How Can a Sheepdog Live with a Sheep? Part 3

By Anne Gagliano

I believe that firefighters are “sheepdogs,” or those that defend the sheep from wolves. The evidence for this was clearly laid out in my last two columns. Firefighters not only survive but thrive in environments that would destroy the majority of the population. They are unique, special, rare. But most of us are not sheepdogs, including me. I am, in fact, a sheep. I’m the first one to admit this; it is not in me to confront a predator. I would probably try to run or get help, but that’s the extent of my bravery. Gentle and nonconfrontational, I flee from danger; I would never run toward it. But my firefighter would. And does. On a daily basis. On and off duty, he intervenes while most of us run away. He is one kind of animal; I am another. How in the world do we peacefully co-exist?  It’s not always easy, but we’ve established a few ground rules along our 30-plus years together.

The first step in cohabitating with my sheepdog has been this: understanding and recognizing the fact that he is indeed a sheepdog and appreciating this about him. But unlike an actual animal, human beings may choose what they wish to be. My firefighter has chosen this path. He lives to protect the flock and he thrives on it. LTC Dave Grossman writes this:

Understand that there is nothing morally superior about being a sheepdog; it is just what you choose to be. Also understand that a sheepdog is a funny critter:  He is always sniffing around out on the perimeter, checking the breeze, barking at things that go bump in the night, and yearning for a righteous battle. That is, the young sheepdogs yearn for a righteous battle. The old sheepdogs are a little older and wiser, but they move to the sound of the guns when needed right along with the young ones.”

My sheepdog is always on the alert, “sniffing the perimeter” wherever we go. He sits with his back to the wall, his eyes front and center on the door. He checks for points of egress, sprinklers, and periodically reminds me to “hit the floor” if ever he tells me to. He walks with his head on a swivel, his posture erect—even on vacation. He is always a sheepdog; he sleeps lightly, wakes easily, and is ever vigilant. And he backs into parking spaces, just in case we need to make a quick exit. Funny critter, but I do feel safe with him. He knows the wolves will feed on the sheep without mercy; and the wolf takes many forms, including fire. This can be irritating (especially the “sleeps lightly” part), but if you recognize the critter and appreciate the protective heart, you can live peacefully together.

Next step to cohabitation for me has been to give him lots of space when he first comes home. He’s been at the station fighting “righteous battles” all through the night and he’s either still wired or really tired (or both) when he walks through the door. Not a good time for deep and meaningful conversation with this bleating sheep. I let him nap, or chill, or just take a hot bath—and this I’ve always called “re-entry time.”  It is a great tool for cohabitating with a critter that must run with wolves one minute and then lie peacefully with sheep the next. Transition is really tough; so, give them some slack and it will go more smoothly.

But sometimes even if re-entry time is given, my sheepdog still may bare his fangs at me. This I call “harshness,” or abrupt, terse speech. This snarling, beastly behavior is necessary to do what he does—fight off dragons and wolves and predators and such. And my sheepdog is pack leader (a.k.a. station captain), so he must be extra bossy at times. On occasion he slips—it’s only natural—and snaps at me. It is then my job to remind him that I am a sheep, or “not a firefighter,” so back off. And don’t “bark orders” at me. With firmness and limitless patience, I keep my sheepdog in line; otherwise, we could not cohabitate. And he is always sorry; he never means to be gruff or rough. It is his sole desire to love and protect. And to share with me his soft, vulnerable side. He must be both violent and gentle; the fine line of the hero, not an easy path to walk. Be gracious if your hero misses a step or two.

Sheepdogs are “pack animals.”  They work more effectively if they have help, so naturally they are drawn to one another. And they recognize each other for what they are: the same breed. When facing down death, they form very tight bonds. They trust each other, need each other—respect each other. And they speak the same language. This is a very good thing, and I too appreciate my firefighter’s crew for what they are—his fellow “sheepdogs.”  The odds of his surviving greatly increase when they run with him. But, as a longtime firefighter spouse, I’ve had to remind him on occasion to keep me first. Even over them. He has two families and he loves them both, but I must come first. Always. And he heartily agrees.

Sheepdogs and sheep: They can and do live peacefully together. We are living proof. I have chosen him, and he has chosen me. This is the life we live—two different critters entirely but still very fond of one another. I respect and admire his courage; he lives only to keep his “precious lamb” safe and secure. I don’t know why he is what he is; I only know that I’m grateful. He sleeps lightly; I sleep soundly. He gets wounded and torn up from his battles; I remain healthy in safe pastures. But he loves what he does, and I love him for it—and that’s how a sheepdog can live with a sheep.


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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