Shaggy Shenanigans, Batman! It’s the Old English Sheepdog!

by Nicole Wilde (reprinted with permission)
“Get-A-Pet” Photo Adoption Magazine, Southern California Edition, June 13-26, 1998

The British and European breed standard for the Old English Sheepdog describes “a thickset, muscular, ablebodied dog with a most intelligent expression.” Jane Dempsey, Vice President of Old English Sheepdog Rescue, offers, “People describe them as a clown in a dog suit.” Both descriptions are probably correct.

The OES is a playful, loving dog who bonds closely with his family. In fact, Jane dubs them “velcro dogs” because they stick so closely to their owners. She says, “They’ll even follow you to the bathroom!” Adolescence in the OES often extends to age three, and that playful quality remains even throughout old age. Despite the clownish nature of the breed, the level of intelligence should not be overlooked. The OES learns quickly. That same intelligence which allows him to do so, however, can result in boredom if training isn’t interesting enough. “You have to find the right method for training them,” warns Jane. “They can be stubborn. If they’re bored with something they’ll start doing something else.” She adds that success in training also naturally depends on how much time you put in working with your companion. Many dogs of this breed seem to prefer the challenge of agility work or herding. Some are therapy dogs as well. Jane relates the rags-to-riches story of Skippy: “One of our dogs, Skippy, was adopted out a year ago and works with the SPCA Therapy Program. In last months’ edition of Detour magazine, they did a spread called ‘Going to the Dogs’, where they had dogs who worked with the SPCA Therapy group modeling glasses. There was Skippy with Gucci glasses on in a fashion magazine, when we’d gotten him from the pound in Rancho Cucamonga last July!” She laughs, “Life sure takes turns.” OES are especially well suited for therapy because of their gentle nature and ability to make people smile.

What may NOT make OES owners smile is the amount of grooming required to keep those shaggy coats from matting (this is especially problematic during the transition into adulthood). A minimum of two hours a week be spent on grooming, plus bathing when necessary. Not being prepared for this aspect of OES care is a main reason the breed is given up. “They’re high maintenance,” stresses Jane. She adds that people often don’t realize the eventual size of a grown OES when they take home a pup, which is especially troublesome since “they seem to be impulse buys because they’re cute.” The Disney movie “The Shaggy Dog” helped to popularize the breed years ago, and whenever the movie is shown on television, says Jane, calls to adopt double.

The OES can be traced back to the early nineteenth century, in the Southwestern Counties of England. They were used primarily as a “drover’s dog”, to drive sheep and cattle to market. In order to identify them as working dogs (so owners could avoid paying a tax), their tails were docked. It then became customary to refer to the breed by the nickname “Bob” or “Bobtail”. To those who think of the OES as a rugged outdoorsy dog, though, Jane says, “Think again. They’re couch potatoes. People will say, ‘We have a big yard, all fenced in, the dog will be real happy’ and I will say, ‘Well if you’re going to go outside with him I’m sure he will, but other than that he’s a couch potato.”‘ OES are definitely more of a people-oriented dog than a canine-bonding animal, although they may be fine with only canine companionship while their owners are at work; it depends on the particular dog. “They do need people,” says Jane. “They just shut down without the human contact.”

Even couch potatoes need a moderate amount of exercise, and the OES is no exception. This can be accomplished through daily walks, playtime in the yard, or visits to an offleash dog park. Not to worry, OES generally get along well with other canines. They are also good-natured and do well around children, though their size is cause for concern around toddlers. Of course, no dog of any breed should be left alone unsupervised with a child.

Other forms of exercise for the OES include training sessions (mental exercise is as important as well as physical), herding, agility, and therapy work. Some OES have even done search and rescue work.

Health problems which can be a concern for the breed include: hip dysplasia (a potentially crippling disease found in many large breeds, requiring surgery in severe cases); Hereditary Cataract and Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), two hereditary eye conditions; and thyroid disease (diagnosed via a blood test, treated with medication and dietary supplements). Care should be taken with this breed not to exercise them in hot weather. Because of the dense undercoat, they can get overheated quickly, which can be extremely dangerous. Some OES drool even in cool weather, although not to the extent of, say, Newfoundlands or St. Bernards. Others don’t drool at all.

OES are adorable, happy-go-lucky dogs who want nothing more than to be with their family. But as Jane says, “People have to do their homework before they buy.” They need to consider the grooming and exercise requirements of this breed, along with the size of an adult OES. To illustrate this point, OES Rescue brings a stuffed OES to pet fairs. When people mistake it for a real OES, Jane tells them, “Well, if you’re looking for a low-maintenance Old English, that’s it.”

Old English Sheepdog Rescue suggests that if you are interested in the breed, that you attend a show or visit the rescue to meet some of the dogs. For more info or to adopt, please contact OES Rescue at (661) 821-5004.