The Old English Sheepdog

By Kim D. R. Dearth
Dog World Magazine
March, 2001; Reprinted by permission of the author

From the hero of “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” and “The Shaggy Dog” to Nurse Nana of “Peter Pan,” the Old English Sheepdog has stolen the hearts of millions of children who are entranced by this huge stuffed toy come to life. Just seeing an example of the breed ambling down the street seems to bring out the kid in all of us. Who could resist throwing their arms around that big fluffy head and receiving an enthusiastic kiss in return? But, before you run out and buy an Old English Sheepdog of your own, know what you’re getting into. That fabulous fur will find its way into every corner of your life—and home—and those enthusiastic kisses can knock down a child, or even an adult, if not curtailed by some obedience training. It’s important to study the Old English Sheepdog’s history to better understand the positive, and negative, aspects of the breed.

Sheepdog of Old?
The name “Old English Sheepdog” is a bit of a misnomer; while the Old English did originate in thatcountry, it is actually a relatively new breed when compared with some breeds that can trace their lineage for thousands of years. The Old English Sheepdog, or Bobtail as it is often called, emerged out of the unclassified drovers used to manage and protect sheep and cattle in the English countryside and drive them to market. Due to their more than passing resemblance, the Bearded Collie of Scotland and the Russian Owizarka are thought to have also played a part in forming the Old English Sheepdog. The breed didn’t come into its own until the late 1800s, when it began appearing at Kennel Club dog shows in its native land.

Dogs of that day were often selected as much for their working ability as their looks. The Old English evolved as a large, hardy dog that could withstand the harsh climate of the English countryside and would not be intimidated by the well-horned sheep it was guarding or the wolves it was guarding against. Its thick, insulated double coat not only protected it during warm summers and cold, wet winters, but also gave it a woolly, sheeplike appearance that helped it earn its charges’ trust. The refinement of the breed only came once it had caught the attention of several wealthy Americans. The first Bobtail—aptly named Bob—came to the United States in 1885, and the breed was officially recognized by the American Kennel Club three years later. It wasn’t until 1905, however, that the parent club, the Old English Sheepdog Club of America, was founded. While there is no doubt as to the reasoning behind the Old English Sheepdog’s weather-resistant coat, there are two theories concerning its lack of a tail. Although it is called a Bobtail, the breed usually isn’t born this way; its tail is docked when it is a puppy. One theory suggests that English shepherds cut off the tails of their drovers to show that they were working dogs, therefore avoiding the luxury tax levied on owners of pet dogs. Another points out that tails act as a rudder for hunting and coursing breeds, and cutting off the tail was believed to keep a sheepdog focused on its work and keep it from chasing after small game. Whatever the reason, the lack of a tail became an integral part of the breed. It is interesting to note that cropping and docking has fallen out of favor in England, and the Old English is shown there with its natural tail. Although artificial alteration of tails and ears is being debated in this country, the U.S. standard of the Old English Sheepdog still calls for a docked tail.

As mentioned above, the breed first came to this country as the property of some of America’s elite, including the Goulds, Guggenheims, Harrisons, Morgans and Vanderbilts. The Old English remained a bastion of society until the late 1950s, when a champion named Fezziwig Ceiling Zero took the show world by storm. The ensuing publicity let the general public in on this canine secret, and soon people of all walks of life were clamoring to have a Bobtail of their own. Hollywood further put the spotlight on the Old English Sheepdog. The breed starred in the 1950s movie, “The Shaggy Dog,” in which a boy is turned into an Old English Sheepdog, and its sequels, “The Shaggy D.A.” and “The Return of the Shaggy Dog.” The Bobtail next appeared in the movie “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” and the ensuing TV series of the same name. This popularity frenzy crested in the 1970s, when an average of 15,000 Old English Sheepdogs were registered a year with the AKC. Quickly, however, all these lovestruck owners realized that this is not a low-maintenance breed. As people discovered the tremendous amount of work needed to keep the Old English well-groomed and adequately exercised, the breed’s popularity dropped off. Today, the Old English Sheepdog ranks 64, with 1,717 dogs registered in 1999.

Life With a Bobtail
While the Old English Sheepdog may look like a giant stuffed toy, this is no breed to be propped in the corner and ignored. Although bred to be a working dog, the Old English is truly a companion and needs to be in the middle of all family activities. The correct temperament is very sweet, very affectionate, very people-oriented,” says Marilyn O’Cuilinn, president of the OESCA. “In our breeding program we stress personality and temperament. There are some Old English’s out there who don’t have these qualities, but they are aberrations of the breed. That’s why it is so important to find a reputable breeder when purchasing one of these dogs.” If a Bobtail feels it isn’t the center of attention, it will find a way to remedy the situation—these dogs are the court jesters of the canine world.

“Old English Sheepdogs are happy, optimistic, bouncy dogs,” says Nancy Shaffer Smith, Great Plains Region Director of the OESCA. “When they disobey they stick their butts in the air as if to say, ‘Don’t be so serious!’” While their carefree air can tempt owners to be lenient, Smith points out that you must be firm, yet fair, with these dogs. While it’s easy to dismiss mischief in a puppy, the same behavior is difficult to ignore in a full-grown Bobtail. “As puppies they are so cute that people laugh when they misbehave, encouraging them to be a clown. But they need to have firm discipline when they do something wrong.” This doesn’t mean harsh corrections; because the Bobtail lives for attention, ignoring bad behavior will quickly get the point across that you are displeased.

The breed’s need for love and affection makes it a poor candidate for a latchkey dog, unless its owners are dedicated to thoroughly exercising it before they leave for the day and after they come home at night. Owners who spend long hours away from home because of work and/or other commitments may find themselves coming home to a bored, and destructive, Bobtail. Don’t think that leaving your Old English out in the back yard all day will make up for your absence; chances are you’ll come home to a canine archeological dig designed to grab even the most neglecting owner’s attention. “They need to be with their family,” says Smith. “They are meant to be at the foot of the bed. Why have a guardian of the flock—in this case, your family—and leave it outside?” O’Cuillin shares the case of a dog that had been banished to the backyard by its owners. “These people had bought two dogs and couldn’t handle how hard they played in the house. They put this dog outside, but at least had the sense to realize it needed something more and contacted us. The dog had been depressed and wasn’t eating. Well, we found him a great home and he’s really come out of his shell. He’s like a different dog now.”

Like all sheepdogs, bred to work the flock all day long, the Old English Sheepdog demands lots of exercise. At a minimum, it should participate in structured, interactive exercise with its owner (walking, jogging, agility, playing fetch) twice a day for a half hour at a time. It also should be granted lots of free running time in the back yard, although some Old English are so people-oriented that they will simply lie by the back door waiting for someone to come and play with them. The back yard must be fenced, since many Old English’s will give chase to birds, neighborhood children, or even cars, often with tragic consequences. Although enough exercise is vital, Smith does point out that the Old English requires less exercise than some of the smaller herding breeds. “They are too big to run all day like a Sheltie; they are meant to do power work,” says Smith. “They are very fast and agile, but they are like a Quarter Horse, which is fast on the quarter mile, but doesn’t do a mile.” Still, O’Cuillin stresses, “The more exercise they get the happier and healthier they are. You can have them in an apartment but you need to spend a lot of time walking and playing with them. Puppies especially love to go tearing around.”

Whether you live on a country estate or in a one-bedroom apartment, you need to tolerate a little mess in your life if you are going to bring home a Bobtail. “The Old English is not for people who are fastidious about cleanliness with regard to shedding hair, dirty or wet dogs, or dripping mouths,” says Smith. “This breed picks up and drags in every loose object it walks through outside, including mud. “And,” she adds, “Watching a dog in full coat drink water is an experience.” Bobtails usually love the company of other dogs, and love to entertain each other.
They also can get along well with the family cat if introduced to it at a young age. “With one of my Old English Sheepdog’s, one of her best friends is the cat,” says O’Cuilinn. “Every morning they greet each other with licks and trot out the door together. It looks like a scene straight out of a Disney movie.” Smith says usually the feline will set the tone for the relationship. “Old English Sheepdogs are persistent,” she notes. “A lot depends on the reaction of the cat. If the cat hisses and bats at the dog, the dog will think, ‘How fun!’ and continue pestering the cat.” A cat that calmly accepts an Old English will be treated in a similarly calm fashion. Bobtails tend to be gentle with most animals. “If one finds a baby bird on the ground, the bird is more in danger of drowning in a slobbering mouth than being hurt,” says Smith.

Guardian of the Flock
“Old English Sheepdogs greet everyone like a long-lost buddy,” says Smith. “They are not wary or aloof like some breeds, but have an uncanny ability to make a judgement call of when they need to guard. If they sense something is wrong, they won’t growl a warning, they will just attack.” Smith tells of one woman who was frightened by a stranger at her door one night. “As she yelled at the person to go away, her dog charged and knocked out the door.” There’s no doubt that the Bobtail, although equally affectionate with all friends, can be a formidable force when protecting its family, especially children. While it loves kids, the Old English’s droving behavior needs to restrained around little ones. Old English Sheepdogs are bred to go up against large sheep and cattle. While the breed doesn’t nip at heels like some livestock dogs, it does bump with its whole body, which stands 22 inches and upfor males, 21 inches and up for females, and ranges from 60 to 100 pounds or more. This maneuver can knock over an adult and seriously scare, or even injure, a toddler. “You can’t play by running from an Old English; it will take you out,” Smith stresses. She also notes that the breed’s naturally protective nature can get it in trouble. “Never have it around children who are screaming as if they are being hurt. It will go after visiting kids because it will assume they are hurting its ‘kids’.” Once it has been taught that children aren’t two-legged lambs, however, the Old English makes an excellent companion. It is extremely affectionate and patient with its little charges. “Many children have learned to walk by pulling themselves up and walking along with a Sheepdog,” says Smith. Still, she emphasizes that children must be taught to respect the family pet, and no dog should be left alone with a small child. “A lot of kids will walk up to a sleeping dog and just fall on it like a beanbag chair, and the dog will retaliate. It is important that the adults in the family set the rules and enforce them. If the dog knows the adults will protect it, it doesn’t need to protect itself.”

Christine Bunsick-Pesche, co-chair of the OESCA National Rescue Program and co-founder of OES Rescue of Southern California with Jane Dempsey, is cautious when placing a dog in a home with children. “Old English Sheepdogs probably are not for people with young children under 5 yearsof age. The reason is twofold: Big dogs knock down small children, and having an OES is like having another child. Often the moms just can’t keep up.” Another issue to be considered when combining children and an Old English Sheepdog is what dog-care duties your youngsters will take on. A family that purchases this dog based on the children’s promise that they’ll feed, walk and groom their pet is most likely headed for trouble. This dog requires a great amount of care, much more than a child can be expected to provide. Adult members of the household must be prepared to train, exercise and, yes, groom, this breed before bringing one home.

In fact, the tremendous amount of grooming the Old English requires is one of the main reasons this breed ends up in animal shelters and rescue organizations. The breed’s profuse coat, which can be gray, grizzle, blue or blue merle, is its hallmark. While many people are attracted by its copious fur, they often don’t fully realize what is needed to keep the coat in order. The Bobtail has a double coat well-suited for a working sheepdog; the hard, shaggy outer coat protects the dog from rain and snow while the thick, waterproof undercoat keeps it warm or cool, depending on the season. An adult Old English Sheepdog with a full coat requires three to four hours of grooming a week if it spends most of its time indoors or on leashed walks around a manicured neighborhood. It needs even more grooming if it is allowed to run in dog parks or is taken for hikes on wooded trails, where it will pick up every burr and seed it brushes against. If you opt for professional grooming, expect to pay about $100 every two weeks to keep the coat combed out, plus the cost of a bath every couple of months. If you intend to do all grooming yourself, you may want to invest in a professional grooming table that you can sit or stand at while brushing your Old English—brushing a dog for an hour or more can be very hard on your back.

You’ll also need to pay particular attention to the eyes. The hair around the eyes should be clipped or tied up to allow it to see properly. The breed’s hanging ears are prone to infection if not properly cared for—keep them clean and free from hair to prevent infection.

“Some Old English Sheepdogs end up in the pound because they haven’t been taught to be groomed, they aren’t groomed, they’re a mess, and when you try to groom them they may bite because it hurts,” says Smith. Some owners opt to keep their Bobtail trimmed to a 2- to 3-inch puppy shave for easier care. “There’s nothing wrong with shaving an OldEnglish,” stresses O’Cuilinn. “My dogs all get shaved down after their show careers are over.” “Believe me, a shaved Old English isn’t embarrassed, although some owners are,” comments Smith. “A just-clipped Old English will run around with the joy of a naked 2-year-old [baby].” While you are losing the luxurious look you fell in love with, it may be worth it if you don’t have the time to care for a full coat.

Up for Anything
“The Old English Sheepdog can be boisterous,” says O’Cuilinn. “They play hard, and when they work they herd hard.” Smith agrees. “They are energetic, and some can even be hyper.” Due to their high energy, the Old English needs a job to do, although that job can take many different forms. “They are good retrievers, and are very agile,” says Smith. Old English Sheepdogs participate in all manner of dog sports, from obedience to flyball to agility to , of course, herding. However, some don’t respond to traditional training methods. “They are stubborn,” says Smith. “You need to work them on the basis of praise, and make it interesting. They are not a Golden Retriever, that can do an exercise 200 times then do it the 201st time just for fun. Old English’s will do it well five times, then you’ll see them winding down.” “Old English Sheepdogs are very good at obedience and agility when they want to be,” qualifies O’Cuilinn. “But, to see their true clownish nature, go watch one compete.” “I had one that did agility, but you couldn’t control him,” says Smith. “He would do the weave poles so fast that he would break them all. He would go through the blind tunnel and drag it across the field, then would leap from the top of the A-frame.” To have a competitive Old English, it’s vital that you convince him its worth his while to play by the rules. Above all else, says O’Cuilinn, “They excel at being a friend. They make wonderful therapy dogs.” Smith agrees. “They are best as a family pet, taking care of their people. They need to perform a job, which can be bunching the family in lieu of sheep or cows.” Sometimes this need to keep the flock in order can run into manmade roadblocks. Smith tells of one of her dogs that found an interesting arch nemesis. “We had a swimming pool, which drove her nuts because she couldn’t bunch us. In her mind, when we were in that pool we were out of control.”

Health Issues
Old English Sheepdogs continue to play the clown well into old age. A healthy Old English can live to 12 or 13 years. As a potential owner, it is important to be aware of the potential health problems seen in the breed to help ensure your dog will live a long and healthy life.

Hip and elbow dysplasia can occur in the breed, with hip dysplasia being more common. This progressive, degenerative joint disease, in which the thigh bone does not fit correctly into the hip joint, ranges from mild, asymptomatic cases to severe cases that cause serious pain and/or debilitation. X-rays must be taken to make a definite diagnosis, and treatment ranges from medical therapy to surgery. All dogs that are intended to be bred should be evaluated by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), the Institute for Genetic Disease Control in Animals GDC) or the PennHip system and determined to be free of this condition. It may be possible to stave off symptoms in a dog with dysplasia by preventing it from overeating, keeping growth slow and steady in puppies, and embarking on a sensible exercise program to strengthen muscles surrounding the joints. But beware, overexercise can be just as harmful as a lack of exercise.

Osteochondritis dissecans is another bone-related disease that can affect the Old English Sheepdog. This condition causes cartilage lesions or fragments in the shoulder, elbow, hock and knee. In mild cases, rest may abate the condition, although more severe cases may require surgery.

Progressive retinal atrophy, which can cause blindness, and juvenile cataracts, which cause clouding of the lens, are two hereditary eye problems seen in the Old English. Breeding dogs should be certified clear each year by the Canine Eye Registration Foundation.Deafness can also be a factor in some dogs. A B.A.E.R. test should be performed to evaluate a dog’s hearing before being bred.

A disease that affects the Bobtail’s gait, called cerebral ataxia, has recently been discovered. It is being aggressively researched by the parent club, since little is known at this time about its long-term effects.

Thyroid problems are also seen in the Old English. Hypothyroidism can produce symptoms such as listlessness, loss of hair, easy weight gain leading to obesity or dramatic weight loss. Daily medication may be prescribed for the remainder of the dog’s life to keep this disease in check.

Although not strictly a genetic problem, heatstroke is a serious concern In Old English Sheepdogs that are in full coat and live in hot climates or are exercising on an especially warm day. When the weather heats up, it’s best to keep your dog indoors in air conditioning. If it is going to spend any time outside, provide your Bobtail with heavy shade, lots of fresh water and a wading pool, if possible. Also, carefully monitor young dogs that may innocently overexert themselves.

Bloat is a disorder that runs in Old English Sheepdogs and other large, deep-chested breeds. Bloat occurs when the stomach swells from excess gas, fluid or both. It may even flip over, causing a life-threatening emergency called torsion. Bloat is believed to be triggered by overeating, heavy exercise immediately before or following a meal, or drinking large amounts of water before or after eating or exercising. Feed your Old English several smaller meals throughout the day rather than one large meal, and make sure it doesn’t drink too much too quickly.

Obtaining an Old English
The best way to find an Old English Sheepdog that is free of the conditions mentioned above is to purchase one from reputable breeder. The OESCA can give you a list of member breeders. These breeders must vow to follow a code of ethics that requires , in part, that breeders breed to the standard, inform buyers of hereditary diseases found in the Bobtail and reveal what tests have been performed on both parents, sell puppies no younger than 8 weeks, and explain the unique grooming requirements of the breed. O’Cuilinn warns of buying a dog from a breeder who does not follow these strict standards. “The Old English Sheepdog is a glamorous-looking breed but it is fairly rare,” she says. This rarity has led to average prices of $1,000 for pet-quality puppies. “The price encourages unscrupulous breeders.”

In addition to health, good temperament is vital in an Old English Sheepdog. Bunsick-Pesche notes that while well-bred Bobtails are sweet, wonderful companions, bad breeding can result in poor personality. “Not all OES’s are sweet,” she warns. “On the average, OES Rescue of Southern California has 30 to 50 dogs per year in our program. Our vets end up putting to sleep 7% to 10% per year—the main reason is bad tempers.” Of course, there are many Old English that end up in rescue through no fault of there own and make wonderful pets. If you are looking to buy a puppy, however, Bunsick-Pesche stresses, “It is extremely important that you buy from a reputable breeder—a member of the club who adheres to the code of ethics—and never buy from a pet store or off the Internet. Spend as much time finding the right dog as you would buying the right house. Dogs are not impulse buys.”

If you are willing to provide the grooming, exercise and attention this breed requires, the Old English Sheepdog may be the breed for you. And if you have young people in your family, they will delight in having their own Nurse Nana to care for them. If you don’t, have no fear—an Old English can bring out the Peter Pan in everyone.

Grooming Your Sheepdog
To correctly brush an Old English Sheepdog, you must learn the art of line brushing. Line brushing ensures that you are brushing out every inch of your dog’s hair down to the skin. Begin by lightly misting one side of your dog with a spray bottle, and work the water in all the way to the undercoat, then take a pin brush and brush a line up the dog’s back along the backbone, brushing only a small amount of hair at a time. Be sure to brush all the way from the roots out, giving the hair a spiked appearance. Hold the rest of the hair down with your other hand. Once the entire row has been brushed down to the skin and you’ve removed all dead hair, loosen a few unbrushed hairs just below and all along your brushing line and brush this line out as you did the first. Continue in this manner, brushing line by line until you reach the belly. Do the same on the other side. Once the sides are complete, you will need to brush out the rest of your dog, working in sections from top to bottom (head to chest, shoulder to leg, rump to rear leg, etc.).
This may seem like a lot of work, but if you don’t take the time to brush your Bobtail correctly, you won’t be able to keep the coat free of mats. A tiny ignored mat will quickly grow into an impenetrable mass, which will only make the job more difficult for you or a professional groomer.

Kim Dearth writes about issues concerning dogs and cats from her home near Sioux Falls, S.D. She is the recipient of two Dog Writers Association of America awards, and has published several breed-specific books. She, her husband and their new son live with one canine and two feline research assistants.

National Breed Club
The Old English Sheepdog Club of America”; Breeder contact: Janet Loehr, 503 Highway 1 West, Anaconda, Mont. 59711; (406) 563-6712;
Rescue contacts : Christine M. Bunsick-Pesche and Jane Dempsey (661) 821-0416 emails –;

Jill A. Keeling, The Old English Sheepdog, Arco Publishing Co., N.Y., 1975.
Marilyn Mayfield, A New Owner’s Guide to Old English Sheepdogs, T.F.H. Publications, Neptune City, N.J., 1999.
Beverly Pisano, Old English Sheepdogs, T.F.H. Publications, Neptune City, N.J., 1980.
Christina Smith, The Complete Old English Sheepdog,Howell Book House, N.Y., 1993.
Joan Hustace Walker, Old English Sheepdogs: A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual, Barron’s Educational Series, Hauppauge, N.Y., 1999.