The Old English Sheepdog, contrary to its name, is not terribly old. A 1771 portrait of the third Duke of Buccleuch by Gainsborough is commonly asserted to contain the first known likeness of the sheepdog. However, the dog in the portrait appears to be of a small breed, leaving us at a loss for a date of origin for the Old English Sheepdog.
In any case, the Old English Sheepdog was more than just a sheepdog—it was an all-purpose drover entrusted with the duty of bringing livestock of all types, ranging from cattle to geese, to market. Furthermore, its hair was regularly used to make clothing and blankets. The bobbed tail was a mark of honor in those days, proving its status as a working dog and thus exempting it from taxes. Unlike the agile Border Collie, which needed its tail for balance and quick turns, the Old English Sheepdog worked at a slow, steady pace calculated to keep weight on livestock and had less need of its rudder.
But the Old English Sheepdog’s unique appearance destined it to become more than a drover. The breed first appeared in the show ring in Birmingham, England, in 1873. Three dogs were shown, all of such inferior merit that the judge refused to award first place to any of them. Nevertheless, the Old English Sheepdog on the whole was determined a resounding success. Soon it was sought by dog fanciers all over Great Britain.
The sheepdog was quickly imported to America in the 1880s, primarily as a show dog. It was first recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1888, and by the early 1900s was firmly established as the darling of the wealthy.
It was America that created the modern Old English Sheepdog. The Old English Sheepdog Club of America came into being in 1904 and adopted a standard that shaped the future course of the breed. The differences between the old type of sheepdog and the new type were subtle, but calculated for greater eye appeal. The Old English Sheepdog became slightly stockier and considerably fluffier.
The Old English Sheepdog was primarily a dog of the elite until the 1950s. For the next few decades, it became a popular media icon and a favorite in the film industry. This introduced it to the general public, and the general public proceeded to fall in love with the Old English Sheepdog. The result was resounding popularity.
Of course, shaggy coats require a great deal of care, and lively dogs require a great deal of exercise. The Old English Sheepdog proved to be too much for many families. In recent years, its popularity has declined to more reasonable levels, although it has never lost its familiarity and place in the hearts of dog lovers across the country. Today, the Old English Sheepdog ranks 75th in AKC registration statistics.
The Old English Sheepdog is generally regarded as a pet and show dog today, and its looks and temperament certainly combine to suit it to both roles. But this breed has retained its herding instinct and can still work. While its fluffy coat probably precludes daily chores on a larger farm or ranch, the Old English Sheepdog can be a versatile assistant on a small hobby farm. Just some of the tasks this breed can take on include:
- Serving as a watchdog.
- Pulling carts and sleds.
- Providing fur to be spun into unique yarns.
On top of these farm-related roles, the Old English Sheepdog is also an excellent retriever.
The Old English Sheepdog wins many friends with his sweet, happy personality. He thrives on fun and family, and his stable temperament makes him thoroughly trustworthy with both children and other pets. He loves nothing better than to entertain humans in exchange for bear hugs.
Although he is an agreeable dog on the whole, the Old English Sheepdog is stubborn and requires a confident leader to earn his respect. As long as the commands are clear and consistent, he will readily learn manners. Meaningless, repetitive tasks do not interest him.
The Old English Sheepdog is a bundle of enthusiasm and can become downright rowdy if his exercise needs are not met. This will be true throughout his entire life, not just when he is a puppy. Once he has burned off some of his extra energy, however, he becomes a calm, cuddly pet.
But beware of sheepdogs from disreputable breeders. While these are not as common as in the recent past at the height of the breed’s popularity, they still exist. Some poorly bred Old English Sheepdogs have sharp tempers, while others are timid enough to pose a fear-biting risk. In either case, they can be unstable and unpredictable.
This breed makes an excellent watchdog. For one thing, he is extremely loyal and will tend his people and possessions diligently. For another thing, he is not a wanderer and can be trusted to stick within his boundaries as long as he is not anxious about the whereabouts of an absent family member. But although the Old English Sheepdog is a courageous watchdog, he is friendly to all and will not threaten guests. His preferred weapon is his famous bark, known as pot-cassé from the French term for “broken pot” (think deafening).
The Old English Sheepdog still loves to herd. He works close to the stock, but is nevertheless quite gentle with them. He generally does not nip, relying instead upon repeated bumps and nudges to convince the animals to move in the correct direction.
Historically, the working Old English Sheepdog received his care right along with the sheep, including tail docking, shearing, and dipping. These customs were beneficial to working dogs in the same way that it was beneficial to sheep, keeping the animals clean, cool, and free of parasites. Many Old English Sheepdogs today spend their lives with central air conditioning, making a full coat a possibility. The practice of tail docking in pets is continued primarily for cosmetic rather than sanitary reasons.
Note that Old English Sheepdog puppies are typically born black and white. The black hair sheds out with the puppy coat and is replaced with the hallmark silver hair.
The most common health problems in this breed are:
- Eye problems ranging from cataracts to progressive retinal atrophy.
- Ear infections.
- Hip dysplasia.
- Bloat, which can be prevented by feeding two or three small meals a day instead of one large meal.
- Hereditary cerebellar abiotrophy, a non-painful progressive condition resulting in loss of coordination.
- Multi-drug resistance, which can cause life-threatening reactions to some tranquilizers and heartworm medication.
- Suitability for families with children and other pets.
- Surprisingly little shedding unless clipped.
- Cold tolerance.
- Disreputable breeders.
- Hearty appetite.
- Need for ample exercise.
- Grooming requirements.
- Tendency of coat to collect dirt, debris, and water, then deposit it all over the house.
- Heat intolerance.