How Can a Sheepdog Live with a Sheep? Part 1

Tad (left) and Sophie.

By Anne Gagliano

Most of us who have lived in the world of soldiers, police officers, and firefighters have heard the analogy that these guardians are like sheepdogs who protect sheep from wolves. It is, in my opinion, the highest compliment to be called a sheepdog. Critics, such as Michael Moore, disagree. They suggest that to reduce mankind to such a simple analogy is “dangerous,” as human beings aren’t animals, and this would imply that there is a “right or wrong,” an actual force for good and evil. These critics also believe protectors bully and exploit more than they protect and should not be encouraged by such analogies to do so. These “sheepdogs” are to be feared, not trusted.

But I would agree with LTC Dave Grossman if he were to say to the critics, “The sheep would much rather have the sheepdog cash in his fangs, spray paint himself white, and go ‘Baa.’  Until the wolf shows up ….Then the entire flock tries desperately to hide behind one lonely sheepdog.”

LTC Grossman has done his homework, much more so than the aforementioned critics. He spent 24 years as a soldier, infantryman, and army ranger. This would be enough to listen to his opinion on the subject, but he has taken it even further. Grossman is a psychology professor at West Point and the author of numerous articles and books, including “On Killing,” which is required reading at West Point. He is a pioneer in the psychology of killing and has brought to light this sheepdog analogy, which he himself first heard from a retired Vietnam veteran.

Grossman describes the analogy in these words: “If you have no capacity for violence, then you are a healthy, productive citizen, a sheep. If you have the capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath, a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence and a deep love for your fellow citizens?  What do you have then?  A sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.”

Hang on, you might be saying, is a firefighter really a sheepdog?  Firefighters do not, after all, actually have to kill anyone, as in combat. You tell me, as sheepdogs don’t always kill predators; they often just have to stop them from harming the sheep. And they rescue, risking themselves to save others. Dogs do this on a regular basis—save owner and stranger and sheep alike. They are a special animal—descended, in fact, from wolves—but with a deep, inexplicable love for human beings. Stories of dog heroics always bring me to tears, as I truly love these furry angels.

“Parker,” an adopted Jack Russell terrier, awakened Cynthia Gray one night by barking and digging at her side. Upon waking, Cynthia discovered that her husband Gerald’s oxygen tank had dropped to a dangerously low level and, if not discovered, he could have died in the night. (Gerald suffered from diabetes and lung disease.)  At first, they thought this was a fluke, for how could the dog have known this?  Until he did it again.

“Lily,” also an adopted dog, woke up the family even before the smoke detectors did, saving the whole family. Lily remained in the burning house till all the family members were safely out; only then did she leave.

“Rumble,” an American Staffordshire terrier, was badly beaten and shot by burglars trying to enter his family’s home. He somehow managed to chase them off, even with a broken leg. (Fortunately, he survived.)

“Trixie” kept her owner warm through the night, never leaving her side. The 78-year-old woman had collapsed in the back yard from a stroke and heart attack and was unconscious for 24 hours through a cold, rainy night. If not for Trixie’s warmth, the woman probably would have died.

Dogs don’t just save their beloved masters, they save complete strangers as well. A stray dog bit a man in the back who was beating his girlfriend nearly to death in the street outside their home in Maningrida, Australia. The dog’s attack is believed to have saved her life.

In Nairobi, Kenya, a stray dog found an abandoned newborn baby wrapped in rags inside a plastic bag. Witnesses saw the dog carry the baby (in the bag) across a busy street, through barbed wire, and into a shed where her litter of puppies lived. The owner of the shed later found the baby, still alive, and rushed it to the hospital.

In Poland, a stray dog alerted searchers to a missing three-year-old girl who had wandered off into the forest. Not only did his barks lead them to her, but he had stayed with her through the long, cold night, keeping her warm. They believed she would have frozen to death otherwise.

And, of course, there is the actual sheepdog, upon whom this analogy is based. In the summer of 2017, Canada was enduring its worst wildfire season on record, with close to 1,100 wildfires that burned across approximately 2.5 million acres. Lynn Landry watched the wildfire advance on her sheep ranch outside the small town of 100 Mile House in British Columbia. Then, on July 6, the Landrys were finally forced to evacuate their ranch, leaving behind their 90 sheep and their two beloved Maremma Sheepdogs, Tad and Sophie. They left a 35-pound bag of dog food and hoped for the best. They knew the dogs would never abandon the sheep, and they were right.

Twenty long days later, the Landrys were finally allowed to return. The neighbors’ houses were burned down to the ground. All looked black and bleak, then they spotted them. Sitting in a field near the house were Tad and Sophie, surrounded by the flock, their fur coats all dirty and disheveled, their little paws covered in soot. Only one ewe had been lost, and she was old. The dogs protected the sheep not only from fires but from bears and coyotes as well. “The sheep never would have survived without them,” says Landry. The dogs became national heroes, but Landry said, “Don’t worry, the fame has not gone to their heads.”

These inspirational stories of heroism from brave and self-sacrificial creatures touch us all, especially those of us who see the similarities between them and our firefighters. To be compared to a dog in this way is indeed a high form of praise.

In Part 2, I will highlight all the many instances in which firefighters (mine included) have demonstrated that they are, in fact, sheepdogs–lovable, loyal, self-sacrificing, courageous sheepdogs–and how we, the sheep, can live with them.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 32 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.


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