Old English sheepdog becoming a rare breed

A lovable but high-maintenance breed, the once-common old English sheepdog is disappearing in the U.S.

 

LOS ANGELES — There was a time when old English sheepdogs dominated television screens and newspaper comic strips. Now it's hard to find one beyond a dog show.

Numbers of the high-maintenance longhaired breed, which can weigh close to 100 pounds, are dropping as more owners choose pocket pets and designer puppies that are smaller, travel-ready, easy to care for and cost much less to feed.

"People have more to do and less time to do it, and they have lost interest in old English sheepdogs," said Doug Johnson of Colorado Springs, Colo., the president of the Old English Sheepdog Club of America.

Breeders in the United States and England are concerned about the drop in the number of purebred sheepdog puppies registered in the two countries each year. At the height of the breed's popularity in 1975, when the sheepdog was named best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, nearly 16,000 puppies were registered by the American Kennel Club, said Lisa Peterson, who went through club archives for The Associated Press.

But that number dropped within 10 years to fewer than 5,600 dogs and three years ago, the last time AKC numbers were available, there were just over 1,000, she said.

London's Kennel Club, which put the breed on the club's watch list, registered just 401 sheepdog puppies in 2011, said representative Heidi Ancell. The list is reserved for breeds that number between 300 and 450 registrations a year.

But the kennel clubs say they have never lost a breed to extinction. Johnson said it would be up to those clubs to generate interest to prevent the sheepdog from disappearing.

"There are too many of us old die-hards that will go ahead and keep this breed alive," said Johnson, who has 22 sheepdogs under the Bugaboo kennel banner.

David Frei, director of communications for the Westminster Kennel Club and co-host of Purina's annual National Dog Show, said he wasn't too concerned that the breed is in danger. "If you have a dog that can have six, eight or nine puppies, is that a horribly endangered species? Endangered animals are those that have single offspring in a litter," he said.

"We aren't going to lose any of these breeds. But we might have to go to shows to see them," he said.

Most historians believe the dog's origins were in Sussex, England, where they drove sheep and cattle to market. They were called Sussex sheepdogs then, Smithfields when they took ponies to Smithfield Market and bobtailed because their tails were traditionally docked or cut off, Johnson said.

The tails were docked to prove their occupation and to exempt owners from taxes because of their working status, he said. The dogs are smart, adaptable, obedient and agile, and they have a distinctive bark, like two pots clanging together, Frei said.

Pittsburgh industrialist William Wade introduced the dog in the United States in the late 1880s. The breed's club claims five of the 10 wealthiest American families owned, bred and were showing the dogs by 1900.

But, Johnson pointed out, the Morgans, Vanderbilts, Goulds, Harrisons and Guggenheims all had kennel managers and staff to care for the dogs. Sheepdog hair can grow up to 10 inches, which meant grooming could take hours.

Sheepdogs later entered popular culture through Hollywood, which featured them in movies such as 1959's "The Shaggy Dog," and on TV in "My Three Sons" (1960-1972) and "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" (1965-1967). Looney Tunes paired one — Sam Sheepdog — with a wolf (Ralph Wolf) in cartoons depicting them clocking in and on duty as predator and guard: "Mornin', Sam." ''Mornin', Ralph."

But by 1982, when Lynn Johnston's newspaper comic strip "For Better or For Worse" added a sheepdog named Farley to the Patterson family, the breed's popularity was already sliding. It still caused a hoopla though, when the real Farley died in 1995 and Johnston wrote his death into the comic strip.

When Jere Marder started breeding sheepdogs 35 years ago, the Valparaiso, Ind., resident said there were 40 instantly recognizable sheepdog breeding kennels across the country. Only about 20 remain, and specialty clubs in cities such as Dallas and Detroit have closed, she said.

Marder, who keeps three show sheepdogs at home, understands the breed can be a burden.

"Breeders that are really dedicated are getting older and we don't have as many young breeders coming into the game," she said. Her business, Lambluv OES, breeds only one litter every couple of years, but she co-owns about 100 sheepdogs around the country.

"The breed is a labor of love. You have to love the breed to labor so much," Johnson joked.