There’s more to the Old English Sheepdog (OES) than meets the eye. For starters, the breed originated around 200 years ago, which means these fluffy dogs aren’t particularly old compared to ancient canine breeds. And while the OES likely hails from the west of England, the Old English Sheepdog Club of America (OESCA) says the breed’s ancestry could include dogs from Scotland and even Russia. Finally, the Old English Sheepdog’s original duties weren’t limited to sheep: These woolly work dogs were employed to move both sheep and cattle from the farm to the local market.
But when it comes to their appearance and demeanor, the OES is largely as advertised. With a body like a panda covered in shag carpet—and a head reminiscent of the Truffula tree from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax—the dogs are as jolly and playful as they look. Just don’t let the Old English Sheepdog’s size (60–100 pounds) fool you into thinking the breed is content to laze the day away. These gentle giants were bred to work and need plenty of mental and physical exercise to stay healthy and happy.
Caring for an Old English Sheepdog
The OESCA describes the breed as a “hardy, intelligent herding dog” with a “happy, rough-and-tumble disposition.” Though they were bred to work, Old English Sheepdogs make excellent family companions and can thrive indoors with daily opportunities to stretch their mind and body. While they are loving to family members of all ages, the breed may need time to warm up to people and other animals they don’t know.
The Old English Sheepdog’s incredible shaggy coat is a source of both allure and hesitation for potential pet parents. The OESCA says grooming needn’t be a deterrent, but you do need to set aside a minimum of three or four hours a week to keep their fur free from debris and matting.
Old English Sheepdog Health Issues
The Old English Sheepdog is a generally healthy breed with a life span of 10–12 years. Still, the breed is predisposed to some health problems, which is why it’s so important to find a responsible breeder who screens for the following conditions:
Hip dysplasia occurs when the hip joint doesn’t develop properly, resulting in a looseness that leads to degenerative joint disease (osteoarthritis).
Common signs include:
Reluctance to get up or jump
Shifting of weight to front legs
Loss of muscle mass in back legs
Mild cases can be managed with interventions like physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications. In more advanced cases, surgery may be necessary.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy
Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) is an umbrella term for a family of eye disorders in which the rods and cones of the retina either don’t develop properly in puppies (early-onset PRA) or begin deteriorating in adulthood (late-onset PRA).
Signs of the disease include:
Reluctance to enter dark spaces
Clumsiness (especially in dark spaces)
Dilated pupils that constrict slowly in response to light
Eyes that are more reflective in the dark
There is no cure for PRA, and the condition eventually leads to blindness.
Autoimmune thyroiditis causes a dog’s immune system to create inflammation that damages healthy thyroid tissue. It’s the most common cause of canine primary hypothyroidism, meaning the thyroid gland isn’t able to make enough thyroxine, the hormone that controls metabolism.
Hair loss (usually along the trunk, base of the tail, chest, nose bridge)
Dull, dry coat
Recurrent skin and ear infections
Dogs with autoimmune thyroiditis are typically given a synthetic hormone (as an oral tablet) for the rest of their life.
Exercise-induced collapse (EIC) is a nervous system disorder that can cause dogs to collapse with excitement or stress in response to continuous intense exercise, particularly in warm weather. Affected dogs tend to experience weakness in their back legs first, and they may continue to walk or run while dragging their rear limbs, but symptoms can vary in severity.
EIC episodes aren’t painful, and dogs are typically back to normal after resting for 5–25 minutes. Treatment involves avoiding known and potential trigger activities. Because this condition is hereditary, responsible breeders should screen their pups for this condition before breeding.
Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a disease in which the heart muscle becomes larger and stretches out. This weakens the muscle’s ability to contract and pump oxygenated blood to the dog’s body.
The signs of the disease are caused by either a lack of oxygen-rich blood in the body or fluid backup in the lungs. They include:
Blue gums or tongue
Fainting or collapse
There isn’t a cure for DCM, but the disease is typically managed with medications that decrease the heart’s workload, improve the heart’s efficiency, and remove fluid from the lungs.
Most cases of deafness in dogs are hereditary and congenital (meaning present at birth) and are associated with white pigmentation. One or both ears can be affected. Though the condition is permanent, with some adjustments and training, dogs with hearing loss can live a happy, healthy life.
Cerebellar abiotrophy (CA) is a condition in which the cells of the cerebellum (the part of the brain that regulates control and coordination of voluntary movement) develop normally before birth but then deteriorate over time.
There is no treatment for CA. In Old English Sheepdogs, signs tend to appear in young or mature adults and include:
Stiff or high-stepping walk
Inability to climb stairs or stand without help
Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia
Cilia are hairlike structures that line various body organs, including the upper and lower respiratory tracts, auditory tubes, spinal canal, and brain ventricles, where they help move cells or surrounding fluids and also serve as a filter. But in dogs with primary ciliary dyskinesia, ciliary movement is uncoordinated or even completely absent.
This can lead to:
Wet, productive coughing during exercise
Fast breathing and shortness of breath
Chronic sneezing and coughing that may produce mucous and pus
Infertility in males
The disease is typically managed with lifestyle modifications, oxygen therapy, and antibiotics when needed.
Dogs affected by multidrug resistance 1 (MDR1) drug sensitivity are at risk of serious and even life-threatening complications after receiving specific doses of certain medications. The condition is caused by a genetic variant that allows drugs and toxins to build up and even cross into the brain.
Signs of drug toxicity related to MDR1 drug sensitivity include:
There isn’t a cure for the condition, but it can be managed by avoiding certain medications and decreasing doses.
What To Feed an Old English Sheepdog
No two Old English Sheepdogs are the same, so you’ll need to partner with your veterinarian to develop a feeding plan that’s nutritionally complete and balanced for your pup’s age, size, and health history.
How To Feed an Old English Sheepdog
Most adult dogs should eat two meals a day: once in the morning and again in the evening. Because Old English Sheepdog puppies have a higher metabolism than adult dogs, it’s generally best to add a midday feeding, for a total of three meals.
How Much Should You Feed an Old English Sheepdog?
Look at the nutrition label on your dog’s food bag. It should include a recommended daily feeding guide that will give you a general idea of how much to feed your OES based on their weight.
For a more accurate amount, ask your veterinarian. They will tailor their recommendation not only to your dog’s weight, but also to body condition score, lifestyle, and health needs.
Nutritional Tips for Old English Sheepdogs
If your OES is eating a complete and balanced diet of dog food approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), they shouldn’t need anything extra. However, nutritional supplements and even prescription diets are sometimes used to treat certain health conditions. Talk to your veterinarian before adding anything new to your dog’s diet.
Behavior and Training Tips for Old English Sheepdogs
All dogs benefit from early socialization and training, but these investments can be especially important for large working dogs. Old English Sheepdogs have the size, energy, and power to cause unintentional harm without proper direction, such as knocking people down when jumping up to say hi.
Old English Sheepdog Personality and Temperament
The Old English Sheepdog is an intelligent, affectionate, fun-loving family dog who can be a gentle, playful companion for people of all ages—though their size means that proper precautions should be taken around small kids.
Bred to work, Old English Sheepdogs have a moderate energy level and need daily physical and mental enrichment. With their background in herding and protecting livestock, they can be wary of other animals and may need time to warm up to new people.
Old English Sheepdog Behavior
Old English Sheepdogs were bred to work alongside people, and they’d still like to be by their humans’ sides. Without proper companionship and opportunities to use their brain and body, the breed can become bored, which can lead to behavior issues like excessive barking and chewing.
Old English Sheepdog Training
All dogs go through a critical development period from birth to around 16 weeks. During this time, they learn how to interact with humans and other animals. Talk to your breeder about how to approach socialization, as this can have repercussions in adulthood.
Old English Sheepdogs are intelligent pupils and are typically eager to please their humans. Because of their large size, obedience training is an important part of keeping your dog and your family members (especially the youngest ones) safe.
Consistent positive training that uses rewards instead of punishment is the best approach for these affable dogs. The training process is also a great way to provide Old English Sheepdogs with mental and physical exercise.
Fun Activities for Old English Sheepdogs
Old English Sheepdog Grooming Guide
The Old English Sheepdog’s coat is perhaps the breed’s most attention-grabbing feature. It might also be the feature that demands the most attention from the pet parent. All that fluff requires a weekly commitment to regular brushing and care, but both you and your pup will benefit from the one-on-one time.
Good coat care is the key to good skin care. Moisture, dirt, fecal matter, and other debris such as burrs can get stuck against the skin thanks to the Sheepdog’s thick coat. Cuts and other skin issues can also easily go unnoticed.
Regular grooming can help keep skin clean and free from irritation and can give you an opportunity to check for scrapes and bumps.
Old English Sheepdogs have a double coat, and you should be prepared to spend three to four hours every week thoroughly brushing it out. Regular trims at the groomer can help make this task easier, but it will still be a time commitment. Without weekly brushing, the fur can easily become dirty and matted, which is unpleasant for both you and your dog.
Old English Sheepdogs’ characteristic peek-a-boo appearance is adorable, but what’s easy on your eyes may not be easy on your pet’s. In addition to obscuring vision, their facial fur can trap things like twigs and leaves next to their eyes.
Check their eyes daily for potential problems, especially after outside play. You can also trim the hair around their eyes or even tie it into a sporty bun.
Avoid letting the fur under the ears become matted (as this can support bacterial and fungal growth) and check your dog’s ears for irritants like burrs after outdoor play. If you notice your dog’s ears are red or hot to the touch, or if they smell bad and seem to be bothering your pup, contact your veterinarian.
Considerations for Pet Parents
The OESCA has put together a list of needs (and potential annoyances) you should be prepared for before bringing home an Old English Sheepdog. If you can answer the questions below with a hearty “Yes!” you might be ready for an OES:
Do I have space for a dog of this size in my home? (Remember, they can weigh up to 100 pounds as adults and do best as inside dogs. Consider how you will transport them to and from the vet, as well.)
Can I devote three to four hours a week to brushing their coat?
Do I have the time to provide my dog with mental and physical exercise every day? And can I give them the daily companionship they need? (Old English Sheepdogs don’t do well when they’re alone for long periods.)
Am I OK with having long, white fur on my clothes and furniture? With having wet, muddy paws and fur in my home on rainy or snowy days? With dripping whiskers after my dog drinks water? With some drooling?
Am I financially prepared to provide veterinary care, food, grooming, etc.? (Keep in mind that some of these things cost more for big dogs. For example, big dogs eat more food, and their medications are often more expensive.)
Can I provide my dog with the love and attention they need for their lifetime? (Old English sheepdogs can live 10–12 years or more.)
Old English Sheepdog FAQs
Is an Old English Sheepdog a good family dog?
Old English Sheepdogs look sweet, gentle, and fun because they are sweet, gentle, and fun. They do best in families who can provide plenty of attention and daily mental and physical activities. And while they can be loving companions to people of all ages, size matters. Interactions with small children should be closely monitored to avoid their being unintentionally harmed.
Do Old English Sheepdogs shed?
Despite boasting some of the most luscious locks in the animal kingdom, Old English Sheepdogs are surprisingly average when it comes to shedding. Still, the hair will end up on your clothes and furniture, and the hair they do lose will be extra long.
Do Old English Sheepdogs bark a lot?
Old English Sheepdogs aren’t particularly vocal, but they may alert you if people or other animals are approaching your house. Training can help keep barking at a minimum.
How much do Old English Sheepdogs cost?
A purebred Old English Sheepdog puppy will likely cost $1,000–$3,000. It’s very important to find a breeder who is committed to the health of their dogs over profit.
The OESCA maintains a list of breeders who are club members in good standing and have signed the club’s Code of Ethics. If you would like to add an older dog to your family, try contacting an Old English Sheepdog rescue facility.
Featured Image: iStock/chendongshan
Sarah Mouton Dowdy
Sarah Mouton Dowdy has been writing about animal health since 2016, the same year she and her husband not-so-coincidentally adopted…