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The Old English sheepdog, or Old English or OES for short, is an old dog breed from the British Isles now easily recognizable for its massive coats and excellent working ability. These dogs were originally bred to be versatile helpers to their handlers, assisting them in the fields, driving livestock, and surveying the countryside. Now, an easy-to-spot breed, the Old English sheepdog has become relatively popular in the show ring as well as a family pet.
Growing to be at least 21 inches tall and weighing between 60 and 100 pounds, this is a large, eye-catching dog who does best with lots of enrichment and exercise opportunities. Their huge double coats make them frequent customers at the local groomer, and their size requires them to stay fit and trim with regular visits to your veterinarian.
As part of the herding group, these dogs are capable of herding and chasing all sorts of creatures, including small children, making them best suited for a family that understands their history.
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Adult male Old English sheepdogs are typically 22 inches or taller and well proportioned with strong stature underneath their thick coats. Female dogs should be at least 21 inches tall and appear a bit more refined than males. Old English sheepdogs’ coats are thick, shaggy, free-from curls and most commonly come in shades of blue, grey, and blue merle, with or without patches of white.
The OES requires constant grooming but his shedding is much more minimal than other dogs in the herding group. Thanks to their very thick undercoats, they repel water well, but when not properly cared for, the coat quickly becomes matted and tangled.
“Coat care is very often underestimated by many new owners. Without regular grooming, the undercoat can become completely matted right down to the skin and will require in most situations for the dog to be completely shaved,” says Carol Cooke, a longtime Old English sheepdog breeder and member of the Old English Sheepdog Club of America. Just any old brush won’t do—to take good care of the OES coat you need to invest in proper grooming tools or plan to spend ample time at a qualified groomer on a regular basis.
The OES was bred to accomplish all sorts of tasks alongside their guardians. This makes them an adaptable and intelligent dog who can excel at problem-solving and will enjoy the chance to learn lots of new things. Just like with any breed, if not provided adequate opportunities to socialize, play, and learn, the Old English can quickly become shy and reserved with new people and new things.
With great aptitude to work, the OES will find the movement and excitement of people (and other creatures) to be enticing. These guys won’t enjoy long jogs with you because of their super hot and heavy coats, but they may find opportunities to play in the snow, catch a ball or Frisbee, or long walks around the neighborhood enjoyable. Ample chances for daily exercise and play sessions are crucial to creating a happy, well-adjusted Old English sheepdog.
As with any herding dog breed, the OES wants to be with his family, enjoying the comforts of an inside home. A successful relationship starts with consistent socialization and training, beginning right away in puppyhood and continuing throughout the life of the dog. With regular learning sessions using positive reinforcement, the Old English can adapt to a variety of lifestyles as long as an owner understands that only providing a fast walk or quick trick training session isn’t enough to keep an active dog happy.
“When adding an OES to your home, be prepared for a companion often referred to as a ‘Velcro’ dog,” Cooke says. From the perspective of an Old English, happiness comes from time with their owners. These are not dogs that want to be left alone and because of their large size, having to remain kenneled is just not feasible for them.
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“The OES is a good family dog; they are devoted to their ‘people’ and will be happy to go for long walks, rides in the car, camping, or just about any activity the owner enjoys doing,” Cooke says.
When a herding dog like the OES doesn’t get access to quality exercise and enrichment, they are likely to become stressed or anxious. This can lead to behaviors like excessive barking, chewing, or an inability to relax. As is typical for their breed group, Old English sheepdogs require significant mental and physical stimulation on a daily basis. Teaching them skills, tricks, and competitive sports are great ways to enrich their lives.
Exercise should be a required part of any dog’s day and the OES is no exception. And although the OES is a versatile breed, they do best with access to a fenced-in yard where they can run and play, making them not well-suited for small apartment living.
As a family pet, these dogs can excel, but the OES may not be an ideal choice for families with small children. “Since the OES is a herding breed there is a tendency in some dogs to want to ‘herd’ children and their friends. This can result in ‘nipping’ at the ‘flock,’” Cooke says. Families should be aware of this and always supervise interactions.
It’s important to consider your lifestyle before committing to any dog, but it may help to speak with an Old English sheepdog breeder or rescue group about expectations to see if an OES would be a good fit for you.
Early and ongoing socialization and positive reinforcement training classes are crucial to a well-adjusted dog. Puppies should have positive experiences with a wide variety of people, places, sounds, smells, and situations to help them become happy, healthy adults.
Even though it is a lot of work, the coat of the OES attracts many potential owners, especially in puppyhood when it appears soft and fluffy. To regularly maintain your Old English sheepdog’s coat and keep it free of debris and matting, a puppy cut may be an ideal option for owners. However, you will still need to regularly brush and trim your OES between groomer visits.
Owners should expect to keep the paws clean and tidy, trimming the long hairs around the paw pads regularly to prevent issues like mats and sores. Clipping the nails every one or two weeks is also a must.
When it comes to meal times, owners should take extra special care to provide a healthy diet. Even though the OES appears to be a large dog, their feeding needs are average and should be adjusted to their age as they grow from puppy to adult dog. Owners can mistakenly overfeed resulting in dogs who are unhealthy. It is always best to consult with your veterinarian to ensure your dog has access to quality nutrition.
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A responsible Old English sheepdog breeder will have done health screenings to check for conditions common to the breed. Yearly check-ups with your vet are important for living with any dog breed.
Dogs of any breed can have genetic health issues and any responsible breeder should be concerned with breeding the healthiest dogs. A reputable breeder should guarantee the health of their puppies and happily provide evidence of health screenings of the parents of any litter. A good breeder will also provide you honest information about the health of their breed and any genetic conditions they are aware of in their lines.
In general the Old English sheepdog is a healthy breed that enjoys an average lifespan of 10–12 years. They do have a long genetic history of certain conditions such as hip dysplasia, heart conditions, autoimmune thyroiditis, cataracts, and sometimes hereditary deafness. Like other breeds that carry the genes associated with merle-coloring, the OES should be tested for MDR1 (multidrug resistance mutation). This genetic mutation makes a dog more susceptible to severe and dangerous side effects of certain drugs including sedatives and parasite treatments and preventatives.
Because of their appearance and size, Old English sheepdogs are prone to overfeeding, which leads to obesity and other weight-related health conditions such as diabetes. It is important that an OES owner ensures their dog has a healthy diet and daily exercise. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight goes a long way in preventing future conditions and complications from other diseases.
The Old English descends from long lines of working and herding dogs of the British Isles. Their name suggests these dogs were bred to herd sheep across England. However, this is not really the case. With genetics tracing to Irish, Scottish, European and even maybe Russian origins, Old English sheepdogs were originally bred as “drovers”, charged with moving livestock quickly from one location to another. “The tail was docked as proof he was a working dog making him exempt from taxation,” Cooke says. “He affectionately became known as the ‘bobtail.’ With some exceptions, tail docking still continues in many countries including the U.S.”
A longtime show dog, the OES has been showing off their unique appearance in the stock shows and exhibitions since the late 1860s. In 1914, the breed was a noticeable entry at Westminster. Today, the breed can be seen showing off their stuff in the breed ring, winning in competitive sports, herding livestock, and of course as a loving and loyal family pet.
The Old English sheepdog isn’t really that old of a breed and technically isn’t a sheepdog. Despite what its name suggests, the OES is a versatile breed that was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1904.
The OES has appeared in many of your favorite, classic movies. A popular feature in Disney movies such as Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, and Hook, the Old English sheepdog’s wonderfully fluffy coat and puppet-like face makes them a great shaggy-dog character.
In 1997, Paul McCartney admitted that his Old English sheepdog was the inspiration for the Beatle’s song “Martha My Dear.”