For years, the name “Shep” has been synonymous with “faithful dog.” So when Hollywood writer/director Ford Beebe — best known for “African Treasure” (1952) and “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” (1940) — wrote a screenplay in 1946 about a boy and his faithful dog running away, he of course named it “My Dog Shep.” And because I care so much about sharing Shep History with you, I actually purchased and watched the DVD of “My Dog Shep”. (Ann refused.) Here is my movie review!
The movie opens with a boy, Danny Barker (…”barker”, get it?) about to arrive at his distant relatives’ house in the country. Danny was raised in the city, and his parents were recently killed in a car crash. On the way to the Hodgkins’ farmhouse, Danny picks up a stray dog, Shep. They soon discover that neither of them are wanted by the farm family. When his uncle suspects Shep of killing a chicken (he didn’t), he tries to shoot Shep. That night, Shep and Danny run away, much to the satisfaction of his uncle. On the road, they take up with Carter Latham, an older gentleman who had just left his son’s home after discovering that he, too, was unwanted there. The three strike up a friendship, and begin living off the land, hobo-style.
As often happens in movies, we soon discover that Danny has inherited a small fortune from his parents. His skinflint uncle is suddenly interested in finding and adopting him, and offers a reward for his return. Several shady characters begin searching for Danny.
While swimming in a pond, Danny meets a girl his age, Lorna, whose father is the District Attorney. Other shady characters kidnap Lorna to blackmail the DA, and when Danny defends her, they take him as well. Shep, however, tracks their scent, and finds the children hidden in a barn. Shep fights off the bad guys until the police arrive.
In the end, Danny is adopted by Lorna’s family, and they invite Mr. Latham and Shep to come along as well. The End!
The role of Shep was played by “Flame”, a German shepherd. It was his film debut, but he went on to act in 20 other movies in the late 40’s and early 50’s, earning the name “Flame the Wonder Dog.” He played “Rusty” in a series of movies (“For the Love of Rusty”, “My Dog Rusty”, “Rusty Leads the Way”, “Rusty Saves a Life”), and the detective Pal (“Pal’s Adventure”, “Pal’s Return”, “Pal, Canine Detective”, “Pal, Fugitive Dog”, and “Pal’s Gallant Journey”). His last role came in 1954, in the TV series “Life of Riley.” He was the father of Golden Boy Jr., who starred in the “Rin Tin Tin” TV series from 1954-59.
So what did I think of the film? Well, it was clearly a movie from the 1940’s. The acting and dialogue are a bit clunky, and the characters somewhat two-dimensional. Here is an actual line of Danny’s dialogue: “Gee, that would be swell, wouldn’t it old boy?” (Shep’s reply: “Bark!) But that’s how they used to make them. I expected it to be unwatchable, but it wasn’t. Instead, it told a nice story, about unwanted people (and dogs) finding meaning and purpose with each other; a bit heavy-handed at times, but genuine. IMDb gives it 6.2 out of 10 stars, and that sounds about right. Plus, a dog named Shep is the loyal, courageous hero, and that’s the mark of a quality film, isn’t it old boy? (Bark!) I give it 3 paws out of 5.
The film was successful enough that Beebe wrote a sequel of sorts, “Shep Comes Home”, in 1948. It also starred Flame, but was set in Texas with a different set of characters. It was billed as a “THRILLING ADVENTURE OF A BOY AND HIS DOG…in a heart-warming drama the whole family will enjoy!”
My favorite thing about the movie, though, is that I found an original theater poster for sale on eBay! I plan to hang it in the Sanctuary some day. Here is our Shep, ignoring the poster for “My Dog Shep.”
Second on our list of “Famous Sheps in Dog History” is Shep the Turnpike Dog, from Broomfield, Colorado. In 1950, construction began on the Denver-Boulder Turnpike, a 17-mile toll road linking the state capital of Denver to the university town of Boulder. A set of tollbooths was planned for Broomfield, roughly the halfway point of the road. As workers built the tollbooths, a young, stray dog began hanging around the worksite, begging for lunch scraps. The dog was shy at first, but eventually an attendant coaxed him into the tollbooth, so he would have a comfortable place to sleep.
For the next 14 years, the dog — who came to be called Shep, of course — became a permanent fixture at the tollbooth. The attendants worked eight hour shifts, and Shep would cheerfully greet them when they arrived. He became a favorite of motorists as well. Kids looked forward to seeing Shep at the booth, and some families even got out to have their picture taken with him. When they paid their tolls, many would throw in extra money for Shep’s food and toys, or give him treats.
Shep lived a happy life at the tollbooth, greeting travelers and providing companionship for the attendants. In 1958, he came back to the booth with wounds from a shotgun, but a local vet treated him for free. Over the years, he developed into a local icon. He became the unofficial mascot of Broomfield, and later, of the entire Colorado Department of Transportation. A painting of Shep still hangs outside the auditorium at CDOT’s headquarters in Denver.
As he grew old, Shep became blind and deaf, and gradually lost his mobility. In 1964, he was sadly put to sleep. The Transportation Department buried him beside the road. Local merchants installed an iron fence around the site, while a cemetery donated two headstones. His grave was regularly decorated with flowers and flags. In 2009, the grave and fence were moved to the Broomfield Depot Museum in town.
Like the first Shep in our series, this Shep is also the subject of a children’s book: Shep the Turnpike Dog, by Charlotte Havey.
It is inspiring to see how an unwanted dog can end up touching the lives of so many. Sheps can do that!
The most famous Shep of all, and the most inspiring, was Shep “the Forever Faithful Dog.” The story goes that in 1936, a local shepherd died in Fort Benton, Montana. As his coffin was delivered to the train station, to be shipped to relatives back east, it was trailed by a forlorn collie dog. The dog watched as his master’s coffin was loaded onto the train, and watched it leave the station. Afterwards, the dog remained at the station, waiting for his master to come back. When workers tried to shoo it away, it hid under the platform. Fortunately, a foreman’s son began bringing the dog — who came to be called Shep — table scraps to eat.
For the next six years, Shep kept a tireless vigil, waiting for his owner’s return. Four times a day, he would come onto the platform to meet the trains, and search the incoming passengers for his master. Disappointed, he would sneak back under the platform to await the next train. When winter came, he was coaxed into the station, where he slept on a bed of blankets.
A conductor on the Great Northern Railroad, Ed Shields, became interested in Shep. He pieced together Shep’s story, and wrote an article for the Great Falls Tribune. The story of the “forever faithful” dog soon spread across the country. Ripley’s Believe or Not featured him in a column. The railway received so many letters about Shep that they had to hire a secretary to handle the mail. Shields also wrote a pamphlet about Shep’s story, and sold it on the train, raising thousands of dollars for the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind. To a generation of Americans, Shep came to epitomize the undying loyalty of dogs.
As Shep grew old, he lost his hearing, and in 1942, he was waiting by the tracks and failed to hear an incoming train. Two days later, the town held a funeral for Shep that was attended by 200 people. A boy scout troop carried his coffin to a hill above the train station, where he was buried. The railroad erected a monument and a painted wooden sign of Shep, with his name spelled out in rocks below.
In 1994, the town erected a statue to Shep, with a plaque that reads “Forever Faithful.” His bowl and collar are in the Museum of the Upper Missouri, in Fort Benton.
I’ll be honest, just thinking about this Shep makes me tear up. I must be getting old. I’m glad he had people there to look after him in his old age, so he could become such a source of inspiration to others.
To see a short film clip of Shep at the station, go to:
To see a Dateline feature on Shep, go to:
And here is a good recent article, on the 75th anniversary of Shep’s passing:
So why name a dog Sanctuary “Shep’s Place?” Sounds like a bar, right? Well, Shep is the name of our dog, whose picture graces the top of this page. We don’t know exactly how old he is, because he was a stray picked up by the police in Buckner, MO, and transferred to Great Plains SPCA in Independence. We don’t know his original name, either, or his first owners, what he looked like as a puppy, or how he came to be homeless. He’s a dog of mystery…
The shelter named him “Goulash,” and estimated that he was 8 years old. He spent several months there before I saw his picture online, read his bio, and came to meet him (Ann was out of town). In fact, the cover photo above was taken at Great Plains the day I met Shep. I like It, because it symbolizes to me that old dogs like Shep can still have a new start.*
Since Goulash was a temporary name, and we didn’t know his original name, we felt free to rename him “Shep.”
Now, you may have noticed from the picture that Shep is not in fact a shepherd dog; he is a beagle/basset mix. So why “Shep”? For the perfectly sound reason that, he, like our other dogs, is named after a character on the short-lived TV show “Firefly.” Duh! Shep is short for Shepherd Book, a wandering clergyman who takes up with the crew. As the only grey-haired character, and a quiet, peaceful man, his name seemed a good fit for Shep.
When we started thinking about a Dog Sanctuary, I first wanted to name it “Happy Dog Acres.” Ann thought that was dumb, and she was right. So, instead, we decided to name it Shep’s Place, in honor of the dog who showed us that old dogs are worth loving and protecting.
In doing research for the Sanctuary, however, I discovered that there is a long line of famous dogs named Shep stretching back over the years. For whatever reason, these Sheps have stories that exemplify the undying loyalty of dogs, so much so that “Shep” has become synonymous with “old, faithful dog.” That’s why, for example, Aldi has a brand of dog food named Shep, and Elvis Presley recorded a song called “Old Shep”.
This added context has given an (unintentional) depth of meaning to the name “Shep’s Place.” Besides meaning “the place of our specific, science-fiction-TV-named dog”, it also means “home for old, faithful dogs.” And that is about as cool a description of what we hope to achieve as you could come up with. Serendipity, yay!
So, who are these famous Shep dogs from history, you might theoretically ask but probably haven’t? Funny you should theoretically ask. Over the next few posts, I’m going to share some of their stories, in the epic series, “Famous Sheps in Dog History.” Stay tuned!
*P.S. I have since become a regular volunteer at Great Plains SPCA. Given that a photo on their website led us to Shep, it is fitting that my niche there has become taking pictures of incoming dogs, to make them look their best so they connect with a family, too. You can see some of the pictures at http://www.greatplainsspca.org/adopt/adoptable-dogs-indy/. Look for the ones with an orange leash; those are mostly mine.
Being new to this blog thing, I’m not sure exactly what the rules are. So wing it, I shall!
For this post, let me tell you how the idea for Shep’s Place came to be. I grew up a Cat Person. I thought cats were cooler and smarter than big, dumb, slobbery dogs. However, when our son Layne moved to California, my wife Ann got a dachshund, Malcolm, to fill the empty nest. To my surprise, we both developed a deep love of dogs, of their innocence and enthusiasm. We adopted a second dog from the SPCA, Kaylee, to be a companion to Malcolm.
While at the shelter, we were touched by the older dogs housed there. Puppies and young dogs find families fairly quickly, but old dogs have a harder time. Though they are just as affectionate, and usually more mellow and friendly, most customers don’t want to adopt a dog who won’t live as long. Seeing those sweet, old dogs being left behind really tugged at our heartstrings. We felt they deserved better.
Eventually, we went back to the shelter and adopted an 8-year-old beagle named Shep. Shep is a big, chubby, slow, quiet sweetheart of a dog, and we love him to death. We were so happy to have Shep in our home, that we wished we could do the same for other senior dogs. But, with 3 dogs, our house was already full.
With Layne gone, we had already decided that we didn’t need such a big house anymore. We began to wonder, what if we sold the house, and bought a small place in the country with enough space to adopt or foster a few more dogs? We looked at some places online, and several had separate garages or barns. We thought, you know what, we could put kennels in that barn, and add a fenced-in yard, and take care of a bunch of old dogs. Well, if a bunch is good, why not more? The idea quickly evolved into an actual facility, a small animal shelter devoted to the care of senior dogs. It reminded me of the old cliche, where parents tell their children that they sent the old dog to a beautiful farm in the country where it could play with other dogs and be happy. We thought, hey, we could actually do that! I wanted to call it “Happy Dog Acres,” but Ann thought that sounded morbid, so we settled on “Shep’s Place.”
So that’s how it started. We know it’s a long, hard road from having a good idea to making it a reality. But we’re going to give it our best shot.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading!
Once things get rolling, I plan to start blogging regularly about our progress. For now, since no one is reading this anyway, I’ll wait. But when it comes time to build support, I will use this blog to keep everyone up to date.