Old English Sheepdog

Old English SheepdogOld English Sheepdog

In Britain 1570 AD, Caius described 'the Shepherd's Dog' as any dog that herded stock. This 'Shepherd's Dog' was also called a 'Sheepdog' or 'Colley'. But some of these Shepherds dogs also drove stock to markets, crossing the Border Region between England and Scotland. From these drovers' dogs we get two of today's pure breeds, the Old English Sheepdog and the Bearded Collie.

History of British Sheepdogs

British Sheepdogs 1800British Sheepdogs 1800

The first mention British Sheepdog we found was in the work of Chaucer (c mid-1300's) where the name 'Coll' or 'Coaly' was given to a type of black faced sheepdog which worked the 'Coaly' sheep from Scotland. Later the name 'Coaly' became Colley and later still, Collie.

Like all other Sheepdogs, the British Sheepdogs gradually developed according to the type of sheep they worked, which depended upon the terrain in which they lived. The Scottish sheepdogs worked on the hills and highlands of Scotland where the sheep were agile, lighter boned and more active than the heavier, slower moving sheep which occupied the flatter lands of the southern districts of England. By the mid-1850's, the English Sheepdog developed into a multi-purpose Shepherd's Dog which could not only herd a mixed flock of sheep, goats and maybe cattle and drive them to market. But this English Sheepdog would also guard the flock, acting in the role of a Livestock Guardian Dog. This required a more substantial type of dog.

History of English Sheepdogs

English Sheepdog c 1803English Sheepdog c 1803

Sheepdogs of England usually belonged to underprivileged shepherds who were employed by rich landowners. English Shepherds' dogs were simply an adjunct to the peasants' way of life. Although some early illustrations of various types of dogs came in the form of paintings, woodcuts, engravings and etchings, it would not be until 1803 before Reinagle painted an English Shepherd's dog which appeared in 'the Sportsman's Cabinet'.

'Cur' Dog c 1800'Cur' Dog c 1800

Edwards 'Cynographia Britainnica' also painted by Reinagle around 1800 shows a short tailed dog and called him a Shepherd's 'Curdog'. When Berwick drew this 'cur dog' also around 1800, it too had a short tail. To this day the English word 'curtail' meaning to stop something, was derived from the practice of docking dogs' and other animals' tails!

Natural Bob-tails and Docking

English Sheepdog 1843English Sheepdog 1843

But the word 'cur' was also used to describe a mongrel or useless dog, docked or not! This demonstrates that the bob-tail gene was known in English dogs well before any of the English sheepdogs were first described.

Bob tail Sheepdog c 1878Bob tail Sheepdog c 1878

The bob-tail gene became further entrenched in English Sheepdogs when, in 1796, licensing dogs became law demanding an annual tax unless the dog had a short tail. At first, poor people were exempt and permitted to keep just one dog. Then an exemption was made for dogs used for herding sheep or cattle on a farm, or used solely by a shepherd in the execution of his duty. Later, there was an exemption if the owner signed a declaration on a proper form drawn up by the Commissioner of Inland Revenue. It is doubtful that Shepherds could read or write, let alone sign their names and understand such a complicated procedure. So to avoid this tax, docking English Sheepdogs or selecting pups born with natural bob-tails, became usual practice, so much so the name 'Bob-tail' is still used to describe these dogs in some parts of the world today.

English Sheepdog Youatt c 1840English Sheepdog Youatt c 1840

But we could not find any word descriptions of the English Shepherds dogs' prior to 1840 when Youatt published the drawing of a bob-tailed English Shepherd's dog with a wedge-shaped head and wrote that he was a drover's dog who was required to

'... guide the sheep in the northern and open parts of the country... and where strength is needed to turn an obstinate sheep he is crossed with a larger dog'[3] 

Then Idestone in 1872 wrote of the English Sheepdog as being

'adopted by shepherds further south than Newcastle... slower and heavier than the Colley of Scotland... admixture of many breeds blue, grizzled, large-limbed, surly, small eared and small-eyed leggy bob-tailed dog'[4] 

English Sheepdog c 1890English Sheepdog c 1890

It appears that by the late 1800's, the English Sheepdog had become more heavily built than the Collie or Scottish Sheepdog. Because he had become a more substantially built dog, there is a distinct possibility (but no proof) that there was a cross with one of the European Sheepdogs.

According to Aubrey Hopwood (1905), as there was general trading with Russia around 1900, the South Russian Shepherd Dog the Owtcharka could have been introduced, giving the English Sheepdog certain traits and physical characteristics. He describes the Owtcharka as a

Russian OwtcharkaRussian Owtcharka

'very fine Sheepdog, indeed, with all his tail on, big and blocky, with massive bone and full, correct coat, strong, active and good-natured, in general conduct staid and dignified'[2] 

This theory has some creditability as the Owtcharka (FCI 326) is most often white, but also white and yellow, straw colour, greyish (ashen grey) and other shades of grey; white lightly marked with grey; grey speckled. His height is a minimum 62cm for a female and 65 cm for a male which is just a few centimetres more than the Old English Sheepdog.

The Old English Sheepdog becomes a Pure Breed

Old English Sheepdog c 1920Old English Sheepdog c 1920

The 'Short Tailed English Sheepdog' was first exhibited in 1873 and appeared as such in several Volumes of the English Stud Book until 1894 when it finally appeared as an 'Old English'. So the Old English Sheepdog as a pure breed was only born after the Club was founded in England 1888, and a Breed Standard written. Dr Edwardes-Ker, whose dog 'Sir Cavendish' appears below, was among the active pioneers responsible for the Old English Sheepdog's early recognition by the Kennel Club.

Dr Edwardes-Ker's Sir CavendishDr Edwardes-Ker's Sir Cavendish

The Old English Sheepdog's adaptability over the next century made him a dog for enthusiasts. This wonderful description was penned in 1905 by Aubrey Hopwood who wrote the first book devoted solely to the breed:

Certainly his heavy coat is a drawback in wet or muddy weather... you must make up your mind to rough dry him before he settles on your Turkish carpet. But his comradeship is well worth the five minutes trouble. In his quaint, unobtrusive way, he will make himself at home in a drawing room, a railway carriage, a hansom cab, or on a show bench. Wherever you take him he is ready to adapt himself to his surroundings, sensible, even-tempered, picturesque, but never ridiculous[1].

History of the Old English Sheepdog in Australia

When the Old English Sheepdog became recognised as a pure breed in England 1894, it is likely that some arrived on our shores, complete with genuine pedigrees. As there were no Australian Stud Books  until the early 1900's the line between the Old English Sheepdog and the Smithfield was not clear. Hence the same dog could compete at one Show as a Smithfield and the next Show as an Old English Sheepdog. To this day, bob-tailed sheepdogs called 'Smithfields' exist in Tasmania and outside that State, despite the Smithfield never having attained pure bred status here or anywhere else in the world.

Old English Sheepdog, Australia 1912Old English Sheepdog, Australia 1912

In Tyzack's Annual published 1912, the importation of 5 Old English Sheepdogs from England is recorded from 1899 but none with pedigrees except for 'Home Farm Tring' (pictured) in 1910, owned by Mr W Scott. This gentleman also owned a home bred bitch, 'Tasmania Lady'[9]. From this pair he bred Alberfeldie II. She was sold in 1911 to Douglas Picking who mated her back to her sire establishing Frankston Kennels. With several more imports, this kennel kept the breed alive until well into the 1950's. When 'Ch. Frankston Esmond Surf King' won Best Dog Show all-breeds at Sydney Royal in 1955, the Old English Sheepdog was put on the map.

Ch Prospectblue Apollo Boy (UK)Ch Prospectblue Apollo Boy (UK)

In 1968 Victoria formed 'The Shaggy Dog Club' which was the beginning of Old English Specialist Breed Clubs in Australia. South Australia was the first to become affiliated, followed by Victoria and then NSW in the 1970's. This inspired an influx of imported dogs, the most influential being 'Ch Prospectblue Apollo Boy', owned by Denise Humphries. This famous dog sired some 38 Champions leaving his indelible stamp of correct breed type still evident to this day in some of our best Old English Sheepdogs.

Comparison between the Old English Sheepdog and the Bearded Collie

Old English Sheepdog Bearded Collie
Old English SheepdogOld English Sheepdog Bearded CollieBearded Collie
Body proportions A profusely coated strong, thick-set, muscular, able-bodied dog, compact but with great symmetry, free of legginess. A lean active dog with a body longer than high in an approximate proportion of 5-4, measured from point of chest to point of buttock.
Topline Standing slightly lower at the shoulder than the loin Straight
Tail A natural bob-tail can occur. Alternatively the tail may be docked where laws permit. If undocked, it is well feathered with an abundant, hard-textured coat. Sufficiently long to reach the point of the hock, the tail should be set and carried low and never over the back.

The double coat of the Old English should be profuse. The outer coat has crisp, strong but harsh hair, which is neither straight nor curly. But the slight wave enables it to stand away from the body when the extremely dense, waterproof, woolly undercoat is not removed by grooming. The correct coat texture and profusion should be considered above length.

The double coat has an outer coat consisting of flat, harsh, strong and shaggy hair, free from woolliness and curl, and an undercoat which is soft, furry and close. This provides protection and enhances the shape of the dog, but it should never obscure the natural lines of the body or be trimmed in any way.
Old English SheepdogOld English Sheepdog Bearded ColliesBearded Collies

The head should be in balance with the size of the dog. The skull is capacious which means it encloses a large cavity to house plenty of brains. The shape of the skull is square, that means the distance from stop to the pronounced occiput equals the width between the ears through to the front of the skull. It is important that the brows are also pronounced as this holds the head coat up and away from the eyes, enabling the dog to see through it.

The head must be in proportion with the size of the dog. The skull should be broad, flat and square, with the distance between the moderate stop and the occiput being equal to the width between the ears.

Stop Well defined Moderate
Foreface The strong muzzle forms parallel head planes with the skull. The muzzle which is strong, wide and deep but slightly shorter in length than the skull. The muzzle has parallel sides with a deep, well developed underjaw which, together with nose and the upper jaw look cut off (truncated) when viewed from the side. The nose must be large and black.

The strong muzzle should be equal in length to the distance from the moderate stop to the occiput. The colour of the large, square nose normally follows the coat colour in blues and browns, but otherwise is generally black. The pigmentation of lips and eye rims should follow nose colour and be of a solid colour without spots or patches.
Mouth Normal scissors bite with sound, strong teeth but a level bite acceptable. Normal scissors bite with sound, strong teeth but a level bite acceptable.
Eyes The eyes are set wide apart with dark or wall eyes (or one of each) preferred. The large eyes are set wide apart under arched eyebrows, their colour toning with that of the coat.
Ears The ears are small, moderately coated and carried flat to side of head. The ears of medium size and droop down beside the skull but never carried above it.
Old English Sheepdog at a trotOld English Sheepdog at a trot Bearded CollieBearded Collie
Neck The well coated neck should be fairly long, with a graceful arch showing the strength and muscling which support its substantial head. The neck is of moderate length.
Legs The sloping shoulders are close at the withers and the forelegs are perfectly straight, with plenty of bone and well coated with hair all around them. The sloping shoulders are close at the withers, and should form a right angle with the humerus. The forelegs straight and vertical, with good bone, flexible pasterns, and covered with shaggy hair.
Feet The round feet are small with well arched toes and thick pads. The oval feet are well padded have close arched toes and are well covered with hair including between the pads.

The body is rather short but very compact. The brisket is deep and the ribs are well sprung making a capacious or large cavity to enclose the lungs. The topline appears higher than the withers because the loin is very wide and the hindquarters round because of the musculation. Also, the coat in this areas is denser, thicker and longer than on any other part of the body. The hocks are well let down.

The body has a level topline and deep chest and long, well sprung ribs. The loins should be strong and the hindquarters have well muscled first and second thighs. The stifles are well bent and the hocks are low, forming a right angle to the ground in normal stance, just behind a line vertically below the point of the buttock.
Colour Any shade of grey, grizzle, blue or blue merle, with or without white markings but perfectly clear of any brown or sable. Slate grey, reddish fawn, black, blue, all shades of grey, brown and sandy. There may be white markings on the foreface and/or a blaze on the skull. There may also be white the tip of the tail, on the chest, legs and feet but not above the hocks. Also a white collar must extend behind the shoulder. Slight tan markings are acceptable.
Old English Sheepdogs AmblingOld English Sheepdogs Ambling Bearded CollieBearded Collie
Gait When walking or trotting the Old English can exhibit a characteristic ambling or pacing movement, or move in normal trotting gait. The movement is supple, smooth and long reaching and covering the ground with the minimum of effort.
Size Over a minimum of 56 cms (22 ins) for dogs, slightly less for bitches. Ideally 53-56 cms (21-22 ins) for dogs and 51-53 cms (20-21 ins) for bitches

References and Further Reading

My sincere thanks to Denise Humphries for her assistance in providing material and advice in the construction of this page

[1] Aubrey Hopwood - 'The Old English Sheepdog' from Puppyhood to Championship' Publiished by Vickers & Son 1905 Chapter One Introductory Page 11

[2] Robert Leighton - 'The Book of the Dog' published circa 1905 Subscriber's Edition, The Waverley Book Co. Ltd. Chapter X written by Aubrey Hopwood, Page 113

[3] William Youatt - 'The Dog' published 1848 London Charles Knight Fleet Street (under the Superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.) Chapter 1 The Varieties of the Dog - Second Division - the Sheepdog Page 60

[4] 'Idstone' 'The Dog' Published by Cassell, Petter and Galpin London 1872 Chapter XXXIV The English Sheepdog Page 224

[6] 'Hobart Town Courier' 11 November 1835. Printed and published by James Ross, 1827-1839.

[7] Bill Robertson 'Origins of the Australian Kelpie, Exposing Myths and Fabrications from the Past' Self Published Chapter 8 'Importation of Collies into Australia' Page 35

[8] Eric Rolls 'A Million Wild Acres, 200 years of Man and the Australian Forest' Published by Thomas Nelson (Australia) 1981, Chapter 3 'The Squatters - the Rules Ignored' Page 66

[9] "Tyzack's Annual" Compiled by T. W.Tyzack and C.S.Turner Published by the Victorian Poultry and Kennel Club 1912 Printed by Bellamine Bros. Printers, 66-70 Flinders Lane Melbourne. Importations Page 87; Stud Book Page 27

[10] The History of Purebred Dogs in Australia' published by OzDog Newspaper 1997 The Bearded Collie by Lyndall (Murty) and Jim Black Page 41.