This Dog: Shelby (Sympathizing with a Sheepherder)

shelby 2A

This dog fascinates me. Shelby, my uncle’s aging pet. She’s a former sheep herder, something that informs how she interacts with other dogs. She can’t handle it. An aggression is cued up inside her when there’s another dog nearby. It’s not pure combat, nothing for the sake of domination. Theoretically, she wants to herd them. She must not have been raised around other dogs, or perhaps her training had conditioned her to seek out similarly sized quadrupedal entities in order to control and corral them. Or maybe she just instinctively longs for the days when she was in charge of whole herds of sheep, and now other dogs are as close to the real thing as she can get.

It becomes pure anxiety for her. Of course it’s anxiety for whoever is walking her at the time, too. Having to be eagle-eyed and -eared for other people walking other dogs, it detracts from one’s enjoyment of the walk itself. As much as I feel for her deteriorating sight and hearing, it thankfully means that she’s less keen to notice her fellow canines from a distance. In the past, though, things were far more precarious. Even if I didn’t notice another dog down the block, Shelby would. Her raspy whine gradually builds as her focus zones in. If the gap between the dogs gets too close she will shoot forward, straining the leash as she whines louder and barks. At this point I hope the other walkers will pick up on the discord and move away. Simply moving Shelby myself would not always be an option – she would reach a near frenzy, as if insisting that there is no other recourse but to engage.

Years ago when I first started sitting Shelby, my uncle instructed me well in what to expect and what to do in these situations. She needs to be convinced that the other dog is no longer present. Her attention must be diverted, her trance broken so that she can calm back down. I equate it to an anxiety attack of sorts – she doesn’t seem in her right mind. But more importantly she seems self-aware of the problem. She isn’t trying to hurt other dogs – she’s trying to herd them, whether she really wants to or not. She sees a sheep-like entity on the loose and in need of corralling. She must take charge.

And so there’s two stages to Shelby’s anxiety: the stress of trying to herd the dog, and the stress of being denied it. She’s on a leash the whole time (assuming she doesn’t yank it from your hand). Try as she might, she’s not going anywhere. If things get too close, she needs her vision blinded until the other dog is taken away. Until it’s out of her presence, of her control and concern. It hasn’t happened very often but a few times I have had to stop her, sit her down and hold her close, obscuring her sight by petting her face and gently guiding her head in an opposite direction. All the while she quietly growls (not at me) and whines and breathes hard, knowing the other dog is still out there. You both just have to wait it out. Eventually you can move on.

My heart really went out to her during one such incident. It was a nice enough day, a late summer afternoon with a clear sun and some sweet air. Prime conditions for anyone to take their dog for a nice walk. I don’t recall how close the other dog got, but it came close enough for Shelby to become fully worked up. Soon we were hunkered down, me effectively bearhugging her as we waited for the other walkers to pass on. It didn’t take long but it of course felt like an eternity. Eventually the dog and its owner disappeared, but I kept a gently hold on Shelby a bit longer, a pen around her rather than a straightjacket. A comforting presence rather than a stressful obstruction.

Towards the end of the episode, she let out a sigh. A long, exasperated sigh, with a slight trailing whine. And to this day I believe I heard a pained emotion in it. Now, I’m of the opinion that people should not humanize animals. Care for them, yes; love them, by all means. But we should not assume that they experience thought and emotion in the same ways that people do. That said, they do experience those things, in their own ways. And on this day I believe Shelby was experiencing not just anxiety, but a fully self-aware form thereof. There was something in her sigh, the way it came out, the way her voice shook. It was as if she were saying, “Why do I have to be this way?” It was as if she were conscious of her own nature, aware of how she leaps into preconditioned action the moment she sees another dog. If only in those moments, I believe she is aware of how she is, and she is unhappy.

And who could blame her? It may be a human thing to do – and I may be humanizing her – but I sympathize. I of course doubt that dogs feel the same kind of self-loathing that humans do to downright existential degrees. But if we share anything, if I connect in any way to Shelby, it is in terms of being fully cognizant of our crippling personality traits. Our counter-intuitive, self-sabotaging tendencies that we should by all rights be able to exercise even a modicum of control and discipline over for the sake of avoiding such pain.

Some say that we take our self-frustrations out on others when we see ourselves in them. If someone behaves in a way that makes you mad, it probably reflects how you behave the same way but wish you wouldn’t. And perhaps I feel this way with Shelby. We may be entirely different species, but she’s still a living creature whose actions can frustrate the heck out of me. Sometimes it’s as simple as when she scavenges bits of food (or even non-food) while out on walks, rather than eating the prepared dog food at home. You know, the stuff that’s actually good for her? So how can I not relate to that when I find myself eating pricy, unhealthy junk food rather than the nutritious stuff I’ve already bought? You know, the stuff that’s actually good for me?

Sometimes my moments of self-weakness slip by unconsciously. Other times I’m fully aware of it, rife with self-loathing at every step. I see it coming, I see it happening, I see the ugly end-results… and at no point do I stop myself. Theories on self-control and discipline notwithstanding, the tendencies for self-sabotage are there. And I see them in Shelby. And as frustrating as they can be… I can relate.

shelby C


– Andrew Hall, May 2016

© 2016 Andrew Hall Writes


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