Old English Sheepdog

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Old English Sheepdog

The Old English Sheepdog, historically known as the Bobtail, or Shepherd’s Dog, is a working breed developed in England in the last 200 years. The breed came to prominence for many as ‘The Dulux Dog’, and makes a wonderful pet, being affectionate, playful, and full of fun. The Old English is now essentially a family dog, requiring close contact with his owners to really thrive.

Unsurprisingly, the characteristic thick, shaggy coat requires a great deal of grooming, and coming from a working heritage, the breed requires regular exercise in order to contain their sometimes boisterous spirits. They are reasonably easy to train, although they drool and shed quite heavily, which can be an issue for very house-proud owners.

When buying an Old English, please remember that tail-docking is thankfully now an illegal activity, and puppies should be presented with a full tail. This does create extra work in this breed in order to maintain hygiene under the tail, but docking is a cruel procedure which no puppy should be forced to endure. Historically, this has been one of the breeds in which illegal docking continued long beyond the implementation of the docking ban.

Old English Sheepdogs tend to be quite healthy dogs, but because of their large size, have a relatively short life expectancy of 10–12 years.

About & History

The precise origins of the Old English are shrouded in mystery. Although the breed was refined and selected for its herding abilities in the Southwest of England since the early 19th century, it is uncertain from where the original breeding stock were sourced. The two most likely progenitors of the breed, based on appearance and genetic studies, are the Bearded Collie and the little-known Russian Owtchar.

The Old English was developed primarily as a drover’s dog, used to drive cattle and sheep over considerable distances to market. As such, it was expected to be a persistent and calm worker, staying in close contact with its handler and being responsive to commands. Appearance was far less of a concern for these working dogs, and when the breed was first shown in Birmingham in the late 1873, only three ‘poor specimens’ were presented for judging.

Ironically, it was in the US where the modern Old English Sheepdog was standardised and ‘improved’ for characteristics other than working. The late 19th century saw the breed imported and bred by some of the wealthiest families in America, becoming a status symbol and treasured pet. The American Kennel Club officially recognised the breed in 1885. Henry and William Tilley are credited with formulating the modern breed standard, after the foundation of the Old English Sheepdog Club of America in 1904.

Appearance

Old English Sheepdog Large Photo

The Old English has a slightly comedic appearance, and with the hair pulled back from his small dark or blue eyes, has a definite twinkle of mischief about them. The coat is wavy and entangled, but should not be curled, and has a propensity to matting if not properly cared for. The dense undercoat offers significant weatherproofing, being almost waterproof and extremely warm. The coat colour ranges from shades of grey to blue, with white markings predominating around the head and underside.

The head is quite round in appearance and reasonably wide. The muzzle is strong and square, leading to a black nose, and a neat scissor-type bite. The ears are small and lie close to the skull, usually hidden from view by the overlying hair.

The body is compact, with well-sprung ribs and a broad abdomen. The back and neck are also wide and well-muscled, as are the long limbs with moderately heavy bone structure. The small feet are round, with well-arched toes. Unusually, the rump in this breed sits higher than the withers, meaning the spine slopes from rear to front, giving the Old English a unique, ‘rollicking bear’ type gait, with the head lowered. However, movement should be unrestricted and flowing, reflecting an inherent athleticism.

Size is quite variable in the breed, with the Kennel Club not imposing strict limitations. Males stand 61–65 cm (24–26 in) at the withers, and can weigh anywhere between 32 and 45 kg (70–99lb), while females are usually 56–62 cm (22–24 in) in height, and weigh 27–36 kg (59–79 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Old English Sheepdog is a placid, affectionate breed, and it is very rare to see problems with aggression or nervousness. They are usually very good with children, although there are plenty of anecdotal accounts of them being inclined to gently ‘herd’ children when playing! Puppies are boisterous, mischievous, and famously clumsy, and require consistent and kind correction in order to develop into well-mannered adults.

Many owners describe their Old English as having an almost human sense of humour, deriving great enjoyment from causing their owners consternation. With sufficient exercise, however, most are very happy to spend a significant amount of time lounging around indoors in close contact with humans, but they do require regular outdoor access to allow them to ‘blow off steam’ several times a day. If deprived of sufficient contact and affection, the breed is well-known for a tendency to separation anxiety, and so are not suited to homes where they will be expected to remain outdoors or in the absence of company for large parts of the day.

Trainability

Photo of Old English Sheepdog puppy

The Old English is an intelligent breed, and is capable of being trained to a high standard. Introducing puppies to basic obedience training from 8 to 10 weeks of age will lay the groundwork for future good behaviour. House training of an Old English Sheepdog puppy is generally not difficult, although many will object to the use of crate training, as they do not like to be confined.

As a working farm breed, most Old English will revel in taking part in agility classes or learning to perform tricks. Because of their high energy, the breed will show improved concentrating abilities, making training more rewarding, when they are adequately exercised. Without sufficient physical and mental stimulation, they may become bored and ill-mannered, lacking the mental focus to be truly responsive to their handler.

Health

While the incidence of health problems in the Old English is relatively low, like any other breed, there are certain conditions of which to be aware:

  • Addison’s Disease – Underactivity of the adrenal glands, also known as hypoadrenocorticism, results in deficiencies in cortisol and mineralocorticoid levels. These hormones are responsible for maintaining normal body function during times of stress, and this deficiency can cause dramatic signs such as collapse and haemorrhagic vomiting and diarrhoea. The condition arises in young to middle-aged dogs, and is more common in females. It is caused by autoimmune destruction of the adrenals.
  • Behavioural Disorders – As mentioned above, separation anxiety is a common problem in the Old English. Careful consideration should be given to choosing the right breed for your lifestyle, and puppies should be slowly acclimatised to short periods of absence by the owner. Consulting a behaviourist is advisable if the problem is severe.
  • Cerebellar Ataxia – A problem usually seen to develop in the first year of life, with under-development of the hindbrain resulting in a clumsy and incoordinated gait.
  • Demodicosis – An immune deficiency, localised to the skin, resulting in proliferation of Demodex mites in the hair follicles. Hair loss, scabbing, and itch are the predominant signs.
  • Distichiasis – Growth of accessory eyelashes in abnormal locations on the eyelid. Causes irritation and scratching of the affected eye.
  • Entropion – An inward scrolling of the eyelids in one or both eyes. May be seen in young pups, and often requires surgical correction, although this may have to be postponed until the pup reaches maturity.
  • Factor IX Deficiency – Also known as Haemophilia B, this clotting disorder is an X-linked genetic condition, meaning usually only males are clinically affected, while females may be silent carriers. Poor clotting may be observed after trauma, or may only come to light after severe bleeding following routine surgery (e.g. castration).
  • Sebaceous Adenitis – Folliculitis due to immune-mediated inflammation causing hair loss, follicular plugging, scabbing of the skin, and itch. May be treated with local preparations (e.g. follicular cleansing shampoos), systemic medications, or a combination of both.
  • Haemolytic Anaemia – The Old English is one of the breeds most prone to immune-mediated haemolytic anaemia, where an immune stimulus triggers internal destruction of red blood cells. This results in moderate to severe anaemia, which may present with acute and dramatic signs.
  • Cervical Vertebral Malformation – Commonly called Wobbler Syndrome, this is a condition in which narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck causes nerve compression, leading to incoordination and limb weakness.
  • Hip Dysplasia – An often-inherited developmental hip disorder, which ranges from mild to very severe. The Kennel Club strongly promotes a screening programme to eliminate the condition from this and other breeds, and all breeding animals should undergo hip scoring before being bred.
  • Hypopigmentation – Lack of normal skin pigment in the nose and lips. Generally harmless, but affected animals may need protection from strong sunlight.
  • Hypothyroidism – Another hormonal deficiency caused by autoimmune organ damage. Lymphocytic thyroid inflammation leaves the gland with subnormal function, causing obesity, alopecia, and lethargy.
  • Protein-losing Enteropathy – A condition in which nutrients are not adequately absorbed from the gut, causing profuse diarrhoea and rapid weight loss. Often requires aggressive medical treatment and long-term managment.
  • Microphthalmia – Congenital abnormality in which the eyes are abnormally small, and usually blind. Seen in puppies from birth.
  • Otitis Externa – Chronic ear infection is a common problem in Old English Sheepdogs, and is very often down to poor hygiene. The dense growth of hair in and around the ear canals must be regularly trimmed or plucked, and the ear canals should be cleaned regularly in order to prevent this condition.
  • Protein-losing Enteropathy – A condition in which nutrients are not adequately absorbed from the gut, causing profuse diarrhoea and rapid weight loss. Often requires aggressive medical treatment and long-term managment.
  • Pododermatitis – Chronic skin infection of the paws can again often be due to inadequate grooming, or can be cause by demodicosis (see above).
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy – Causes sight loss due to death of cells in the sensory part of the eye. Can being to manifest from four years of age.
  • Silica Urolithiasis – Accumulation of silica crystals in urine can cause urinary discomfort or blockage. Encourage water intake and ensure a balanced diet to minimise the chances of occurrence.
  • Immune-mediated Thrombocytopaenia – Similar to haemolytic anaemia (above), in that the immune system attacks and destroys blood cells, in this case platelets which are responsible for normal clotting function.
  • von Willebrand’s Disease – Reduced functioning of platelets is seen as an inherited condition in some animals. As for Haemophilia B, signs are usually first seen after trauma.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The breed needs a great deal of exercise, enjoying both lead-walking and free activity. They are not suitable for owners who cannot devote one to two hours per day for both lead walking, as well as off-the-lead activities. Despite the fluffy, cuddly appearance, the breed’s coat hides the physique of an athlete. However, they are prone to overheating in warm weather, and should be kept more restricted in warmer months of the year. In addition, Old English Sheepdogs must be given access to a good-sized outdoor space, and are not suitable for apartment living.

Grooming

This is not a dog for the owner looking for a low-maintenance option. Old English Sheepdogs require several hours of grooming every week in order to prevent matting. Should matts form, it is often necessary for them to be shaved out, as they tend to become quite tight to the skin, trapping dirt and enlarging quickly. The area under the tail requires particular care, as the hair in this region will often trap faecal material, and needs to be kept trimmed and washed. Professional grooming will be required on at least a 6-weekly basis.

Other elements in routine care of the Old English will include clipping nails on a monthly basis, brushing teeth at least four times weekly, and cleaning ears in order to prevent otitis externa developing. Speak to a veterinary surgeon or nurse if in doubt as to what products to use for these tasks. Introducing these routines to the dog when a young puppy will make him a more compliant adults, reducing stress for both dog and owner alike.

Famous Old English Sheepdogs

The Old English Sheepdog has often starred on stage and screen due to his unique appearance and charismatic personality:

  • Ambrosius, starred alongside David Bowie in Labyrinth
  • The Colonel is featured in One Hundred and One Dalmations
  • Edison is seen alongside Dick van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
  • Mooch is a supporting cast member in Lady and the Tramp
  • Sam is the appropriately comic agent in Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

Cross-Breeds

Old English crossbreeds can produce some very cute puppies – some of the more common crosses include:

  • Old Deerhound Sheepdog – Cross between an Old English Sheepdog and a Scottish Deerhound
  • Sheepadoodle – Cross between an Old English Sheepdog and a Standard Poodle
  • Springer Spaniel Sheepdog – Cross between an Old English Sheepdog and an English Springer Spaniel

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