Biting Airplanes Out of the Sky: Lessons About Anxiety From a Shetland Sheepdog

I was driving home with my kids one evening when something fluffy and sable-colored caught my eye from a bar ditch. A long, dignified dog face turned a little to follow our Suburban as we passed. Was it a collie? Something about its posture didn’t seem right. I turned the Suburban around.

Not a collie, but a Shetland sheepdog. She wasn’t visibly injured or starved-looking; in fact, she was on the tubby side. Long bald patches ran down either side of her spine. Her skin was coming off in flakes.

She looked at me as I approached, but without much interest. She didn’t get up, either to meet me or to run away, and she didn’t perk her ears or pant as a dog should. On the whole, the best word I could think of for her condition was “depressed.”

She had no collar, and my friend who lived in the neighborhood told me she’d been roaming loose for days. Nobody knew whose dog she was.

We took her home. It was too late to visit the vet that day. The dog remained listless, resting her head in Anna’s lap and accepting the children’s petting without pleasure or fear. Greg guessed that she had internal injuries and doubted she’d survive the night.

But in the morning she was still with us, a little pile of sable-and-white fluff bedded down on the grass just outside the French doors in the back hard. After waking up she gave a few barks, jerking her pointed nose skyward, and then looked at me through the glass to see how I was taking it.

Hoping she didn’t have some horrific contagious skin disease, I bathed her, wrapped her in towels, and set her in a corner of the living room. She went straight to sleep and remained that way for the better part of two days, seldom leaving her corner, using the towels as a temporary bed. Ready, our Border collie/Australian shepherd mix, paid no attention to her. She was more like a piece of furniture than a second dog.

But after a couple of days she started to wake up and take notice. At first I didn’t actually see her walking around; I’d just go into another room and suddenly there she’d be, looking at me with a strangely expectant face.

The vet said she wasn’t injured. Her lethargy, hair loss, and excess weight turned out to be caused by an underactive thyroid. The flaky skin puzzled us for a while, but eventually we decided it was probably just sunburn due to lack of fur. She’d delivered pups recently and still had milk. Her paw pads were rubbed raw. The vet said, “That’s what comes of being tender-footed and then getting dumped.”

We weren’t surprised when no one claimed the dog. We guessed that she’d been used in a small-time breeding operation and then abandoned because of her thyroid condition.

There was some talk of placing her with a nice Sheltie rescue organization. We already had one dog and two cats, and adding another dog seemed like a big deal. (Yes, we now have a combined canine/feline population total that numbers well into double digits. This was another time.) Greg, sensing my feelings in the matter, said, “You know, we could keep this dog if you want. She’s small. She won’t eat much.”

I named her Bridget, a good Scottish name. With the help of some prescription pills from the vet, she slimmed down and her coat grew thick and lush. There was something deeply compelling in her small pointed face; she was so intelligent, so watchful, so alert, so very fixated on me and me alone. Ready was the first dog I’d ever loved; Bridget was the first dog to be mine.

In many of Bridget's photos, she's either barking or about to be.

In many of Bridget’s photos, she’s either barking or about to be.

It appears to me that God has allowed some special things to happen in the relationship between people and dogs. C.S. Lewis thought so, too. He had this to say about animals in The Problem of Pain.

Atheists naturally regard the co-existence of man and the animals as a mere contingent result of interacting biological facts; and the taming of an animal by a man as a purely arbitrary interference of one species with another. The ‘real’ or ‘natural’ animal to them is the wild one, and the tame animal is an artificial or unnatural thing. But a Christian must not think so. Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal—the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts. Now it will be seen that, in so far as the tame animal has a real self or personality, it owes this almost entirely to its master. If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so.

Some of this animal selfhood comes from selective breeding. Certainly selective breeding has produced some terrible things; dominion wouldn’t be dominion if it couldn’t be abused. But it’s produced wonderful things too, particularly with dogs. There’s amazing variety to be found in Canis lupus familiaris. Hunting dogs are bred for a certain kind of physiology and intelligence, security dogs for another, shepherds for yet another; and even within those groups there’s great physical and behavioral variation. Our Great Dane/Lab and our Border collie/Spaniel are comically distinct in even so simple an action as walking across a pasture.

The kind of intelligence particular to herding dogs, like Shelties, is a complex one. These dogs have to be able to direct the animals they’re herding, protect them from predators, and communicate with the shepherd.

Shelties probably didn’t have a lot of predators to contend with on the Shetland Islands where the breed was developed, but I’ve read speculation that the modern Sheltie’s tendency to bark at aircraft, and launch its body upward as if to snatch the aircraft from the sky, is a holdover from when the dogs might have had to protect flocks from predatory birds. All the Shelties I’ve known take themselves seriously enough for me to think this might just be correct.

Here we see Bridget barking.

Here we see Bridget barking.

Bridget took a very serious view of life indeed. There was something both comical and poignant about the contrast between, on the one hand, her small size, fluffy coat, and dainty features, and on the other, her deadly seriousness and determination. Affronts to her dignity offended her. She was intelligent and vigilant, reserved with strangers but deeply loyal to me. She was something of a one-person dog, and though from my point of view she seemed friendly enough to the rest of the family, they claimed this was only when I was actually around. In my absence she was moody and peevish. Sometimes when I was away the kids would hang a blanket across the corner to which she’d withdraw herself, thinking that she’d feel better if she didn’t have to look at anyone. She stayed put behind the blanket until I returned, so maybe they were right.

We often wondered what Bridget’s life had been like before she came to us. Her behavior gave us some clues, but we could only guess at their meaning.

Anything resembling violence—rough play, raised voices—made her nervous. One day Greg, who was studying martial arts, was practicing a kata in the bedroom, and he began by clapping his hands together loudly. Bridget was relaxing in the living room; she couldn’t even see Greg, but at the sound of the hand-clap, she snapped upright, ran into the bedroom through the open door, and gave him a severe barking. She didn’t react this way to loud noises in general. Did the sound of flesh striking flesh have some significance to her?

Counting aloud bothered her too. I wondered if she had lived in a household where the parents counted menacingly at the children, as in, “I’m going to give you to the count of three, and then…”

She was mistrustful of men and adolescent boys but protective of children and women. When Daniel and two of his friends fought each other with wooden swords in the back yard she watched without interest, but when one boy’s little brother went outside she suddenly ran over to the big boys and barked and barked. Their violent behavior wasn’t an issue when the worst they might do is pick off each other, but once a small child entered the area, it was a danger that must be stopped.

Well, not exactly stopped. There is a big difference between a watch dog and a guard dog. A Sheltie is a good watch dog because it is vigilant and alert and will bark the heck out of anything it finds odd, but that’s about it. If the aggressor or intruder isn’t deterred by noise alone, he won’t be physically restrained by twenty pounds of fluffy dog. Bridget knew her limits. That she dared as much as she did, given her small size and overall anxiety about the world, demonstrated real valor, I think.

One day Greg was playing with Emilie, who was about eight at the time, tickling her and lifting her into the air. Emilie was squealing with laughter. Bridget didn’t like it; she barked sternly at Greg from a few feet off. Greg set Emilie on the sofa and jokingly (but nothing is a joke to a Sheltie) walked over to Bridget with a sort of bowed-up posture until he was towering directly over her. And Bridget stopped barking, shut her eyes, and crouched down in a tucked posture. She was in no danger, but she didn’t know that. She had done what she could to protect the child, and now she was prepared to take a beating for it.

Greg dropped the menacing posture at once, lowered himself in the most unthreatening way he could manage, and gave Bridget a friendly rub.

Like all of us, Bridget had a unique identity shaped by the genetic package she was born with and her formative experiences. I loved her dearly in all the goodness and frailty of her doganity. I loved her fierce loyalty, her protective impulses, her unnecessary anxiety; I loved the way she followed me around the house, gazed at me when I petted her, got excited when she saw me putting on the shoes that meant we were about to go for a walk.

Bridget and Ready, in from the rain. Not barking.

Bridget and Ready, in from the rain. Not barking.

A herding dog ought to be sensitive and responsive to the shepherd’s will. In Bridget’s world, I stood in the place of a shepherd. She wasn’t always as responsive as I would have liked; she barked more than necessary, often after I’d told her to stop, as if she thought I didn’t understand the threat. She was more vigilant than she needed to be; she spent a lot of time and energy taking defensive measures against forces she didn’t comprehend and couldn’t control anyway. She made me think: does my anxiety look this way to God? How many of my own fears are completely baseless, being concerned with things that will absolutely never come to pass?

Each member of our family has at one time or another had a dog that was that person’s particular dog, and in each case I’ve been amazed by how close a match it was, especially considering that none of us was searching for a particular breed or mix. These dogs just came to us—from the hand of God, I think, ready to love us and teach us and be exactly the companions we needed.

From left to right: my dog, Greg's dog, Daniel's dog.

From left to right: my dog, Greg’s dog, Daniel’s dog.

Bridget was my dog—neurotic, focused, watchful, loyal. She was far from perfect, but she did what she could, and she was wonderfully lovable just as she was. If I love my own shepherd with anything like Bridget’s devotion, I will do well indeed.

bridget sweet

One comment on “Biting Airplanes Out of the Sky: Lessons About Anxiety From a Shetland Sheepdog

  1. […] is Ronan. He is my dog, my Sheltie, my 2013 Mother’s Day present. Bridget, my first Sheltie and the first dog who was ever really mine, had died some months back, and the […]

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