Brushing Up on the Old English Sheepdog

by Susan Norlund, BS, MA, RVT, RLATG
Article reprinted by permission of Veterinary Technician Magazine (the complete journal for the veterinary hospital staff),Volume 22, Number 11, November 2001 Issue.

Still a great article now!!

“An Old English sheepdog requires more attention than any other animal on Earth, with the possible exception of a thoroughbred horse. People ask how many minutes per day are required to keep an Old English sheepdog in respectable repair – the answer is all of the time.”*

The Old English sheepdog is a wonderful, intelligent dog that has been cherished for centuries as a loyal companion and special family member. However, there are special considerations and a great deal of extra work associated with this breed. The Old English is not for everybody!

According to the Old English Sheepdog Club of America, founded in 1905, there is some uncertainty regarding the origin and history of the Old English sheepdog. Various types of dogs were used for sheep and cattle herding throughout the Middle Ages. Dogs resembling the Old English sheepdog first appeared in Great Britain, and development of the shaggy type of herding and driving dog continued into the mid to late 1800′s. Most authorities say that the breed originated in the southwest of England. Some reports suggest that the Scottish bearded collie or the Russian Owtchar may be among its early ancestors, although this remains conjectural..

Sally Carr presents ribbons at the 1998 Southern California Rescue Parade to rescue dogs Harley and Jessie and their owner, Jane Dempsey.

With the founding of the original Old English Sheepdog Club in 1888 in Great Britain, a rigid breed standard was adopted. The breed was introduced into America in the late 1800′s, and the American Kennel Club (AKC) registered the first Old English sheepdog in 1886. According to publications from the Old English Sheepdog Club of America, early owners included the wealthiest families in America: the Morgans, Vanderbilts, Guggenheims, and Harrisons, More recent fans include the Kennedy family, Rod McKuen, and Paul McCartney. Popularity spiked after the breed appeared in films such as “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,” “Peter Pan,” and “The Shaggy Dog.”

Author Susan Norlund with her two Old Enghish sheepdogs, Julie and Petey.


The AKC breed standard for the Old English sheepdog calls for a strong, symmetrical, compact dog that is “square” and not leggy. The Old English sheepdog has an ambling, bearlike, rolling gait. He is profusely coated and has a loud, resounding ring to his bark. The standard indicates that soundness is of the utmost importance, and balance is more important than size. Brown or blue eyes (or one of each color) are considered acceptable. The ears are medium-sized and carried flat. The tail is docked at the first joint from the body soon after birth so that the adult length will not exceed 1.5 to 2 inches. Undesirable qualities include slab-sidedness (a flat rib cage), a long, deerhound-type face, a curly/soft coat, and brown/fawn-colored coat. The Old English sheepdog coat is never flat as it includes a heavy, thick undercoat.

The Old English sheepdog is usually gray, grizzle, blue, or blue merle, with or without white markings or in reverse. Early in the development of the breed, enthusaists were striving for uniformity in conformation as well as color. An original goal for the color was refered to as “pigeon blue” and white. I don’t think there is a better desciption of the breed’s elusive shade. It is interesting to note that the puppies are born black and white. Over the first few months, the black slowly lightens to blue or gray shades.

The Old English sheepdog is a big dog. It is 21 or more inches tall (males are slightly larger) and weighs 55 to 100 lbs. Well cared for, healthy dogs live 10 to14 years.


A loving, family-oriented, indoor dog, the Old English sheepdog needs to be around people! It has a sense of humor and is frequently referred to as a clown. It also tends to nudge its owners or other family members in an attempt to herd them into little groups. Jane Dempsey, co-chair of the Old English Sheepdog Club of America National Rescue Program as well as Old English Rescue of Southern California, calls them “Velcro dogs” because they follow their owners everywhere.

Old English sheepdogs are very active and need a lot of exercise, but just like people, they can become couch potatoes. When left alone all day, destructive behavior is not unlikely. A dog door and a companion animal may prove helpful if an owner is away from home all day. Old English sheepdogs tend to be very unhappy when relegated to the backyard: If this will be the situation, a different breed should be considered.

American and international champion Greyfriars Peg o’ my Heart with owner Diane Reynolds.

Although Old English sheepdogs are friendly, they can be very protective and possessive of their owners. Many of these dogs are excellent with children, but as Jane Dempsey cautions, “It depends on the dog, and it depends on the child.” These large, playful dogs could unintentionally injure unsupervised toddlers while frolicking.

Old English Sheepdogs are highly intellingent and can be readily trained by a dedicated owner willing to spend the time on obedience and agility. Boredom must be dealt with in the same manner as with a very bright child. Old English sheepdogs usually do better with short, consistent training intervals.


Along with exercise, several hours of brushing a week (preferably daily) are mandatory for Old English sheepdogs unless an owner wants to maintain a clipped coat. Grooming should begin at a very young age, if possible, as the dog will spend many hours of his adult life being brushed. Without this early training, grooming can be difficult, the coat will become matted, and a wrestling match can ensue. A grooming table is preferred and well worth the investment. (The floor will work, too, but the cost may be an aching back.) Grooming tools include a comb, pin brush, and slicker. Brushing is done by spreading the coat in a “line” and brushing from the skin up, then forming a new “line” and starting again, being careful to remove all mats. Each section of the body is groomed in this manner. Mats are isolated and carefully pulled apart or cut through and then gently brushed out. A heavy hand will result in an unruly animal. The hair around the genital area and the anus is usually trimmed close to maintain cleanliness. Thick ear hair is frequently removed by plucking, which should be attempted only after training or by a professional groomer. Grooming alone may suffice for many months for a dog with a healthy coat and skin.

“Old English sheepdogs are not for everybody, but if you have one and survived him, you get a warm glow of satisfaction.”*

Bathing intervals and shampoos vary with preference. A bath every 4 to 6 weeks is suggested. Sometimes just the white sections are bathed. After towel drying, plenty of time should be allowed for air drying or a hair dryer should be used. A dog with mats should never be bathed because the mats wil become cement-like balls of hair that are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remove without cutting.

Because potential owners do not realize the magnitude of care that Old English sheepdogs require, many of these dogs sadly end up at animal shelters or worse. Fortunately, volunteers throughout the United States work diligently to find loving homes for abandoned Old English sheepdogs.


Medical concerns include hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atophy, cerebellar ataxia, deafness, cataracts, hypothyroidism, and autoimmune hemolytic anemia. Perhaps the least understood of these conditions is cerebellar ataxia – a congenital brain disorder that usually appears when a dog is 2 to 4 years of age. Signs include depth perception problems and a wobbly gait. An autopsy is required to confirm the diagnosis. Ther is ongoing research for genetic identification of carriers of cerebellar ataxia.

Skin problems may also occur in Old English sheepdogs. It can be difficult to diagnose the reason for skin problems because there are so many posible cuases (e.g., allergies, fleas, food.) Also, the dense coat can allow a skin condition to become severe prior to detection if the skin and coat asre not checked daily.

Because of the heavy coat of the Old English sheepdog, owners should take care to help their dog avoid overexertion and heatstroke in warm weather.

*Segal D.R.: The Orange County Register, published by Chris Anderson/Freedom Communications, Inc., Santa Ana, CA, The Old English Sheepdog is Not for Everybody.


Ms. Norlund lives in Running Springs, California, and works at the Emergency Pet Clinic, Montclair, California, as well as with animals with cardiac problems. For many years, she handled and showed Afghan hounds, deerhounds, and greyhounds. For the past 15 years, she has been owned and loved by Old English sheepdogs. Her current family includes Jillie, Petey, and a collie mix named Shadow. She just lost a very dear friend named Sara (an Old English sheepdog) to autoimmune hemolytic anemia. Since becoming certified by International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council for wildlife rehabilitation, Ms. Norlund spends her spare time volunteering for Wildhaven, a sanctuary that rehabilitates sick, orphaned, and injured indigeneous wildlife in the San Bernardino Mountains of California.


Email: Christine Pesche or Jane Dempsey can provide a contact for Old English Sheepdog Resuce in your area. Email, call 661-821-0416, or

Web Site: Old English Sheepdog Club of America

Books and Pamphlets

The following book is geared toward persons new to the breed:

Walker, JH: Old English Sheepdogs: A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual,Hauppage, NY, Barron’s Educational Series, 1999.

Additionally, all of the following books are frequently available through on-line auctions, such as eBay:

Boyer, A: Your Old English Sheepdog, Fairfax, VA, William W. Denlinger, 1978.

Brearly, J: The Old English Sheepdog, Neptune, NJ, TFH Publications, 1989.

Davis, A: The Old English Sheepdog, New York, Popular Dogs Publishing Co., LTD and Howell Book House, 1973.

Keeling, JA: The Old English Sheepdog, W and G Foyle Ltd., 1961, New York, Arco Foyle’s Handbooks, 1975 (revised).

Mandeville, J: The Complete Old English Sheepdog, New York, Howell Book House, 1973.

Old English Sheepdog Club of America Information Pamphlet,Approved by Board of Directors, USA, April 23, 1983 (subsequently revised.)

Owen, R: The Very Old English Sheepdog, Bumpers Farm, Chippenham, Anthony Rowe Ltd., Wiltshire, England, Cottage Industry Publications, 1999.

Smith, C: The Complete Old English Sheepdog, New York, Howell Book House, 1993.

Woods, S; Owens, R: Old English Sheepdogs, London, Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1981.