A chance to repay the favour

A photographs that millions have seen in the past few days shows a man lying in lake water holding afloat his dog, whose peacefully sleeping head is tucked under its owner's chin. On its own, the photo is beautiful, but the story behind it makes it even more powerful.

According to the Life With Dogs website, the man is John Unger and the dog is 19-year-old Schoep. Unger takes the arthritic Schoep to the warm waters of Lake Superior, where the dog can relax and sleep - hence Schoep's blissful expression.

Unger has cared for Schoep since adopting him when the pup was eight months old.

At a later low point in his life, Unger says, Schoep snapped him out of thoughts of suicide. "I just want to do whatever I can for this dog because he basically saved my ass."

To me, this story reminds me of that dictum "A pet is for life." Adopting a pet is partly a selfish act. You think, "It'll be fun to have a dog" or "I'd love to have a cat around." You look forward to fun, companionship, exercise, stimulation, amusement, all those things that pets give people - it's a benefit for you.

And the result, the payoff, is much greater than your early hope. Your cat makes you smile every day, your dog is a miracle you can't take your eyes off. Your pet is quietly there with you when you lose your job, or fail an exam, or hear that your parent has died, or struggle through an illness. It lifts your mood when you're depressed. It gives you something to care about even when you're not taking the best care of yourself, and it gets you out into the world when you least want to but most need to. Pets are so much more than accessories or luxuries: they create happiness. Pets improve human lives, and often, as with Schoep and John Unger, they save them.

So the routines and small drudgeries of owning a pet bring a huge dividend, and I believe that creates a responsibility: at some point, you repay the favour. At some point, you do something for your pet that will ease or even save its life; you do your best to give it as many happy minutes as you can, which often includes making the very last minutes as bearable as possible. To me, that's what you sign up for when you adopt a pet. It's for life, and it's not just for you.

John Unger has lived with Schoep for 18 years, owes his life to him, and now has the opportunity, the privilege, of repaying the debt. He does it by doing something simple but, I'm sure, full of meaning for him: he takes Schoep down to the lake and floats with him, giving the old dog an escape from the pain and the chance to dream at ease in his great friend's arms.

I'm sure John Unger would say it was the least he could do.

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