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.