A Disappearing Breed
I read in the Times an article stating that the Old English Sheepdog (OES) is in serious decline as a breed: only 226 puppies were registered with the Kennel Club last year, the lowest number since 1960.
I am not surprised, I cannot remember when I last saw one in a park or street, they were never numerous but you did come across them.
As with all pedigree dogs fashion has a stake in how popular they are. The current league leaders were in most cases themselves a rarity a few decades ago, but the quest for smaller dogs was not something I thought I would see in this country. The French had cornered the market in what I called restaurant dogs, dogs that would appear at the table with their owners, horrible habit but I could always pass that off as a French idiosyncrasy.
No, we always had proper dogs, Not any more it seems, it's now a toss up between Pit Bulls for the chavs and something you can carry in a handbag; neither can be called proper dogs, both are at extreme ends of the canine spectrum and serve two very different needs of their owners.
The current trend to be different shows with celebs talking about their cross bred dogs such as cockerpoos or such, and the silly prices they fetch; why a mongrel should fetch the ridiculous sums they do is beyond me though it isn’t my money so I have no skin in the game as they say. It is as though there is a race to have the most stupid cross as a badge of honour - Great Dane x Dachshund, the mind boggles but I am sure they are working on it!
My first OES was purchased soon after my marriage. We had always had dogs in the family as had my wife's parents so owning one was not the problem, but what to go for? We both wanted a decent size dog with firstly a good temperament, and would have gone for a German Shepherd, but in the early Seventies the breed was suffering from some bad breeding resulting in hip problems and temperament issues, so that was out. Other larger breeds were either what I called, unfairly, draught excluders - Labs or mad such as Red Setters; Golden Retrievers were also going through a time of bad hips and entropion when an eyelid turns in against the eye itself so another crossed off the list. There were other breeds but unlike today in this fashion-driven world you rarely saw them, so we had little knowledge of their ways.
Knowing we were putting a lot on our plate with looking after one we decided on an OES. Again, the only problem I had was that although you did see them around they were not in big numbers and my knowledge of breeders unlike later was scarce (and the truth about the one we used only came to light later.) Anyway, home he came and soon settled in, but as he matured a problem arose: when taking him out to socialise him, it became apparent he was frightened of his own shadow. Walking along a street he would leap across in front of me at the sound of a gate opening and a lot of similar things spooked him, something as a puppy had happened which made him this way but I never discovered what.
Talking to a fellow dog walker one day in the park we spoke of my problems and he said why don’t you go to the local Dog Training Club. Little did I realise what it would lead to further down the line.
Nearly all dog training clubs have a beginners' class or a course for dogs to make them more socially acceptable. The truth is - and I doubt it has changed - these courses pay the hall hire and the rest of the more advanced handlers and dogs benefit from the facilities; that may be an over generalisation but it certainly applied in those days.
As an aside for a pet dog you only need certain basic rules, and all can be imprinted and taught at quite an early age: to learn that no means no, to walk by your side without pulling you all over the place, to come when called (the most difficult to instil in a dog), to stay and to drop on command. The rest is not needed for a pet dog but many dog clubs insist on trying to train pet dogs before they can even get acclimatised to the new surroundings. The only thing a dog club is really good for in puppy training is socialising with other dogs, the rest is common sense.
Oh and sending a dog away to be trained is pointless if you are not trained yourself; the owner/handler needs training first.
As I soon learned with a dog that that is easily distracted, towing him around a hall full of dogs that have no idea why they are there nor the handlers is not the way forward. All initial puppy training should be in a quiet situation and kept as simple as possible for those first steps in obedience training, something I soon learned and acted upon, but progress was slow and he was still spooked by all manner of things and it wasn’t getting any better.
A talk by a very good trainer got me to buy a book that I followed through on. It was an American publication that had a method of training that would be frowned upon, even banned today: it basically made the dog more afraid of you than any outside influences and though I look back in and say never again, all else had failed totally and this was the last resort and it worked, he came on leaps and bounds and the initial hard approach was slowly dropped as he responded.
That old adage ‘you have to be cruel to be kind’ was never more apt, though the experience was not a pleasant one, but it was a different time, not as enlightened as today, nevertheless all else had had absolutely no effect and I had nowhere to go other than forget it all and put up with a dog I could never take off a lead.
So much work had gone into getting to that stage I could walk him down the road without events happening that I took it further. People must have thought I was mad as I tied him to zebra crossing posts and made him stay so as to get him to accept traffic; I would take him to Romford station and wait for trains to come in etc. etc. He was not put in harm's way but it all paid off as he went everywhere with me and after all that was never other than the dog I would want to own.
The training went on and I entered him for a competition at an open show of obedience more out of curiosity than anything else. You start in a beginners' class; much to my amazement he won, beating forty other dogs first time out. That started a journey that ended with him being the first of his breed ever to get a place in a Championship class against the usual suspects of Border Collies and German Shepherds. For a dog with his background it was a hell of an achievement, and he was genuinely unlucky not to win a Championship (the judge harshly marked him out of a win for a minor infringement, bit like a disputed off side decision that goes the wrong way) in the biggest class ever held in a Championship - 97 dogs in total ran that day, and the rules were changed soon afterwards so that no judge would have to oversee more than fifty in a class.
My second OES did even better and with a better handler would have won championships I am sure. I suffered from nerves at those vital moments and dogs sense that and it got through to him when it mattered, but he got two reserve tickets, second places and was chosen to represent the South of England in the first team competition at Crufts.
But that is enough of the training side. The breed attracts attention and the Dulux advert was a God send for breeders, but not quite so good for the breed: I would be asked where to go to buy one, and there were plenty of poor breed kennels in this breed as there are in all the others, but my initial response was to put people off buying one: unless they have actually owned one, no one can contemplate the work involved to keep them in good condition. The weekly grooming alone is not something to be taken lightly: the muddy paws that have to be washed every time out in rainy weather, the washing of the nether regions which get caked if you don't wash and the cutting away of the hair round the privates for the same reason and the same with hair between the toes that would go solid with mud if you fail to do that. Many owners tie the facial hair up away from the eyes because they have obviously difficulty seeing through that thick fringe, but we cut it away, neater and easier and the dog doesn’t look like a big girl's blouse, and as they weren’t show dogs it didn’t matter. These are all tasks that cannot be neglected, for if you do the task is a chore and a long one plus it is not comfortable for the dog; hairy ears also have to plucked and cleaned weekly.
Much of all this is because as with so many breeds the original reason for their existence is long gone.The OES was a droving dog, it was smaller than today's version and had much less of a coat, the current coats are not exactly what a shepherd would want to have to bother with; the old photo below gives an idea of what they originally looked like.
And this one from 1899. Already, showing them was beginning to make changes to the breed that became ever more pronounced over the years.
When I started looking for my second dog I had heard that there were actually a few still working on farms, but tracking them down turned out be a dead end. In desperation I turned to Florence Tilley, then the owner of the most famous OES kennels in the world down in Shepton Mallett. Shepton was her Kennel Club prefix and the history of her kennel went back to around the early 1900s with her father, but I knew she had an encyclopedic mind as regards the breed, so we went down and visited her.
At first she wanted to sell me a show dog; it was only when I explained about my first OES and wanted if possible one with some working background she changed her tack and said leave it with her and she would ring.
I expected nothing and carried on looking, fruitlessly, myself, and then nearly six months later I got a call: she had three, and was I interested? We went down that weekend and the story was told. These dogs were not bred by her but came from an old friend, a farmer, this was the last litter he'd bred as he was 90 and he brought the pups over in his Rolls Royce which he had had from new in 1937 I believe, but what was important was he still had a couple working on his farm and these were from that stock; one stood out and he came home with us the same day.
And the rest is history. He romped through the lower qualifying classes and qualified for the Championship class; as I said, no other OES has got anywhere near the heights he did; plus his film with Bernard Cribbins and a stellar cast - he played Bernard's dog in the original Dangerous Davies film about a hapless detective played by Cribbins. He was a special dog and a wonderful friend to us as all were.
The Kennel Club and others have a lot to be ashamed of in the way that breeds have become distorted in looks, size etc. To conform with the winning trends in show dogs many are so far removed from what was originally intended it has become a joke. Most breeds were bred to to have a useful working life, the working group; today's OES would look ridiculous on a farm and would be totally impractical.
Even the KC breed standards by which all breeds are judged have become elastic to accommodate what becomes a winning fashion, and in so doing does not ‘improve’ the breed but in many cases creates long-term physical problems.
A good example of how dogs change for the show ring as opposed to a working strain can be seen in Springer Spaniels. Springers as gun dogs are selected for working traits, not how they look; the two side by side are totally different breeds but only one is true to type, whatever the breeders say. Even breeds like the German Sheperd is having fashion thrust upon it, the breed is a guard dog but many of the fashion changes that are now required for winning in the show arena are against the standard set in its homeland; only one can be right and that is the German version. Many other breeds have suffered the same fate - the Bull breeds have become so accentuated in their looks they have trouble breathing as have other pug faced dogs, but still fashion prevails.
I should imagine today anyone looking for an OES like my second one with a working background would be laughed at. He must have been almost the last of a type though even he resembled the modern version as can be seen in the header photo. He is the one on the left, the other was my last OES; he came from show stock, and did remarkably well in obedience up to a point, he simply could not take the pressure of training after a certain point and I retired him and myself from competition.
I had done my bit. The competition at the top level was becoming a one breed event for Border Collies, quite natural that people would want the most intelligent and biddable breed to train and they are without peer, but a lot of the fun had gone out of it and for me it had run its course.
I don’t think the breed will die out. It may have had its zenith in the days when celebrities owned one like Kevin Keegan and Paul McCartney with his ‘Martha.’ It is almost a national symbol after the Bulldog and no doubt fashion will swing back towards real dogs again, in time.