Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Loyal Dogs that Wait: A North American Version of Greyfriars Bobby

For five years Shep waited for his deceased master.

       Most people, especially those who love dogs, know the story of Greyfriars Bobby. It stands as an example of the love and commitment that dogs can develop for their owners. Bobby was a Skye Terrier who belonged to John Gray, a night watchman who worked for the Edinburgh City Police. They were inseparable. When Gray died of tuberculosis in 1858, Bobby attended the funeral. Later he was found hovering over his master's grave. He would stand vigil there for close to 14 years. He eventually became a matter of public concern in 1867, when it was argued that a dog without an owner should not be roaming free and should be destroyed. Sir William Chambers, who was then the Lord Provost of Edinburgh and also a director of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, stepped in to save him. He paid for a renewal of Bobby's license and made him a responsibility of the city council. When Bobby died in 1872, he could not be buried within the cemetery itself, since it was regarded as "consecrated" ground. Instead he buried instead just inside the gate, not far from John Gray's grave. Later the gate would be discretely moved a few feet to allow the dog to rest within the cemetery grounds with his beloved master. A statue of Bobby was erected nearby, and the feelings that people have for this loyal little dog is summarized on his tombstone which reads "Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all."

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      There is a North American version of Greyfriars Bobby, which is much less well known. His story takes place in the town of Fort Benton, Montana, located on the Missouri River. In 1936 a sheepherder became ill and was brought to the St. Clare Hospital in Fort Benton. He was accompanied by an older sheepdog, that was either a Border Collie, an Australian Shepherd, or a cross involving one or the other. The dog followed the herder into town and watched him taken into the building. Although he was not allowed inside, he patiently kept watch at the hospital's door. A nun, who ran the hospital kitchen, took pity on the loyal dog during those few days before the man died and fed him.

     Upon the sheepherder's death, his family in the East requested that the body be sent back home. As the undertaker loaded the casket onto the Great Northern east-bound train, the big gaunt shepherd dog with worried eyes watched as the casket was loaded into the baggage car. Some people who were present later recalled the dog whining as the door slammed shut, and remember him pawing at it as if trying to get in to be near his master. As the engine slowly started to pull away from the station, the dog trotted after it, but as it picked up speed he abandoned the chase, and with his head and tail hanging down returned to the station.

     Thus began this loyal dog's vigil. No one recalls the name of the man, but the railroad workers began to call the dog Shep, a typical name for a sheepherding dog at the time. Every day following the disappearance of his master, Shep met each of the four scheduled trains that stopped at the Fort Benton Station. He became a regular feature there, standing on the platform and eyeing each passenger hopefully. In the early days, of what would eventually become a five and a half year watch, he was often chased off as an unwanted stray cur. But he was never completely discouraged. Neither the blazing heat of summer nor the bitter cold of Montana winters prevented Shep from meeting the next train.

Shep at Fort Benton railroad station

     Tony Schanche, the station agent admired the dog's devotion and allowed him to live under the station platform. He and other railroad workers made sure that he was fed. Although many tried to befriend him, he was clearly a one-man-dog, who was just patiently waiting for the return of that man. Around two and a half years into his long watch , Old Shep was featured in the newspaper column Ripley's Believe It or Not. Impressed by his devotion, Shep became a Depression-era sensation. Fan mail poured in. School children sent Christmas gifts. Rail travelers took long detours off the mainline, just to stop in Fort Benton and see this devoted dog meet their train. Numerous cash donations were also sent in to help keep and maintain the dog.

     Shep was already mature when he arrived at Fort Benton, and as he grew older he became deaf and arthritic. In January 1942, he was standing with his front paws were on one of the rails waiting, as usual, for the next train to come in. Apparently he simply did not hear the train until it was too late. He slipped on the rail and was hit despite the engineer's frantic attempt to brake in time.

      Shep's obituary was carried on the wire services, and his funeral two days later was attended by hundreds, with an honor guard and pall bearers. It concluded with boy scout sounding taps on the bugle. Shep was buried on a bluff overlooking the train depot. Workers from the Great Northern Railroad put up a simple obelisk, with a painted wooden cutout of Shep next to it. Just beneath, white stones spelled out SHEP. Lights illuminated the display at night, and conductors pointed it out to their passengers. Eventually, though, the passenger line stopped coming through Fort Benton, the lights went out, and the grave fell into disrepair.

     However in 1988 a nationally known and loved radio broadcaster, Paul Harvey, gave an emotional retelling of the Shep's story. In response to that broadcast, the monument was repaired and refurbished. The Shep cutout is now painted steel, and lights are back up. In 1994, the town unveiled a larger than lifeShep statue at Fort Benton statue of Shep cast in bronze with both front feet on a train rail. The money for the statue was raised by donations, and the selling miniatures of the statue as well as memorial bricks which were placed in a thirty-foot octagon beneath it.

     Unlike Bobby, whose statue has become a tourist site, Shep's statue is not the final legacy of his faithfulness. The money that had been sent in by caring people to support the Collie's vigil eventually grew to a sizeable amount. After his death the funds were used as an endowment to the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind. Even today, the "Shep Fund" is still providing children with hearing aids, guide dogs, and educational tuition assistance.

     Bobby and Shep's stories are enduring examples of the nature of the bond that dogs can form for a human. Dogs may not know about death, but they seem to understand that loyalty, faith, and love are blessings and transcend the life of any individual.

            Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

     Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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