There was a time when Old English sheepdogs dominated television screens and newspaper comic strips. Now it’s hard to find one other than at 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.
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.
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.”
“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. Pittsburgh industrialist William Wade introduced the dog in the U.S. 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.
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). 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.”
When Jere Marder started breeding sheepdogs 35 years ago, the Valparaiso, Ind., resident said there were 40 recognizable sheepdog breeding kennels across the country. About 20 remain, and specialty clubs in cities such as Dallas and Detroit have closed, she said.
“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.