A Clown in Sheep’s Clothing

The fun-loving Old English Sheepdog lives to please.
by Sue Wright

(Permission granted to reprint this article
Dog Fancy, June 1999 issue)

An exceptionally large woolly sheep ambled among the herd in a wind-swept pasture. Well, it looked like a sheep … until it barked. A closer look revealed it was Nigel, a burly Old English Sheepdog, gamboling amid a trio of unruly sheep at the 1999 American Kennel Club Herding Tests and Trials in Wilton, California.

He slowed to an effortless trot, then pivoted with surprising agility for a 100-pound dog without a tail for a rudder. Nigel, whose ancestors drove sheep to market rather than herded them in the field, responded quickly to his shepherd’s commands but was neither as nimble nor as intent as the competing Border Collies or Shetland Sheepdogs.

Nigel, a herding novice, failed his test, but his adoring owner, Heidi Graham of Studio City, Calif., consoled him with hugs and a rousing game of leap-over-the-stick. Nigel’s “pot casse” bark-like two pots clanging together rang his enthusiasm. This dog thinks life is a three-ring circus; he’s happiest goofing around with people.

“Old English Sheepdogs are very clown-like and love to carry around their stuffed toys,” said Jere Marder of Chicago, Ill., the breeder and owner of Yoshi (Ch. Lambluv’s Desert Dancer). “They are very much attuned to people.” Yoshi, who won Best of Breed at Westminster in 1998 and 1999, is considered the world’s top OES.

Indeed, you might find yourself neatly herded into a single room with family members – or whoever else is around – by the firm nudge of a cold nose or bump of a fuzzy, round rump in authentic Old English style.

The dogs follow you from room to room and may think they’re lap dogs. Owners often train away that tendency early because adults stand up to 26 inches at the shoulder and weigh between 60 and 100 pounds.

Fortunately, the working OES does well in obedience. “A year of good, solid training will ensure your dog becomes a wonderful family member forever,” said Pam Henry of Santa Rosa, Calif., member of the Old English Sheepdog League of Northern California. But don’t bother with guard-dog training. “It’s by no means an aggressive dog. Once the initial barking is over, it’s ‘Come on in; let’s party!’”

Family dogs at heart, these giants are great kids’ dogs. “I saw an Old English Sheepdog when I was 6 years old in a pet store,” said Sue Rassas of Huachuca City, Ariz. “When it got up and walked across the floor, it looked like a big, stuffed animal.” She knew one day she’d have one.

However, breeders caution that because of their size, Sheepies are not recommended for families with children under the age of 5, especially if the OES will be the family’s first dog. “The child gets knocked down, and the dog is put in the back yard and never sees the inside of the house again,” Henry said.

In conformation, the Old English Sheepdog shines as a crowd favorite. The natural hams appreciate a crowd while circling the ring in their distinctive rolling bear-like gait. Through its fleecy fur, the breed’s expressive eyes, which should be brown, blue or a combination, convey the jovial personality of this jester.

However, this huge, hairy breed can be a bit overwhelming for judges and seldom leaves with Best in Show. Though Yoshi was Westminster’s 1998 Herding Group winner, an OES has not won the prestigious Best in Show since 1975.

The Old English Sheepdog is believed to have evolved from the Scottish Bearded Collie or the Russian Owtchar. Originally used to herd and protect sheep in southwest England, the strong, agile breed later drove sheep and cattle to market. Their tails were docked for two reasons. First, without a tail for balance they were less able to chase down lambs. Second, the British government considered dogs without tails tax-exempt working dogs. The practice gave the breed the nicknames, “Bobtail” and “Bob.” The docked tail remains the standard in the United States but has fallen from favor in England, where the dog’s ancestral lamb-tailed appearance has been restored and accepted in the show ring.

A dense, weather-resistant coat was a must for the dank Devon moors where the OES first herded the shepherd’s flocks, but nowadays working Sheepies and those not exhibited in dog shows are best kept trimmed to a two-inch puppy cut for easier grooming.

“People are infatuated with the hair and look, but they don’t understand what it takes to get that,” said Christine Bunsick-Pesche of Tehachapi, Calif., who along with Jane Dempsey of Santa Monica runs the Southern California OES Rescue and coordinates national OES rescue. “Leave a dog tied up to a tree in the back yard and it isn’t going to look like a show dog.”

A puppy cut is also more comfortable for dogs in warmer regions, even though their undercoat insulates in all types of weather. A periodic bang trim is a good idea, too. “If that hair is down over their eyes and I don’t have a barrette in their hair, they would hit every single parking meter on the sidewalk,” Marder said.

Surprisingly, profuse shedding isn’t a big problem, but expect to spend three to four hours each week to keep the top and undercoats well groomed – or you’ll eventually have doggie dreadlocks.

Reluctance to groom tempers the breed’s popularity. The OES ranked 66th among 148 American Kennel Club-registered breeds last year – down from 63rd in 1997. But the coat isn’t its only deterrent. “Old English Sheepdogs tend to get ear infections because of all the hair,” said William Porte, DVM, of Sacramento, Calif. “When you groom, clean the ear canals of hair.”

More serious defects are deafness, retinal detachment and ataxia, a disorder that causes dogs to lose their balance. The OES Breed Club of America is conducting DNA research to find ataxia’s cause and a cure. Hip dysplasia, juvenile cataracts and entropion of the eyelids, which causes them to roll inward, are found in some lines. Reputable breeders sell only dogs certified free of hip dysplasia by the Orthopedic Foundation of Animals and tested by the Canine Eye Registration Foundation. Owners should have dogs examined for hearing and thyroid problems.

The Old English Sheepdog’s size, grooming and health requirements need an owner who has the patience to select a healthy dog, train and socialize it, and give it an outlet for its herding energy.

Nigel was a picture of contentment as he played around owner Heidi Graham at the herding trials. Win or lose he succeeds at the ultimate Old English Sheepdog job: pleasing his owner.

Sue Wright is a free-lance writer in Sacramento, Calif.

In Brief

Country of origin: Great Britain.
AKC Group: Herding.
Function: Companion.
Life span: 10 to 12 years.
Watchdog: No.
Color: Gray, grizzle (a mixture of black and white hairs), blue or blue merle with or without white markings or in reverse; eyes, brown or blue.
Coat type: Profuse but not excessive; hard texture; shaggy but free from curl.
Grooming: Three to four hours weekly.
Height/weight: Males 22 inches and up, 70 to 90 pounds; females 21 inches and up, 60 to 80 pounds.
Activity: Moderate.
Intelligence: High.
Good with children: Yes for kids 5 and older.
Good with other pets: Yes.
Home environment: Large house and yard.
Character: Adaptable, intelligent, can be headstrong.
Attitude toward strangers: Friendly.
National breed club: Old English Sheepdog Club of America, Janet Loehr, 503 Highway 1 West, Anaconda, MT 59711, 406-563-6712.
Rescue: Old English Sheepdog Rescue Hotline, (661) 821-0416.