results are almost immediate and Schoep is able to walk with ease out of the vet clinic. Still, money can't buy the one treatment that heals both owner and pet. In the weightless environment of Lake Superior, Unger and Schoep still find a few moments peace. Meanwhile, the weight of what's to come bears heavily on Unger's mind.
"Realistically, this could be our last time," he said.
We should all be so lucky to have nearly two decades with our pet, even luckier that their picture just happened to touch the world.
"Had this not happened, he probably wouldn't be here anymore," Unger said.
With donations still coming in, the cost of Schoep's care will be covered for the rest of his life.
Any remaining money will be used to start Schoep's legacy foundation, which will partner with other programs to help other animals in need.