This page is dedicated to the all-too short life of our Belgian Sheepdog, Shaman (pronounced shah-man, not shay-man)
Only a few short weeks ago, we worked as a team. Shaman loved obedience training. Our goals were small, but there were times when we felt as if we could shoot for the stars. We must have tried reaching a little too high, for all of our dreams fell back to earth overnight. For Shaman, the Belgian sheepdog (Groenendael) is gone.
Shaman was born on March 21, 1993 in Virginia. At eight weeks of age, we brought a furry black bundle home. He looked more like a bear cub than a puppy, but we had hopes that he might be our best dog ever. He certainly had the potential. Although naive in some respects, we had researched the breed with breeders and owners, believing all the appropriate questions had been asked.
Yet, something didn't seem quite right. Shaman never explored or was curious like most puppies. Not realizing the depth of his fear, I had to coax him off the deck just to get him in the yard, and dismissed my misgivings as not knowing the breed. In spite of this, he learned his basic commands quickly, and his attention span was truly amazing for a puppy so young.
Then at four months of age, during a routine visit, Shaman lunged and snapped at the veterinarian. I sought help from a professional trainer. While the trainer was knowledgeable, he had no desire to work with Shaman. Others reassured me that it was nothing more than a fear period. The breeder offered to take him back but upon seeing her, Shaman calmed almost immediately. I believed the fear period theory and decided to work with him.
Using an extensive desensitization program, Shaman made great progress. His fear to strange places faded. At dog shows, he even seemed normal, but shortly after his first birthday, he lunged at a child in an unprovoked attack. I considered putting him down then but found another trainer willing to work with him. She truly felt that with more work, Shaman would come around. Looking back, while her methods were gentle, they were all wrong for Shaman. She understood his fear but failed to recognize that his dominant side must also be addressed. Shaman's aggression worsened, and the trainer quit when he lunged at her. We were on our own again.
Later in the year just by chance, I stumbled onto a veterinary behaviorist. After a careful evaluation, she informed me point blank that Shaman had a 50/50 chance. His prognosis was guarded. The factors in his favor were his youth, our dedication, and with some fine tuning had been taking the correct steps all along. We started the Nothing In Life is Free (NILIF) and sit/stay programs. Shaman began improving again, and we were finally given the go ahead for group obedience classes.
Through the Internet, we found an obedience instructor at a local training club willing to work with him and that Shaman liked a lot. He completed level 1 and 2 obedience as well as starting agility. He was having a great time! For the first time in his life, he even showed genuine curiosity.
Last November, things took a turn for the worse. One morning Shaman rose from a nap, only to fall on his side, shaking and drooling all over. The seizure lasted a minute or two, but he was disoriented for several hours afterwards. My vet said not to worry, unless there were more. Little more than a week passed before the next one came, and they continued to follow the same pattern. After extensive blood testing to rule out possible causes, the conclusion was idiopathic epilepsy. At first, we tried to modify Shaman's diet to see if that might reduce the frequency. The seizures vanished for nearly a month, and we breathed a sigh of relief. When the seizures returned, they came back with a vengeance. Again with the weekly pattern, they lengthened to four minutes in duration, so our vet prescribed an anticonvulsant.
Once on Phenobarbitol, Shaman seemed like a new dog. There were no signs of seizures, and for the first week, with the exception of when he was hiking, he was happier and more adventuresome than in his entire life. His confidence soared, and he began preparing for level 3 obedience. But during class, he wasn't the same. He growled and lunged at other dogs and people, including the trainer he liked so well. The high from the drug had vanished. As a result, he was a threat to anything in the training room.
After consulting with both vets, we learned his heightened aggression was a side effect of the drug. Shaman's anxiety was reduced by the Phenobarbitol, but the aggression remained in full force. Without the fear, he was no longer inhibited from using it. Shaman was caught in the middle. He needed an anticonvulsant for the seizures, yet all are depressants and were likely to cause the same results. With no brakes on his aggression, Shaman was a dangerous dog.
Painfully we realized there was only one recourse. We spent a final weekend together, full of hiking. Among many tears, Shaman had a wonderful time, but the changes were obvious. On one occasion, he came very close to biting me in the face. In a frenzy, he chewed completely through a long line and started looking at strangers (children especially) in almost a predatory way. Yet, we couldn't risk taking him off of the anticonvulsants and letting him seizure to death.
During his final days, we spoiled Shaman rotten with treats and affection. Then on Tuesday, February 13, 1996, the veterinary behaviorist came to the house and released him from his overwhelming fear and seizures. I was with him in his final breaths.
But Shaman's story does not begin or end with his short life. It must not be read and forgotten, or attitudes will never change. Things can and do go wrong in the best of breeding programs, but breeders must base decisions on more than beauty, make puppy buyers aware of ANY health or temperament problems in the lines, as well as recognize warning signs of troubled pups that exist in a world of fear. Anything less is irresponsible and misguided. These words may ring hollow now, but with that knowledge, Shaman's spirit will truly be free. Rest in peace, my special friend.
Shaman is also one of the two dogs that started the shy-k9s mailing list (see below; the other was Stella; another "shy K9" with a web presence was Sara the Mastiff; she passed over the Rainbow Bridge to join Shaman in June of 1998) and the list is dedicated to him. He was a wonderfully intelligent animal and during his lucid period, he was very loyal and obedient. Shaman appeared in the Global Network Navigator in 1994 as an example of taking pictures of black dogs. He was a real cute puppy at the time; here's the picture they used.
The shy-k9s mailing list ran on
goof.com from March 1995
through October 1998, thanks to the generosity of Matt Mead, and the assistance of Jeff Uphoff. From November
1998 through December 1999, the list was on
From January 2000 through October 2001, it was on the
vlists.net server. Now it's on Yahoo groups; See their Yahoo page for
details of how to subscribe.
This mailing list was set up by Alicia Wiersma-Aylward specifically to
discuss canine epilepsy and seizures. You can join this list by sending
with this in the BODY of the message:
EPIL-K9 Jane Doe (Put your first and last names in, not "Jane
This article, by Kim Murphy, has been published in the Belgian Sheepdog Club of America newsletter (Sept/Oct 2001 issue, pps. 12-16), as well as some smaller local club newsletters. It focuses on how we managed to deal with Shaman's seizures, and presents his story in a more technical (medically speaking) manner.
Because of Claire M. Trethewey's hard work, you can now find the pedigree for many Belgian Sheepdogs. Here is Shaman's Pedigree going back 5 generations.
On a positive note, we now have a Belgian Shepherd (again, a Groenendael) called Cosmic Shenandoah Magic (though we just call him Magic for short). He's a real joy to have around, and he has a wonderful temperament.
And continuing the trend, we now have Magic's niece, Mystic. She's on Pat's Page (as "Who's This?").
The text and images in this web document ("page") are Copyright © 1996-2008 Kim Murphy; all rights reserved. This page, or any part of it, may not be reproduced in any form, electronic, print, or otherwise, without the prior written or emailed consent of the owner. This includes mailing lists, web sites, usenet, etc.