Like many herding dogs of the British Isles, the English Shepherd traces back to the herding mastiffs of Julius Caesar’s Roman army. As these dogs were abandoned by the departing soldiers, they crossed over time with various local dogs and perhaps with the herding spitzes of invading Vikings.
In different parts of the United Kingdom, the dogs took on different forms to suit varying climates and tasks. In the unfenced hill country of Scotland, the quick, canny Scotch Collie (the prototype of the modern Border Collie) evolved to herd flighty sheep. Further south in England, where fences were the norm, a slower, heavier dog was used to handle an equally slower, heavier breed of sheep, as well as cattle. This dog was the English Shepherd, a prime example of a landrace.
While the English Shepherd had been distinct from the Scotch Collie for many years, the advent of the Industrial Revolution widened the rift between the two types. The Scotch Collie was bred for greater and greater savvy and responsiveness, while the English Shepherd remained variable, few efforts being made to improve the breed.
It was actually the Americans who developed the innate abilities of the English Shepherd. Colonists often brought dogs of this type with them to their new homes, and here the breed’s versatility was discovered. Not only was the dog able to herd any kind of stock, it could deter intruders, kill rats, supervise the children, tree a squirrel or possum for the evening meal, and, when night fell, keep a watchful ear open in defense of its home and family. In short, the English Shepherd was the small-farm dog par excellence, the faithful friend known to all as “Old Shep.”
Little wonder, then, that the English Shepherd moved across the continent with the pioneers. Only on the ranches and sheep ranges of the West did another dog take precedence, its cousin the Australian Shepherd.
While the English Shepherd was recognized as a distinct breed by the performance-oriented United Kennel Club as early as 1927, smaller organizations tended to lump it together with the Australian Shepherd. But the two breeds were definitely separate landraces due to differences in their purpose and geographical location. A difference in genetics led to some slight physical differences, as well. It was not until 1957 that the Australian Shepherd Club of America was formed, giving the Australian Shepherd of the Western ranch its own identity.
Since the English Shepherd was first and foremost a working dog belonging to the family farmer, AKC registration was rarely even considered as a possibility. This kept the heritage of the English Shepherd as a versatile and genetically diverse landrace intact, but it was not without consequences. As industrialized agriculture took the place of family farming, the English Shepherd found itself without a job. Other breeds were better known and better promoted to the general public as pets. The English Shepherd dwindled perilously.
Fortunately, a revival of interest in small-scale farming has gone hand in hand with a revival of interest in the versatile English Shepherd. Hobby farmers have rediscovered the breed and are giving it a place in their country lifestyle. This increased awareness has in turn brought the breed to the attention of agility enthusiasts, who have many options for pursuing their sport, including the AKC’s new Canine Partners program for unregistered dogs of all breeds and mixes.
The current population of the English Shepherd is nearly impossible to estimate. While puppies are hard to locate, the breed can nevertheless boast a small but extremely dedicated following.
The English Shepherd is in his native element on a small farm. Not only is he an excellent watchdog and guardian of livestock, he can herd just about anything.
Casual hunters may appreciate his ability to track and tree a wide range of game, but there are other good uses to which his nose can be put. The English Shepherd is a good choice for search-and-rescue work.
More recently, the English Shepherd has proven his ability as a companion, particularly for those with a competitive streak. He can excel in just about any dog sport from obedience to agility to Frisbee. He is also a soothing therapy dog thanks to his sensitive nature.
The English Shepherd is first and foremost a working dog. He loves nothing better than to take orders, and he can be trusted implicitly to obey those orders without supervision. If necessary, he will also rely on his own keen problem-solving abilities to carry out his tasks and maintain order in his surroundings. He is very diligent, and always acts with a purpose. This means that if he does not have a job, he will create one, whether that is herding the children or forcing guests to remain in their cars.
Not only does the English Shepherd look to his humans for instruction, he relies on them for companionship. He is very much a people dog, always listening to what his humans say and often divining their intentions. While usually polite with strangers, he maintains a reserve at first. His devotion is for one family only (some individuals, in fact, are too possessive of their owners to live with other dogs). To them, he is always kind and sensitive. Without them, he is shy and insecure.
The English Shepherd, in keeping with his eager-to-please disposition, can learn very quickly. However, he is too smart to waste his time and energy on needless repetition, and he does have a stubborn streak that may come into play if drilled. Many English Shepherd owners recommend positive, informal training methods only. Again, he is very attuned to his people, and can pick up a surprising amount of training just by accompanying them in their daily activities and listening to their directions.
Because the English Shepherd is smart and attentive, he can easily learn to adjust his herding style to fit any type of stock. For best results, start him on tame sheep and ducks. This will bring out his gentle side early on. He can learn to use more force on tougher animals, like rams or cattle, after he gains experience. In these harder situations, his natural instinct as a heeler will come to the forefront. The English Shepherd prefers to drive a herd or flock ahead of him, but he can easily learn to gather animals into a group, as well.
Unlike many single-minded herding dogs, the English Shepherd will not compulsively herd once he has matured and can make a trustworthy livestock guardian. He will drive off predators, bark to alert owners to potential thieves, and even break up fights in the herd or flock. Unlike true livestock guardian breeds, however, the English Shepherd acts from a sense of duty to the master, not from possessiveness of the flock itself. He would much rather be working at the side of a family member than out by himself protecting livestock all day.
The English Shepherd is an extremely healthy dog with keen senses. The only widespread problem is hip dysplasia. Elbow dysplasia is also found throughout the breed.
An estimated 15% of English Shepherds are affected by multi-drug resistance. This is a genetic abnormality found in most herding dogs from the British Isles, and it can cause life-threatening reactions to some tranquilizers and heartworm medications.
Because most English Shepherds have tails, new owners may be surprised to see the occasional bobtailed puppy show up. This is perfectly normal for this breed and goes back to its past history. All working dogs were once docked to exempt them from taxes on pet dogs, and some farmers and shepherds deliberately bred bobtailed dogs for convenience.
- Very diverse bloodlines, which ensures that a dog can be found to fit nearly any situation.
- Ease of grooming.
- Adaptability to most climates.
- Few health problems.
- Work ethic.
- Ability to adjust herding style to fit the needs of different types of livestock.
- Need for very close human companionship.
- Exercise needs.
- Heavy shedding.