Welsh Sheepdog

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Welsh Sheepdog
Richard New Forest / Wikipedia.org

The Welsh Sheepdog is a rare landrace (rather than pedigree) breed that has been in existence in some form or other for at least the last 800 years. Kept almost exclusively as a working dog, little effort has been made to standardise the breed, with its ability to herd being far more important to its owners than its appearance. In general, most bear some similarity to the more successful and popular Border Collie, though the average Welsh Sheepdog is a more solid dog, taller, broader and stronger. It was traditionally used as a droving dog, though it can also act as a guard dog when required.

If kept as a pet, the breed responds best to an experienced, assertive owner who does not allow the dog’s highly independent nature to run unchecked, for this extremely intelligent breed is capable of learning all the wrong things if its energy is not channelled into disciplined activity. It needs a great deal of exercise, and should not be considered suitable for indoor living. The Welsh Sheepdog can be a wonderfully responsive companion, but it is difficult to provide enough stimulation for it when kept as a pet. It suffers from some of the problems common to other herding breeds, but is generally very healthy, and has a life expectancy of 12–14 years.

About & History

No definitive written history exists for the breed, and its origins are quite unclear. However, it is thought by many that an ancient Welsh staghound, known as the covert hound, or gellgi, that was kept by Welsh noblemen for use on the hunt may have formed part of the foundation stock. Mention is made in Welsh legal manuscripts dating from the thirteenth century of a herding dog that also guarded its livestock; this may relate to the Welsh Sheepdog, although there were many types of dog used on the farms of the region over hundreds of years, and there is no way to be sure from which type, or types, the modern breed was derived. It was used both to herd and protect a range of livestock, most commonly sheep, though also cattle, pigs and poultry, and having a pack of protective dogs at hand would also have been invaluable for the safety of the farmers, as thieves and rustlers were almost as numerous as the farmers themselves.

By the eighteenth century, changes in farming practices meant that the Welsh Sheepdog’s role also changed, requiring it to work as a drover’s dog, driving cattle and sheep over great distances, sometimes hundreds of miles, to reach the important English trading markets. Because of the large numbers of animals moved in this manner at any one time, the droving dogs needed to be ever-vigilant, and capable of working with or without direction, sometimes far removed from their master. The breed’s style of working is suited to this role; it is said to be loose-eyed, meaning its gaze wanders over the entire scene around it, rather than the fixed eye seen in the Border Collie, who focuses on one animal or group of animals with great intensity when working.

The later decline in droving, coupled with the widespread introduction of sheepdog trials, at which the Border Collie excels, eventually led to a great reduction in the Welsh Sheepdog’s popularity, and though it may be considered the more versatile of the two breeds, it seems likely that this decline in its fortunes led to interbreeding among the increasingly rare Welsh breed and its more popular successor. As such, we are uncertain as to how true the modern Welsh Sheepdog remains to its ancestors, but it is clearly still a distinct entity, with characteristics that can be traced back to its ancestors.

Appearance

Welsh Sheepdog Large Photo

While the following is a general description of the breed, it must be emphasised again that appearance is of very minor importance to the Welsh Sheepdog fraternity. This is, and always has been, a working dog, and is judged on its abilities and temperament above any physical characteristics. In general, it resembles a tall, strongly built Border Collie in shape and colouration, though the coat is often quite a bit shorter. Though the head is typically collie-shaped, it is quite broad and flat between the ears, and the moderate stop leads down to a wide and strong muzzle.

The jaw is also quite broad, with a good stock of bone that can resist a blow from small livestock. The lips are tight and clean, and the nose is generally black in colour. The eyes are medium-sized and oval in shape, and are usually brown, although merle-coloured dogs can have very light or blue irises that are very striking. The ears vary from medium to large in size, and are set quite high on the head, usually held erect, though with folded tips.

The dog’s body shape is that of an athlete, with a well-muscled, broad neck and back, and a well-sloped croup leads to a moderately long tail with an upward curl. The chest is capacious, being reasonably deep and very broad, and the abdomen is firm and tucked. The Welsh Sheepdog is quite “leggy”, with moderately angulated to upright limbs that are well-boned in the lower leg and firmly muscled in the shoulders and thighs. It has well-arched toes on strong, oval paws that are well-suited to handling rough terrain.

The coat varies in length from short to moderately long, and it can be coarse or soft. Several different colour combinations are seen, with the following being the most common:

  • Black and white
  • Red and white, and
  • Merle

The red and white marking pattern is thought to be most true to the Welsh Sheepdogs of old, as several references to red and white dogs may be found in seventeenth and eighteenth century writings.

Though it also varies a lot in its size, the “average” male Welsh Sheepdog measures around 56 cm (22 in) in height, and may weigh between 18 and 25 kg (40–55 lb), with females being smaller, about 50 cm (20 in) in height, and 16–23 kg (35–51 lb) in weight.

Character & Temperament

The breed is highly intelligent and inquisitive, and always seems to be a step ahead of its owners, anticipating their next move. As a farm dog, it is always prepared to start its next job, and is at its happiest when kept busy. As a pet, it also needs to be given a job to do, whether this is herding the family’s backyard chickens or collecting the dirty laundry from around the house. It quickly becomes bored without adequate stimulation, leading to common complaints of destructive behaviour. The Welsh Sheepdog is a natural protector, and will be quick to raise the alarm should it hear any suspicious activity in or around the home.

However, the breed can also develop aggressive tendencies toward strangers, and needs plenty of socialisation and correction when appropriate. With an inexperienced owner, it is the dog that is likely to have the upper hand in the relationship, for this is an assertive and independent breed, and it is not a good choice for a family with young children, as it can be quick to show (and use) its teeth when unhappy. However, the breed’s strong personality can equally be an asset in the right hands, and owners with the experience, time, and energy to devote to their dog may find the Welsh Sheepdog a rewarding breed to own.

Trainability

High intelligence does not necessarily make a well-trained dog, for the breed will often feel it has a better idea of what it should be doing than its master does. As mentioned above, experience is an essential quality in an owner, and the Welsh Sheepdog will respect and respond best to those from whom it senses confidence and assertiveness. Once this respect is established, this is amongst the most trainable of breeds, and it will learn new tricks and commands quickly and with minimal repetition.

Health

The breed shares some health problems with other herding breeds, though most individuals are very healthy. As it is not currently recognised by any of the major kennel clubs, there are no screening programmes in place for any of the following.

  • Atopic Dermatitis – This condition appears to be more common in Welsh Sheepdogs spending most of their time indoors. It is an allergic skin condition that causes moderate to severe irritation of the ears, paws, and perineum in particular, as a hypersensitivity response to allergens that are either inhaled or come in contact with the skin.
  • Collie Eye Anomaly – As the name suggests, this condition is common in several of the collie breeds, the Rough Collie being another that suffers from the problem. It is the result of impaired development of the choroid – the vascular support structure the eye. Lack of adequate nutrition through the choroid then causes deficits in the light-sensing cells of the retina, and variable degrees of sight loss. It is present from shortly after birth, and can be detected in pups from around six weeks of age.
  • Epilepsy – Quite a common condition in many dog breeds, epilepsy is usually a primary brain disorder that causes intermittent seizure episodes. Though these can be quite distressing to the owner, their impact on the dog is often minor, and many epileptics do not require treatment. The majority of those that do generally respond well to medication, though treatment must usually be continued for life.
  • Diabetes Mellitus – Though the breed has not been highlighted as one of those susceptible to diabetes, I have encountered the condition in several of the small number of Welsh Sheepdogs I have treated in my professional practice. Signs arise as a result of damage to the pancreas, an organ within the abdomen that has many functions, the secretion of insulin being one. Lack of insulin means that affected dogs are unable to absorb glucose, leading to dramatic weight loss, ravenous appetite, and excess thirst and urination. The signs are usually very suggestive, with the diagnosis easily confirmed with simple blood and urine tests.
  • Hip Dysplasia – A common cause of lameness in growing dogs, caused by poor congruity between the ball and socket of the hip joint. This is most often an inherited condition, though it can be prevented in some cases by feeding good quality food and preventing excessive exercise in juvenile dogs.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy – Another condition that can affect vision, PRA is again common in the sheepdog breeds. Rather than being present from birth, it tends to develop in middle age, and is often first noticed as night blindness, though the deterioration in retinal health progresses to full loss of sight in many affected dogs. As it is strongly inherited, it is advisable that any ethically minded breeders of Welsh Sheepdogs should have their breeding stock screened for the PRA gene.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Welsh Sheepdog is extremely energetic, and needs two-hours of vigorous exercise every day as an absolute minimum. Ideally, it should always be kept as a working dog, for it is difficult if not impossible to completely satisfy its exercise requirements when it is kept as a pet. Having said that, it might make a suitable choice of pet for committed long distance runners or mountaineers, with whom it can keep pace for hours on end.

Grooming

Being more at home on the mountains of Wales than in the grooming parlour, the breed needs very little grooming, though those individuals with longer coats will need them brushed at least once weekly to dislodge clumps of dirt and prevent knots from forming. Bathing is rarely required unless the coat is very heavily soiled. With the requisite amount of exercise, the Welsh Sheepdog’s nails should very rarely need to be cut. Tooth brushing is advisable, though it must be introduced in puppyhood, as an adult Welsh Sheepdog is likely to resist this as a new intervention.

Famous Welsh Sheepdogs

The breed lacks any celebrities among its ranks, being rarely found beyond the farmyard, and not being the sort to sit still long enough for photos!

Cross-Breeds

Although cross-breeding undoubtedly occurs regularly between the Welsh Sheepdog and other working breeds, there are no established crosses currently recognised.

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