English Shepherd

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult English Shepherd
Photo thanks to Small Acre Farm

The English Shepherd is a working dog that, despite its name, is rare outside its native USA. It shares a common heritage with other herding breeds, including the Border Collie, as it was developed from dogs imported from Britain to the United States by the early colonists. It is a very versatile worker, and is valued as much for its abilities as a guardian and rat-catcher as for its capacity to herd a wide range of livestock.

Unlike many other working breeds, there has never been a drive to gain Kennel Club recognition for the English Shepherd, as its utility as a farm dog is seen to take precedence over standardising its appearance or other characteristics, and so the breed comes in various shapes and sizes. Though its temperament can also vary somewhat, it is a highly intelligent, headstrong dog that tends to be most devoted to one person, and can be wary of strangers.

While it can be kept as a pet with sufficient exercise and mental stimulation, the English Shepherd is most at home in a working role, if not as a farm dog then as a therapy dog, in search and rescue work, or as a hunting companion. It is a remarkably healthy breed with a life expectancy of 12–14 years.

About & History

The English Shepherd was developed, from dogs imported by early British settlers of the United States from the seventeenth century, to fulfil a variety of roles for smallholders who could not afford to care for more than one farm dog. Thus, the breed was expected to be a jack-of-all-trades, keeping watch for predators and intruders, killing vermin, accompanying his master when hunting, and not least, herding livestock. These diverse roles required a dog with great intelligence and adaptability, able to think independently when needed, but also obedient and responsive to his handler.

The English Shepherd, while bearing some physical similarities to the Border Collie, is a stockier dog, and is most easily distinguished from its cousin by its herding style. Anyone who has seen a Border Collie at work will easily recognise its crouching, fixed-stare approach to herding, while the English Shepherd is known for its “loose-eyed” manner and its upright stance. It is equally comfortable working with cattle, sheep, pigs, and even poultry, and is known to be able to adapt its style and the force it uses to best suit the species it is dealing with.

Until the mid-twentieth century, the breed was variously known as the farm shepherd, farm collie, and Scotch collie, and was by far the most common farm dog in the East and Midwest of the United States. The widespread industrialisation of farming during the twentieth century resulted in increased specialisation and aggregation of the small, diverse farms in which the breed was needed, and so its numbers declined rapidly. While devotees of the breed proudly proclaim the English Shepherd to be “The All-Purpose Farm Dog”, it is this very versatility that has resulted in it now being considered a rare breed.


English Shepherd Large Photo

Though the English Shepherd Club in the United States does maintain an official breed standard, it must always be remembered that the breed is valued for its working ability and temperament over its appearance, and so individuals can vary from the description that follows. The head is broad and rounded between the ears, though less domed than that of the Australian Shepherd (more commonly seen in the western United States).

The crown and muzzle are roughly equal in length, and divided by a fairly pronounced stop. The muzzle is reasonably broad, and the breed has well-developed, though not saggy, flews. Most English Shepherds have a black nose, though it may be brown in some sable-coloured dogs. The intelligent, oval-shaped eyes are brown and are set slightly obliquely, while the ears are usually set wide apart and held semi-erect when the dog is alert.

The muscular neck is arched, while the back is strong and level, with prominent and well-developed loins. The chest is moderately deep and well-sprung, and the abdomen may be tucked in leaner individuals. In profile, the English Shepherd is slightly longer than tall. The tail is long with an upward curve towards the end, and is usually held below horizontal when relaxed.

The forelimbs are straight, with strong bone structure, while the hindlimbs are more angular and held well apart. The paws are quite small and compact, with well-developed pads. When running, the front paws land close together, but do not cross, and the back is straight and level throughout the stride.

Coat quality and colour is the most variable characteristic of the breed, as the hair can range from being short and straight to moderately long and curly. Long plumes and manes are discouraged as being impractical in a working dog, though the limbs are quite well feathered in most. The most common colours, with great variation in marking patterns, are:

  • Black & Tan
  • Tricolour
  • Black & White
  • Sable & White

There is obvious sexual dimorphism in the breed, meaning males are noticeably coarser and heavier than females, with the height range for males being 53–61 cm (21–24 in) and that for females being 46–53 cm (18–21 in). Most males weigh between 24 and 28 kg (53–62 lb) and females between 18 and 22 kg (40–48 lb).

Character & Temperament

These are highly intelligent dogs that are devoted and loyal to their pack leader. They are best-suited to working environments, as they need constant mental stimulation to prevent boredom. As pets, English Shepherds are gentle and responsive companions that can be very rewarding to own for people that have the time to devote to training and exercise, but many develop problematic behaviours due to boredom and a lack of understanding (on the part of the owner) of their needs.

They do not cope well with separation from their people, and are certainly not suited to homes left empty during the working day. As is the case with many farm breeds, the English Shepherd tends to be wary of strangers, and will make a good watch dog, but with proper socialisation it rarely shows signs of aggression, and is happy to mingle with people when properly introduced.


Photo of English Shepherd puppy
Photo thanks to Small Acre Farm

English Shepherds are exceptionally receptive to training, and can instinctively tell what is required by their master in any given situation. The challenge for owners is to make training challenging enough to keep their pet engaged and to prevent them becoming bored. Learning to perform a job, such as carrying groceries or retrieving the mail, can give the dog more of a sense of satisfaction than simply responding to commands, but for the breed to realise its potential it needs to be either given the opportunity to work or participate in canine sports.

Working can involve any of the tasks for which the English Shepherd was bred, from herding to hunting, but prospective owners must give some thought as to how they will employ this workaholic dog to prevent problem behaviours developing out of frustration.


Many of the most common inherited diseases we see in the modern dog breeds have arisen out of misguided breeding practices aimed at standardising appearance ahead of other characteristics. Because the English shepherd has always been bred for vigour and ability to work, it is uncommon to encounter serious health problems in the breed. The following are a few of the conditions that are occasionally encountered.

Hip Dysplasia

Though not the major issue that it is in other breeds (for example, the German Shepherd), some young English Shepherds can develop hindlimb lameness as a result of malformation of one or both hip joints. This is usually first noticed when the dog is around six months of age, and may manifest as stiffness after rest.

The problem can be diagnosed on plain X-rays, and affected dogs should not be used for future breeding. There are a range of treatments available, with hip replacement surgery a possibility for severe cases.


Poor coat quality, weight gain, and lethargy are the most common signs of an underactive thyroid gland. These symptoms typically appear after four years of age in hypothyroid dogs, and are caused by autoimmune destruction of thyroid follicular cells.

Collie Eye Anomaly

As the name suggests, this is a condition that is common throughout the collie family. It is due to underdevelopment of the choroid, the very thin vascular layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye. This results in visual impairment, and it is a strongly heritable problem, meaning that all breeding dogs should be screened by a veterinary ophthalmologist, as should puppies prior to sale.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

This is another problem that affects vision, but in this case it is an acquired and progressive problem, rather than one that it present from birth, as is the case for Collie Eye Anomaly. Signs can appear from four years of age, when owners may first notice night blindness.

Many affected dogs eventually lose all sight, although some are less severely affected. Unfortunately, there is no treatment available for this condition.

Ivermectin Sensitivity

Around one in six English Shepherds have a defect in the MDR-1 gene. In health, this gene confers the ability to prevent certain drug molecules from crossing between the blood and the brain.

Significantly, ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug often used on farms to treat both livestock and pets, can penetrate the blood-brain barrier in MDR-1 deficient dogs, causing neurological signs, such as seizures, coma and death. Unfortunately, this remains a common and avoidable toxicity seen in many farm dogs each year.

Exercise and Activity Levels

While the breed has very high energy levels when required to work, it is also noted for its ability to rest and relax when appropriate. A well-exercised English Shepherd should be placid and laid back come the evening, willing to lie quietly with its owner.

However, getting to this point in the day requires at least two hours of structured activity, and most dogs will be happy to do much more when possible. Walking, running, swimming and working can all contribute to meeting this exercise requirement.


The coarse coat is very easy to care for, and even heavy mud deposits will dry quickly and simply brush out. The breed sheds quite heavily, especially in the spring and autumn, and so brushing may be of benefit twice a week to remove dead hair before it finds its way onto furniture. Bathing is very rarely needed.

With adequate exercise, the English Shepherd’s nails do not tend to grow excessively long and so rarely need clipping. However, tooth brushing is a great idea to prevent tooth and gum disease, and should be introduced early in life, as puppies are generally more receptive to a toothbrush – just be sure to use a toothpaste specifically formulated for dogs, as human preparations are far too strongly flavoured and can also cause stomach upsets.

Famous English Shepherds

While his exact parentage is a matter of debate, Bobbie the Wonder Dog is the most famous English Shepherd (cross) on record, having completed a 3,000 mile journey across America to reunite with his owners. Bobbie was attacked and driven into the countryside by a pack of dogs while his owners were refuelling their car in a town in Indiana in 1923.

Despite his owners’ best efforts, they could not track him down and were forced to complete their journey home to Oregon without him. Heartbroken, they assumed that he had been lost forever, but he miraculously appeared in his home town exactly six months later, apparently none the worse for wear.


Because of their versatility, there seems to be little need to mix the English Shepherd with other breeds, and so crossbreeds are rare.

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