Are You a Sheep or Sheepdog? Part I

by Brett & Kate McKay on May 14, 2013 · 146 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood


Last December, 58-year-old Ki Suk Han was pushed onto the subway tracks in New York City. Even though 60-90 seconds passed before an oncoming train hit the man, a group of up to eighteen bystanders simply stood on the platform and looked on as the train approached and ran him over. One, a freelance photographer for a New York newspaper, even had time to snap a photo of Han’s last moments.

Six months earlier, 49-year-old Patricia Villa was grabbed and thrown onto the same NYC tracks as Mr. Han. One of her classmates, Luis Polanco, chased down the attacker, punched him, and then, hearing others yell for someone to save her and that a train was coming, turned and joined a group who pulled her off the tracks.

Two nearly identical situations. In the first, bystanders look on and do nothing as a man is killed. In the second, they step in to save a life. Why do some men freeze up and react passively in a crisis, while others take action? Why do some run away from danger and others run toward it?

Why are some men sheep and other men sheepdogs?

And which one are you?

Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs

Last year I took a handgun class at the U.S. Shooting Academy here in Tulsa. During one of our breaks, our burly, mustached instructor shared an insight from retired Army Lt. Col. and author Dave Grossman that’s given me a lot of food for thought this past year.

According to Grossman, the human population can be divided into three groups: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.



Most people are sheep. Grossman isn’t using the term pejoratively, he’s simply referring to the fact that most human beings are kind, gentle, and peaceful. The conflicts and ethical dilemmas they’re regularly faced with rarely rise to the level of life and death, good versus evil. For the most part people deal with challenges that are more annoyances than true crises. And when faced with conflict, they generally try to do the right thing, avoid making waves, and demonstrate pro-social behavior.

While most people are kind and good, they simply don’t know how to deal with evil and dangerous people because for the most part they don’t encounter and interact with evil and dangerous people in their day-to-day lives. Like sheep, they largely move about with those who are like them and do as others do. They are content to subsist in a predictable and routine sphere. As they live and graze, they cannot envision anything disrupting their peace or routine, and imagine that each day will proceed like the last. And just like sheep, most people depend on somebody else to protect and take care of them and keep this relatively placid world around them going smoothly, be it the police, military, or some administrative agency.



Wolves are bad guys. They exist in the shadows outside the porous perimeter of safety that surrounds the sheep. Wolves are the sociopaths who commit violent crimes or ignore moral or ethical boundaries with impunity. They take advantage of the sheep’s tendency to be inexperienced with evil, unprepared for attack, and caught flat-footed when a crisis arises. This allows these evil men to, as Grossman puts it, “feed on the [sheep] without mercy.”

According to Grossman, a minutely small percentage of the population can be described as true “wolves.” He puts the number at around 1%.



Sheepdogs are society’s protectors. Grossman himself doesn’t flesh this out (or the other categories) all that deeply, but in reading up on the role of “livestock guardian dogs,” I found an uncannily good description of human sheepdogs.

While both herding dogs and livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) are known as sheepdogs, their roles are quite different. The former bark at, nip, and stare down animals to keep them together and moving in a certain way. Livestock guardian dogs, on the other hand, live with their flock of animals full-time, allowing them to blend in and watch for intruders within the herd. LGDs are placed in the flock as puppies so that they “imprint” on the animals they will be tasked with caring for and protecting. Strongly bonded to them, the LGD will perceive other species as predators and protect those it knows from these potentially hostile outsiders.

Large and protective, the mere presence of a LGD in a herd can deter would-be predators, and those that dare to venture closer often turn tail when the dog simply demonstrates its aggression through barking and intimidation. According to Wikipedia: “LGDs seldom kill predators; instead, their aggressive behaviors tend to condition predators to seek unguarded (thus, non-farm animal) prey. For instance, in Italy’s Gran Sasso National Park, where LGDs and wolves have coexisted for centuries, older, more experienced wolves seem to ‘know’ the LGDs and leave their flocks alone.”

If a predator is not dissuaded by the presence of a LGD, it is ready and willing to attack and fight the predator to the death. And the LGD does not simply wait for a predator to attempt to infiltrate the flock – it also actively patrols its territory, seeking out predators and even luring them in to hunt them. Yet despite their fierceness, LGDs make loyal, gentle companions, and are especially protective of children.

According to Wikipedia, “The three qualities most sought after in LGDs are trustworthiness, attentiveness, and protectiveness—trustworthy in that they do not roam off and are not aggressive with the livestock, attentive in that they are situationally aware of threats by predators, and protective in that they will attempt to drive off predators.” What’s really interesting is the different roles these social creatures can play according to their differing personalities:

“Most [stick] close to the livestock, others tending to follow the shepherd or rancher when one is present, and some drifting farther from the livestock. These differing roles are often complementary in terms of protecting livestock, and experienced ranchers and shepherds sometimes encourage these differences by adjustments in socialization technique so as to increase the effectiveness of their group of dogs in meeting specific predator threats. LGDs that follow the livestock closest assure that a guard dog is on hand if a predator attacks, while LGDs that patrol at the edges of a flock or herd are in a position to keep would-be attackers at a safe distance from livestock. Those dogs that are more attentive tend to alert those that are more passive but perhaps also more trustworthy or less aggressive with the livestock.”

The role of human “sheepdogs” is almost exactly that of their canine counterparts. Like actual sheepdogs, they live among the flock – one of them, and yet different and set apart. They protect the perimeter and vigilantly watch for evil “wolves.” Their mere presence can keep bad men turning on each other instead of on law-abiding citizens, but if they do attack, human sheepdogs are alert and ready to be aggressive. They are prepared to make a stand against those who would do others harm, but outside of times of crisis, they are gentle and trustworthy. Grossman describes human sheepdogs as individuals who have a capacity for violence but also a moral compass and a “deep love for [their] fellow citizens.” Their hardihood and bravery gives them the ability to “walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.”

Sheep find sheepdogs annoying when things are fine. For example, most people grumble about the police when they get a ticket for a minor traffic violation. But when a wolf shows up, and the police catch him, the complaining stops and people turn out to line the streets, cheer them on, and shower them with gratitude.

As with wolves, sheepdogs make up a very small percentage of the population. Grossman guesses this elite group represents just 1% of people.

The Sheep/Sheepdog Continuum

Grossman argues that “the business of being a sheep or sheepdog is not a yes-no dichotomy.” Rather it’s a continuum. Some folks live at the extreme ends of the spectrum and are completely passive sheep or hardened ultimate warriors. Most people, however, fall somewhere in between.

Your “sheepness” or “sheepdogness” can change depending on context, too. I’ve known men who act like fierce sheepdogs in one situation, but have the passivity of lambs in another.

Sheepdogs are Made, Not Born

Being a sheepdog isn’t a matter of birth; it’s a choice – a matter of mental and physical training. In fact, as we’ll see in our next post, we’re hardwired psychologically and sociologically for sheepness. In order to become a sheepdog, you have to consciously decide to do so and then slowly upgrade your mental, physical, and emotional hardware from Sheep 1.0 to Sheepdog 2.0.

Moral and Ethical Sheepdogs

As I said at the outset, I’ve been thinking about this sheep/sheepdog/wolf paradigm for awhile now. The concept has been a driving force in my desire to learn both armed and unarmed self-defense. I don’t want to be a sheep. I want to be a sheepdog and have the capacity to protect my family and loved ones from the wolves that might be out there.

While Grossman uses his sheep/sheepdog/wolf analogy to explain violent confrontations, I think it’s just as applicable to moral and ethical confrontations that we face at work and in our communities as well. One of my favorite shows to watch is American Greed on CNBC. Ever since I learned about Grossman’s analogy, I can’t help but see it play out on the show. There’s typically some guy who’s the wolf that takes advantage of innocent folks — the sheep — by scamming them out of their money. The scam goes on for years because no one does anything to end it, even when they notice something isn’t right. It isn’t until one brave person — the sheepdog — takes action that the bad guy is brought to justice.

And of course we see the same dynamic play out in larger “scams” – the recent banking and housing crisis, for example, was precipitated by tons of underhanded behavior that was witnessed by thousands, and yet only called out by a rare few.

Becoming a Sheepdog

While those who make the military, police work, or emergency response their career have a professional responsibility to be sheepdogs, all men should strive to be more on the sheepdog than the sheep side of the spectrum. The world needs men who are willing to face danger and stand up to dishonesty to save others and preserve the fabric of their communities.

Yet while the sheep/sheepdog paradigm has become more popular and well-known these days, I’ve never really seen it explained beyond naming the categories and leaving it at that. But why are most people sheep? And how do you become a sheepdog? I think these are interesting and important questions to answer, so for the next couple weeks we’ll offer some possible explanations for our ingrained sheepness, as well as ways to overcome those tendencies and become a sheepdog.

{ 146 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Scott May 14, 2013 at 6:17 pm

Absolutely loved this post. It reminds me of the character Bruce Willis played in Unbreakable, one who was a protector, a guardian if you will.

Thanks for posting.

2 alex May 14, 2013 at 6:24 pm

As always a wonderful article and easy read, I would say I sit somewhere close to the middle of the spectrum to close to sheepness than i would like to be.

I look forward to the followups to this article and maybe some tips that I can apply to my own life.

3 John K. May 14, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Great article!

I personally think that childhood negative experiences, hardships define how a young adult/man will behave, according to his understanding and reaction to those difficulties (death of a parent/sibling, birth defect, etc.). In the end his morals will guide him into adulthood, making him into a Wolf or a Sheepdog (partially, at least).

4 Mike May 14, 2013 at 6:39 pm

This is the best post I have read in a long while, and greatly appreciated. It is something everyone, man or woman, should read and think on.

5 Chris May 14, 2013 at 6:47 pm

Great idea for a topic! I’m excited to continue reading the rest of the series.

6 Waykno May 14, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Similarly, I heard it put this way: The sheep don’t like the sheepdog and the wolves don’t like the sheepdog—but the sheepdog is necessary for the welfare of the sheep. Or something like that :-D

7 Ryan May 14, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Excellent article! I came across this concept a year or so ago when I began the process to obtain my concealed handgun license and it continues to be a source of inspiration for self-improvement.

8 Devin May 14, 2013 at 7:18 pm

The most poignant piece of this was when you mentioned the freelance photographer who chose to snap a photo of Mr Han about to be killed. That turned my stomach, mainly because it highlights the tendency towards voyeurism rather than heroism. Great article, you definitely have me thinking!

9 Manny May 14, 2013 at 7:22 pm

Well written. I have to agree with John K., the environment which one is raised has a lot to do with which one you will be sheepdog or wolf. But that person can also change as he matures.

10 Ash May 14, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Great article. Sheepdogs are to be respected, for sure, but the trouble is that many are really wolves in sheepdogs’ clothing. This is the issue at the heart of the widespread disdain for authority in our world today. Anybody who sees himself as a sheepdog MUST abide by a strict code of conduct so as not to warp into wolfishness. He must be a sheepdog for the benefit of others, not his own lust for power. Anyway, enough soapboxin’, looking forward to this series.

11 Teddy May 14, 2013 at 7:31 pm

Interesting! I had always heard of the sheep/wolves metaphor, but never with the sheepdog dynamic. I always thought wolves were the autonomous ones, but this article splits that wolf into good/evil and it makes more sense.

12 Julian May 14, 2013 at 7:32 pm

This post is exactly what my parents taught me. Be a leader not a follower because being a follower may have its dangers.

13 Dan May 14, 2013 at 8:16 pm

On a serious note, I think one of the issues a sheepdog faces is being tempted or corrupted to becoming a wolf. For example, the idealistic politician-to-be eventually turning into a corrupt leader.

14 EC May 14, 2013 at 8:18 pm

Great post Brett. One nuance you didn’t mention is important to highlight though- it’s something that is more apparent if one were to read Grossman’s book (very delicately titled “On Killing”).

The sheep/sheepdog spectrum may exist, but the bigger one to be aware of is the sheepdog/wolf paradigm. Grossman proposes that sheepdogs and wolves are not all that different from one another- they have similar abilities when it comes to cunning, violence, manipulation, and control. To the sheep, the sheepdogs resemble the wolves.

In the human world this also applies- the only real difference between the two is the sense of morality that drives a sheepdog to use those above skills (which society may feel are generally “negative” abilities) for good rather than for evil.

Which is why many people are uncomfortable with the police & military (and of course their need to do violence at times in order to achieve a greater good), and why so many fictional texts over the centuries have explored the duality of cop and criminal.

15 Willey May 14, 2013 at 8:20 pm

This reminded me of a quote from that new movie Worlds End or what ever, with Will Smith. At one point he says, “Danger is real, but fear is a choice.”

16 Russ May 14, 2013 at 8:21 pm

I’m a high school history teacher in an inner-city public school district; I spend my day doing three things – teaching history, providing an example of how my young scholars should conduct themselves, and acting as a sheepdog in my room and the hallways. I am greatly looking forward to future articles on this.

17 Will May 14, 2013 at 8:23 pm

I tend to think most men fall somewhere in between. Contrary to what most men may claim.

That being said, I hardly find this presentation of the two scenarios as apples to apples. Maybe I am overthinking it, and not falling in line with the general principle of the article. But, did anyone else notice that in the first scenario it was a man on the tracks, and in the second it was a woman? I think that Social mores in a generally patriarchal society was not taken into account. In general, men and society still see women as something that need to be protected and helped more than men, and that men should be able to get themselves out of trouble without the aid of someone else.

I am not saying that is entirely the case here, but that it is definitely something to take into account when using these two examples to highlight the point made in the article.

18 Leandro May 14, 2013 at 8:23 pm

I’ve always had this kind of mentality, yet never achieved true “sheepdogness”. Sometimes, i just don’t want to cause trouble (even when it’s clear to me that much more trouble will come from being passive), and sometimes i just lack the bravery to stand up for my ideas. An old friend of mine once assigned my group of friends each one a word. Mine was “protection”. I hope one day i could live to that. Sorry for my bad english. It is my first time commenting, and i’d like to say that, as always, that was a great article!

19 Christopher Yoder May 14, 2013 at 8:32 pm

This article begs the question who watches the watchers and who protects us from our protectors. While I admire the courage of our police officers there is a litany of cases in which police officers abuse their authority, from NYC’s stop and frisk policy to equating dissent with terrorism to roadside strip and cavity searches. The sheep, the human sheep, must always be vigilant of the sheepdogs becoming wolves. I personally stand between a sheep and sheepdog. I have not served in any uniformed capacity but I do what I can to protect myself and fellow “sheep” from the capricious and ever increasing insidious behavior of our government whom hold a monopoly on the initiation of force.

On a lighter note, can’t wait to read the future articles.

20 Don May 14, 2013 at 8:36 pm

An excellent post. Domestic animals are bred to be docile, and in turn, they become much less aggressive over time. Due to living in a world with less natural threats, the same can be said of humans. We have grown away from self reliance, instead depending on others to carry the weight of protecting the many.

21 sam May 14, 2013 at 8:44 pm

I have read LTC Grossman’s books, “On Killing”. If you haven’t read it yet I highly recommend it. It talks about how humans are hard wired not to kill each other. Might help with some of the future discussion that might come up about the possibility of killing when one is in the position of a sheepdog.

Can’t wait to read the rest of this series!

22 JimCooke May 14, 2013 at 8:48 pm

I believe my nature is sheep-like but my wiring – my response in the moment has often been sheepdog. I’ve no choice in the matter. I’m in action without thought.

23 Mark Amey May 14, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Great article. I think this is part of leadership. A good leader protects their staff, and always deals with the difficult customer/patient/parent. One need to adopt the sheepdog attitude daily, in order to be ready for the next onslaught.

BTW, we recently had a similar situation in Australia, but it was a young woman who jumped onto the tracks!

24 Nick B May 14, 2013 at 9:04 pm

This comparison has been around for awhile, especially within the tactical community. Lt. Col. Grossman’s books were intended to empower first responders and tactical operators. I understand this is the hook, no one wants to be tagged a sheep but don’t get caught up with the labels. The value is in the morality and the mindset.

25 Rufus May 14, 2013 at 9:20 pm

An important distinction: sheep expect to be taken care of. Sheepdogs take care of themselves.

26 CountOnFewLGD May 14, 2013 at 9:48 pm

I second John K.’s comment about upbringing and the psychological trauma that’s shaped many of us “LGDs”. Also big ups to EC’s comment.

Having a father who is a stray dog at his best, and a wolf more often… I’m all too familiar with this concept. The pain and suffering that can be brought about in childhood leads to a certain understanding; an empathy for others that is often not had without personal trauma. And in my case, also a deep anger at the violations of the rights of others. I believe it’s this anger that numbs us to the fears that a sheep would have in the face of danger. The “big picture” perspective brought by empathy keeps us committed. Combine the two and you have courage. It’s a beautiful thing, honestly.

For those of you want to make the shift from observant sheep to Sheepdog or otherwise, I can only encourage you by saying that the life this way is far more rewarding. Take the leaps. It’ll hurt but you’ll love it. Trust me.

Hat goes off to my fellow SDs and LGDs. You’re not alone.

27 Angelo May 14, 2013 at 9:53 pm

I think some men are hardwired to be heroes or men of action.It takes a special person to be a paramedic,Fireman,cop or a solider,and see brains and guts,etc and be able to sleep at night.
That same guy could be the predator etc,with his no fear attitude.Some men are like jellyfish,and those are the ones that women usually manipulate.

28 Mark May 14, 2013 at 10:01 pm

No one watching either of the people on the tracks knew how soon a train will whoosh in out of nowhere….that’s a dice roll I’m not willing to take unless it’s someone I know personally and even then you better hope we’re blood related. I get the point and still great article, but the subway track examples are flawed a little imo as I’m not disposed to risking my life on a whim for a stranger, no matter the events immediately preceded their mortal danger situation.

29 Dan May 14, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Sheepdogs need humans to feed them ^. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you are perfect – or even superior – as a sheepdog. If you place your ego and pride as a sheepdog in front of your moral principles as a sheepdog, then you turn into a wolf.

Be a sheepdog because you want to protect sheep, not because you want to be a sheepdog.

30 Chris May 14, 2013 at 10:08 pm

I am very excited about this series! I’ll be checking back regularly for the next installment

31 John May 14, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Awesome post. The cameraman that took pictures of Ki Suk Han was actually running to try and help. A few days after he was attacked by the media he told his side of the story. He was across the platform and ran to help. While running, he was taking pictures. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it on time. There is even surveillance evidence to substantiate his claims.

32 Clint May 14, 2013 at 10:37 pm

Ive always referred to the concept as Sheep versus Shepherds in everyday life.

Most like to follow along blindly and simply take the path already laid out or the path of least resistance.

They tend to not want yo question directly, challenge authority, or blaze their own trail.


33 Matthew May 14, 2013 at 10:41 pm

I’m not a sheepdog. I’m a guard llama. I’m more effective, require less training and I spit in your eye!

34 Hamlet May 14, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Great article and good food for thought.

35 Tim May 14, 2013 at 11:17 pm

Thanks, Brett, excellent. John, thanks for the updated info about the photographer. Looking forward to more on this topic.

36 Joel Garner May 14, 2013 at 11:18 pm

@Mark: If you fall on some tracks, I desperately hope the men nearby will have a vastly different attitude than you.

37 Bax May 14, 2013 at 11:42 pm

The photographer claimed he was running and taking pictures because he was too far away to help and thought the flash from the camera would warn the train to stop. I don’t buy it myself. Photographers noted that even though he was apparently running and taking random pictures, the picture he got was very well framed, not frantic at all. And is taking pictures really the best way to help?

He said, “It took me a second to figure out what is happening,” he said of the incident. “The only thing I could think of at the time was to alert the driver with my camera flash, and I started running.”

And when he was asked why he didn’t try to actually help the man, he said, “The people who were standing close to him … they could have,”

That’s putting it on other people.

I can’t say I know I would have helped in that situation, but I know I wouldn’t have taken pictures and then sold the pictures to make a buck. Something definitely wrong with that.

38 paul May 14, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Interesting article.
I’m not sure that people can be divided up quite so easily (you do acknowledge this).
At different points in my life I have been sheep, sheepdog and I’m ashamed to say, wolf. I think most people are probably similar.

There is also this:
Many people will stand and do nothing until somebody else takes action – then they will join in and help.

39 Bill May 15, 2013 at 12:29 am

Great post! I am super excited about the upcoming posts. I do have to agree with you on the fact that there are a lot of people who fall in between being a sheep and a sheep dog depending on the situation. When I am in a dangerous side of town, I am constantly on the lookout for danger, checking to see if my wallet is still there and making sure any females with me are under my supervision, and I am able to block any attacks that are coming. Then when I am in a comfortable environment where I know the risk of danger is miniscule, I let my guard down and I take a more sheep approach to things just being happy to be alive. So I think, for me anyways, it is definitely easy to say that sometimes these traits are natural. Of course, we will see in the following articles what one has to do to become a better and more constant sheepdog. Cannot wait for those articles to come out! You really are a wordsmith.

40 Daniel May 15, 2013 at 1:29 am

This reminded me of Plato’s Republic and the idea that the guardians of the city are spirited (thumos) like dogs.

I am really looking forward to the future articles in this series!

41 J May 15, 2013 at 1:46 am


42 Leo May 15, 2013 at 2:03 am

Ooo, now this will be an exciting series. Nice intro Brett. It’s hard to not read about the description of the sheepdog and not let my thinking go straight to thoughts of human arrogance, for who would want to be a sheep (this isn’t just with your description, Brett). However, some people really are. It’s about a history of consistently repeated actions. Looking forward to the rest.

43 Chad May 15, 2013 at 3:40 am

Love the article Brett. It made me wonder though, perhaps there should be a sheepdog/wolf hybrid? Thus a person that can happily be quite solitary, and doesn’t need to follow the ‘flock’ – but doesn’t cause any harm either, and can be a sheepdog when needed?


44 Joe (Ireland) May 15, 2013 at 4:10 am

Great article.

I would recommend for your readers a wonderful essay called ‘The Necessity of Chivalry’ by C.S. Lewis. In it he talks of how men in our world can be divided into the sheep and the wolves, and that chivalry is the only way for men to progress beyond being either. For Lewis the perfect embodiment of chivalry was Launcelot, who was both fierce and gentle. ” Thou wert the meekest man”, says Sir Ector to the dead Launcelot, “Thou were the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.” Lewis says that if we cannot produce Launcelots in our society humanity falls into two sections–those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be gentle or moral, and those who are gentle and moral but useless in times of danger.

PS. thanks for the website; there are some wonderful articles here. I love the shaving articles. About time someone made a website like this! Well done Brett and co.!

45 Mike Martel May 15, 2013 at 4:12 am

I find the sheep versus sheepdog discussion as overdone. As someone (former Green Beret) who has worn the sheepdog mantle, I think that people don’t have to fit into one or the other. The world would be a much better place if we just took responsibility for ourselves – to think independently, to take care of ourselves and anyone we breed into the world. That would be enough…

46 chris May 15, 2013 at 4:29 am

I have to say regarding this issue,it could even be the same group in most cases, if just one person starts helping ( i guess making them a “sheepdog” in this) then everyone else will usually rush to help them too, so its usually just psychology at the moment that affects it. I personaly don’t approve of this sort of this distinction as mentioned in the article, it is quite easy to go from that to “oh if I was at [hostage situation/shooting/explosion} I would have taken the bad guy out before anything could have happened (mark walhberg said the same thing about being in one of the 9/11 planes, though quickly apologised). that said its still possible (soldier for example) to practice and practice operating in stressfull situations, and ensuring you always step forwards

47 Caleb Davis May 15, 2013 at 4:50 am

Love, love this article! Gave me a lot to think about, which is what I believe I love most about it aside from the subject matter itself. I can not wait for the rest of the series! I just started reading Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf”. Seems fitting for this article to come about at the same time.

48 Neil May 15, 2013 at 5:59 am

Inspiring. Admittedly, I have found myself play the sheep more often than I would have liked. It always leaves a feeling of shame that I didn’t do something. It has never been anything terribly dramatic like the examples here, but my personal tendendy is to count on the goodness of people and that “things will work out.”

The times I have stepped in as sheepdog to protect a weaker friend being threatened, or to add a calming voice to an escalating situation, those times are stamped in my mind as moments of great pride that I find myself going back to when I need reminding.

As with many of your articles here at AOM, this one in particular does a great job of laying out in a thoughtful and thought-provoking way, something that is within each of us that needs to be brought into our consciousness from time to time as we take stock of who we are, where we are, and where we might need to shift direction.

Thank you for that, and I look forward to reading more.

49 Richard May 15, 2013 at 6:04 am

Agreed. I lived in South Africa for 30 years and in that unfortunately violent and aggressive society, I learnt many lessons about being a “sheep dog”. It is important to be willing to fight, but not provoke that violence- many situations can be solved by assertiveness instead of aggression. Predators sense if you are “aware” and willing to engage and in many cases this is enough to make them seek softer prey. If you MUST fight though, get angry and go for your life!

50 Josh May 15, 2013 at 6:17 am

Excellent – looking forward to reading more to come!

51 Mark May 15, 2013 at 6:31 am

I was just thinking about this idea. I didn’t have a way to materialize it. I’ve realized there truly is evil in the world. The wolves that feed on the sheep. I’m fighting with the idea that I am a sheepdog. I’m mad that everyone isn’t sheepdogs. Yet everyone wants to be treated as if they are sheep dogs, they really are just sheep. Why don’t we just get rid of sheeps? That’s the perfect world. Where Sheepdogs protect each other and wolves just stay away because there’s no one to take advantage of.

52 Earnest May 15, 2013 at 7:05 am

Who knows how you’ll react in the heat of the moment, but I think you can increase your chances of being a LGD through how you respond to the small stuff.

- When you see the old guy at the supermarket is 50c short of paying for everything he’s got, do you give him the 50c or pretend you didn’t notice?
- Do you stop to help the person who has locked their keys in their car or walk on past?
- If a guy is taking a photo of his family on holiday, do you offer to take the photo so he can be in the picture or do you check your email on your phone?

If you do these things (option 1) because its just what needs to be done in that moment, and not because you want to be seen as a “good guy” or some BS like that, then I think you’re chances of acting appropriately in a more serious situation are better than average.

53 CoastRanger May 15, 2013 at 7:13 am

Very inspiring post. I marvel at the “nobility” of LGD’s. It reminds me of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his flock. We already have this Good Shepherd but we can at least aspire to be defenders who love our weaker companions.

54 Derek May 15, 2013 at 7:19 am

Great article. I look forward to the rest of the series. I have read both “On Killing” and “On Combat” by Lt. Col. Grossman so I am very familiar with the sheepdog. As a law enforcement officer I see this play out in our society on a regular basis. Can’t wait for the rest off it Brett!

55 Matthew May 15, 2013 at 7:22 am

I have to disagree with the point that Sheepdogs are made not born. I know that the purpose of this article is to make more sheep into sheepdogs, not convince preexisting sheepdogs that they are sheepdogs, but it is possible to be born with the sheepdog gene. I have seen it happen, I know people with it, and I too have been born with the sheepdog gene. When I was a little boy and long before I knew what a sheepdog was, I always wanted to help others beyond my best interest. Yes, you must continue to upgrade your sheepdog traits, and yes, a sheep can become a sheepdog, but you can start out as a sheepdog.

56 Scott May 15, 2013 at 7:34 am

A link to a reprint of LTC Grossman’s word references here. Worth the read.

57 Alexander May 15, 2013 at 7:37 am

Thank you for this interesting discussion – I very much look forward to your other posts.

58 Matin May 15, 2013 at 7:44 am

I have seen Dave speak on one occasion in the past and it was a real eye opener. I also manager to get all my books signed that day.

59 Lawrence Tonner May 15, 2013 at 7:45 am

For those of you who question who watches the watchers and so on in this analogy, have you considered the role of the shepherd? This is an authority figure (i.e. the government, official bodies etc) that oversees the actions of both the sheep and the sheepdogs, and will ensure that the sheepdogs don’t get out of line. Of course this, along with the analogy in general, only works in theory – the reality is that of course most people can be corrupted or subverted, but it doesn’t make the analogy any less powerful or any less of something that we should aspire to. Great article as always!

60 Brandon May 15, 2013 at 7:56 am

Good article, but I don’t think your profession makes you a sheepdog by default. We’re all human and almost all of us are motivated mostly by things other than some kind of inward urge to protect others.

61 Henry May 15, 2013 at 7:59 am

I think, as the article pointed out, all of us have a little bit of sheep and sheepdog in us. There are some instances where we just kind of roll along with what everyone’s doing and then there are instances when we take a stand.

I will venture to say there are more sheepdogs than a lot of people are prepared to acknowledge, it’s just that some people take a stand for the betterment society in different ways. Take fictional character Atticus Finch for example. He wasn’t protesting or picketting or making a huge show against injustice or racism in his community, but he took a clear stance with great courage, dignity and in the spirit of a sheepdog.

Following up with Dan’s comment, a real sheepdog stands in whatever way, shape or form as a sheepdog because it’s the right thing to do- real sheepdog’s aren’t posers.

62 Nick May 15, 2013 at 8:11 am

Great read! Looking forward to the rest of the series. Can you address what being a sheepdog looks like in the midst of “normal life”?

63 Bobby May 15, 2013 at 8:48 am

Beautiful post. Saw it on Twitter, retweeted and replied. Recommended reading and I can’t wait to hear more!

64 Martin May 15, 2013 at 9:05 am

“He is able who thinks he is able.” ~Buddha

First of all great article, I love the topic and loved the execution of it. Secondly, as I qouted from Buddha, we all have a choice. Our personality is shaped by our constant decisions, thus you are a ship because that’s what you believe about yourself, and the same goes for the sheepdog. The wolf…. if it pathology we are talking about, it is rather less direct, but ultimately, there is always the choice, both moral and concious to act on some way or another.

Just waiting to read the next installment.



65 Nate May 15, 2013 at 9:09 am

Good article and I appreciate your acknowledgement that by changing our perspective and disciplined training we can move along the continuum. I would also note this: It’s not a line. it’s a circle. just as you can move from sheep to sheepdog, care must be taken as a sheepdog can also become a wolf.

66 David Nystrom May 15, 2013 at 9:16 am

Great post. I recently viewed a 5 disk DVD set, “Bulletproof Mind” featuring Lt. Col. Grossman – I highly recommend it. HIs categorization of wolves, sheepdogs & sheep may seem over simplified, but it works. You can tell the sheepdogs, not only in heroic situations, but every day life. Lt. Col. Grossman jokes, sheepdogs are the ones who alway back their car into the garage just to be ready should the need arise to pull out quickly.

Seriously, sheepdogs are the ones who are always prepared, they have a keen sense of situational awareness at all times, they seem to have a natural calm and confident presence about them.

67 Ian Connel May 15, 2013 at 9:57 am

I read Grossman’s “On Killing” and it was fascinating. “Guard dog” is a theory but given it goes back so far, it makes sense to me.
Also Guard Dog ideals are a big reason I train MMA. That and the school is a lot of fun.
@David Nystrom: I may have to check that out.

68 Neal May 15, 2013 at 10:22 am

I think there could be a cultural connection as well. Granted, both of the anecdotes you started with were from NYC, but it seems there is a greater chance of people being helped the further south and the further from large cities. Is it lack of community? I don’t know. Rod Dreher in CRUNCHY CONS drew a distiction between the reaction to two hurricanes in 2005. In the big city of New Orleans/Orleans Parish, it was evryman for himself and looting and lawlessness. On the other end of costal Louisiana in small town Lake Charles/Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes, people who had evacuated returned and left their cell numbers with the Sheriff so they could be called on to help anybody who was trapped or had an emergency.

69 ivan May 15, 2013 at 11:11 am

I agree with John K. It is part upbringing and other variables that complete the formula to create the human sheepdog.
I have met wolves in the 60,s and that made me into a sheepdog. Learned Karate so that wolves wont harm me again. And to this day I try to help when ever possible, many more sheepdogs are needed.

70 John May 15, 2013 at 12:03 pm

I like the story, but I must say that I believe some, mostly boys, are born not necessarily as sheepdogs, but certainly with that tendency.

In the fall of 1967, full-scale busing for integration was begun in Wichita, KS. I was 9 years old and in the 4th grade. The black kids brought a violent culture that the white kids had never known. I still do not know why I felt it was my responsibility, but whenever I saw one of the black kids chasing or beating up a white kid, I always intervened. Most of the time I got beat up, but I spared the other white kid. I did not stop doing this until we moved out of Wichita at the end of the school year.

My son has had the same protective tendency since before he started school.

71 Greg May 15, 2013 at 12:42 pm

There was a similar analogy made by Orson Scott Card in Xenocide, the third book in the series that begins with Ender’s Game. He talks about Sheep, Wolves, and Shepherds with regard to moral standards. He says the sheep passively follow the moral code of the society without giving much thought; the wolves disregard the code with the same level of thoughtlessness; the shepherds consciously struggle with the standards imposed but follow them for the good of the community and it is this struggle and consciousness that makes them the leaders of the community. Beautifully illustrated in that book.

72 Shannon May 15, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Agree on many of the facets. I am a LEO, and I teach at an academy. This article is required reading for my students, then I have them journal about their own feelings on being a sheepdog. LTC Grossman is wonderful live if you ever get a chance to meet him. I second reading his books as well, not only On Killing but also On Combat. The thing that needs to be understood, however, is that not everyone can be a sheepdog. There is nothing wrong with that either. Sheepdogs don’t despise sheep. I also have used the analogy of a wolf in sheepdog’s clothing. This type of article should get us thinking as well, do we want to rely on someone else to be our sheepdog, even if that sheepdog is not selected or accountable to the sheep? Accountability was a key factor for our founding fathers, but seems to be slipping in modern society.

73 David S May 15, 2013 at 12:57 pm

I can’t wait to see the rest of this series. This was a great read. I think I might show it to some of my friends who don’t quite understand the mindset that I have in always being alert for ‘wolves’ in life, whatever they may be.

74 Robert May 15, 2013 at 12:57 pm

I think you did a great job beginning this conversation, and I hope that as you delve deeper, you address the fact that one’s man sheepdog is another man’s wolf, and vice versa. As always, I’m sure your investigation of this topic will be thorough. Definitely looking forward to this one!

75 Pete Wagner May 15, 2013 at 1:17 pm

A sheepdog’s higher priority is to ensure the safety and well-being of sheepdog puppies, even if a sheep has to be taken.

76 Operafaust May 15, 2013 at 2:43 pm

The sheep and the sheepdog derive their value from their usefulness to the shepherd, or whoever owns the flock. That is where the real power lies. Identifying with the sheepdog (who still requires that someone else feed him) is still another form of dependency.

77 Rory May 15, 2013 at 3:02 pm

I highly recommend Lt.Col Grossman’s book, “On Killing”.

I very interesting piece of scientific literature on the nature, ease, and ability of killing. It is ful of amazing insights into human nature.

For example: 1% of fighter pilots account for 90% of kills. The only personality trait these 1% all have is they got into lots of fights as a kid. Not instigated fights, but refused to be bullied and always stood up for themselves.

78 tim_lebsack May 15, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Fine article; looking forward to the continuation.
I have to agree with Christopher Yoder/Comment 19. Sometimes you’ll run across a wolf masquerading as a sheepdog. These people are double dangerous. An example – “we see the same dynamic play out in larger “scams” – the recent banking and housing crisis”.
This scam was pulled by regulators empowered by the U.S. Congress.

79 Guy May 15, 2013 at 3:52 pm

I am going to take a different tact and say that sometimes a wolf can protect against other wolves. Sometimes you need to be just as violent, crazy, and cunning as the your foe. That does not describe me at all, but I bet there are plenty of wolves who have turned their lives around and are now fighting the bad wolves.

80 KC May 15, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Thanks AoM. This is a great introduction to your upcoming series. I see this sheepdog analogy as an excellent way to convey the topic of civic duty and heroism.

Too easily, people will wait for someone else to take action. It is important for a real man to love the society he is immersed in and have a natural instinct to protect it.

I look forward to your series of postings.

81 Ethan May 15, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Great article,

I think another consideration is birth order. Being the oldest child in my family, I often felt like a sheepdog watching over and protecting my younger siblings.

82 Larry May 15, 2013 at 6:51 pm

The desire to become a sheepdog reminds me of this:

The Warrior Creed

by Robert L. Humphrey
(Marine Rifle Platoon Commander on Iwo Jima
& Bujinkan 10th Dan)

Wherever I go,
everyone is a little bit safer because I am there.

Wherever I am,
anyone in need has a friend.

Whenever I return home,
everyone is happy I am there.

83 Chris May 15, 2013 at 7:18 pm

I think it’s even deeper than the sheepdog-or-sheep idea. I view it as a triangle with the corners being sheepdog, sheep, and wolf. We are at a point somewhere in that triangle and our position changes with every action we do or don’t take.

84 Jack Grabon May 15, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Your opening makes me think about a similar situation where I pulled someone off the subway tracks.

True story: one especially cold morning in February, I got to the subway station as the train was pulling in. I looked ahead to see a man on the tracks with his back to the platform. My immediate thought was that he was a transit worker. This quickly changed when I heard some women around him encouraging him to forget about his glove and to get back on the platform.

I then realized that he was probably stunned as the train was bearing down on him, unable to get back onto the platform which went up to the middle of his back.

Instinctively, I crouched down next to him and pulled him up by hooking my arm under his shoulder. I could see the train pulling in as I did this, so it was close!

I was happy that I acted like a sheepdog in that situation, especially since I had little time to think. However, it might have also been a learned behavior, since I was especially bothered by the guy you mention above. I vowed to do whatever I could in such a situation, was tested and passed :-)

85 kirk May 15, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Wolves are bad. Unfortunately the sheep are trying to convince everyone to be sheep and not sheepdogs. I suppose some sheepdogs are fighting amongst themselves as well.

86 Matthew May 15, 2013 at 7:59 pm

While I do like Grossman’s original Sheepdog comparison, these days it’s been picked up by every bubba with a gun permit and a hero complex. Yet many who live this creed don’t label it, or think of it as anything heroic, just what’s moral.

In an article from the trunk . . .

Bishnu Shrestha fought off 40 train robbers with a knife. Not to prove he was s a badass like I see many online posers are want to do these days. Not because of an article Grossman wrote. Not even to protect his own property, as he had already given them his money. He did it because they were going to rape a young woman, and he would not stand by and allow that if he had power to intervene. When the intended rape victim’s family offered him a large cash reward, he refused it with the following comment: “Fighting the enemy in battle is my duty as a soldier. Taking on the thugs on the train was my duty as a human being.”

It seems many people have some juvenile implulse to “be a hero” and want to identify themselves with this moniker. But those who do don’t look for a title or identifier for what they are. They simply follow their own moral code.

They also aren’t the type who’ll settle, who will accept the bare minimum. Many people who I’ve heard use the “sheepdog” label for themselves have a carry permit and a pea shooter and have convinced themselves they’re equipped to deal with anything. Guys who train with their guns, friends with EMT training, volunteer firefighters, none of them need a label for what they do, They just do what they know is right.

87 dannyb May 15, 2013 at 9:00 pm

My definition of a sheep dog? A kind and caring person who is able to switch gears and become as violent as necessary to protect their loved ones.

It saddens me to think that many of the sheep don’t have the internal wiring to protect their own children if threatened

88 WC May 16, 2013 at 12:01 am

“sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.
Still, the sheepdog disturbs the sheep. He is a constant reminder that there are wolves in the land. They would prefer that he didn’t tell them where to go, or give them traffic tickets, or stand at the ready in our airports in camouflage fatigues holding an M-16. 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.”

From the referenced text, explaining the interaction between the sheep and sheepdog, and the fundamental difference between a sheepdog and wolf.

Being a sheepdog isn’t about being a hero, or gaining recognition. It’s about doing what is right, and defending those who cannot, or will not, defend themselves. However, the sheep will be wary of the sheepdog, because, like the wolf, they possess the capability of applying violence. The difference between the sheepdog and the wolf is how they choose to apply their violence and aggression: the wolf chooses to inflict evil while the sheepdog chooses to defend against evil.

It’s that sense of moral obligation (which is evident in many articles on this site) that drives the sheepdog. It doesn’t make sense to the sheep, but when faced with evil, the sheep look to the sheepdog.

I would submit that there is no continuum between sheepdogs and wolves: if a “sheepdog” is willing to harm a sheep, then he is a wolf. No ands, its, or buts.

89 Jim May 16, 2013 at 1:34 am

One in a hundred may not seem like a lot, but it is a redoubtable problem. Now take a small city of 100,000; that would contain about 1,000 predatory individuals. A fairly large city of 1 million has around 100,000 of such people!

If one speaks of sociopathic types generally–that is, those with zero or close to zero empathy and conscience–their number is estimated at about 2% of the population. They are more than a nuisance. Not all are violent, but all of them are predatory and have no scruples.

90 Jim May 16, 2013 at 1:38 am

The Sociopath Next Door by Matha Stout

Snakes in Suits by Paul Babiak

Without Conscience by Robert Hare

In Sheep’s Clothing by George K. Simon

91 Rick May 16, 2013 at 8:32 am

Sheepdogs are the domesticated descendants of wolves, employed by the shepherd to protect his investment. The sheep is eaten by wolves or “protected” by the sheepdog to be sheared then butchered by the shepherd. Such is the fate of sheep.

92 vincent May 16, 2013 at 9:27 am

Matthew, the Gurkha who fought off the mob of rapists was TRAINED to use that khukari–he says “I am proud to be able to prove that a Gorkha soldier with a khukuri is really a handful. I would have been a meek spectator had I not carried that khukuri,” ! Contrast that to a government that often forbids the possession of various types of knives, batons, nunchaks, and other weapons. Never mind guns. The government is NOT OUR SHEPHERD, unless you are a docile, thoughtless sheep who depends on a government check. Leviathan is predatory, parasitic and prepared to do whatever it takes to protect and increase its power and control.

93 Big Joe May 16, 2013 at 9:49 am

I’ve been considering myself a sheepdog for years and I give credit to the preparedness that Boy Scouts instilled and from NutnFancy on He made a video about this exact same topic. I’ll post the link because it is a “must watch”. I am in complete agreement with this topic. It is obvious that a large majority of people are oblivious to danger or even basic safety. I now carry conceal because of the threats that are evermore present. I feel like i have to because i believe the percentage of wolves is greater than 1%. I look forward to your next post!

94 Joseph May 16, 2013 at 10:41 am

When a real crisis hits, there is literally no way of determining how one will react. Generally speaking, only those trained to react in a crisis can somewhat predict what they will do. Moral people might freeze; otherwise annoying people might temporarily act in heroic fashion. Folks with good upbringing and “chivalry” might run for their lives.
My view is that a person’s day to day decisions is a far better barometer of their manliness that an isolated crisis.

95 thomas May 16, 2013 at 11:11 am

Very thoughtful article on sheepdogs. I have found that as I have grown older I can morphed from 100% sheep (again, not meant to be negatively connotated here) to existing much more on the sheepdog scale, especially as it relates to protecting my wife and family, but I also exist in constants “orange” versus “white” alert.

96 Cristian May 16, 2013 at 11:30 am

I’ll just leave this here then

97 Lee Smith May 16, 2013 at 11:31 am

Lazlo Zalezac gives a pretty good explanation of the concept in His story called Pfand X.

98 Ralph Raico May 16, 2013 at 11:32 am

Thank you for a brilliant and illuminating article, which I was directed to by the website

99 tony May 16, 2013 at 12:09 pm

I disagree i believe that there are a lot of sheep dogs that are born that way. I know quit a few actually. i totally believe in warriors blood being past down through generations. I see evidence of that every day.

100 Marty May 16, 2013 at 3:13 pm

The sheepdog is a lot closer to the wolf than the sheep. He is an agent of the shepard who has the same agenda as the wolf. I like to think of myself as a ram. You know, that sheep that shepards don’t like to have in their flocks. I don’t consider myself separate from the sheep like the sheepdogs do. All I want to do is protect the flock, lead them to greener pastures and spend quality time with the ewes. Domestic sheep want sheepdogs. Wild sheep are happy with their rams.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter