The Old English Sheepdog is a fairly modern breed, dating back only to the late 1700s or early 1800s. A Gainsborough painting from which engravings were made in 1771 depicts the Duke of Buccleuch with his arms around the neck of what appears to be a fine representation of an Old English Sheepdog. It is believed that the Old English Sheepdog first developed in the counties of Devon and Somerset, and in the Duchy of Cornwall, from crosses of local drover’s dogs with existing European breeds. Its exact ancestry is the subject of speculation; some credit the Scotch Bearded Collie, while others claim that the Russian Owtchar (or Ovtcharka) was the primary contributor. Other suggested ancestors include the Italian Bergamasco, a shaggy shepherd’s dog from the mainland, the French Briard and the Scottish Deerhound.
Whatever its predecessors, there are many accounts of a “drover’s dog” used for driving sheep and cattle to city markets at the start of the 18th century. These dogs were commonly seen pulling carts and wagons as well. According the current AKC parent club: "The history of the Old English Sheepdog is intertwined with the bygone days of the drovers.........The type of dog a drover needed was one with stamina, steadiness and the temperament that would see off any predators, would stand its ground against any rogue beast and would see off man attack by a bull or ox intent on mischief towards the drovers."
Drover’s dogs were exempt from certain British taxes, and owners docked their dog’s tails to prove their working occupation. True sheep-herding dogs needed their long tail to act as a rudder for balancing rapid sideways movement when rounding up the flock. Because the Old English typically drove slow moving cattle, they did not require a “rudder tail” to perform their work. Tail docking did not create a breed with naturally bobbed tails, despite suggestions to the contrary. Old English Sheepdogs traditionally are born with tails, which are removed at the first joint at three or four days of age. Adults should have no more than a 1 to 2 inch bobtail at maturity. Early Old English Sheepdogs occasionally guarded flocks of sheep and other livestock, but this was not their primary purpose. They were trained as retrievers from time to time as well, and once a year their coat was sheared and used by women to weave warm garments.
The Old English Sheepdog was first shown in its homeland in the 1860s. Drovers' Dog Shows were inaugurated in 1891 for the purpose of improving the quality and treatment of the breeds that drovers used. In 1894, a Drovers’ Dog Show was held at the Metropolitan Cattle Market; of the 78 dogs entered, 20 were Old English Sheepdogs, including the dogs that won Best Dog and Best Bitch in Show.
The American Kennel Club recognized the Old English Sheepdog in 1888, as a member of the Herding Group. The breed was promoted in the United States by Pittsburgh industrialist William Wade in the late 1880s. By the turn of the century, five of the ten wealthiest American families - the Morgans, Vanderbilts, Goulds, Harrisons and Guggenheims - all owned, bred and exhibited Old English Sheepdogs. In fact, the social prominence of the owners and spectators at the Old English ring in the 1904 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show prompted the show superintendent to discreetly advise the judge to "take plenty of time; the dogs in the ring are the property of some of our leading Americans." It should be noted that those prominent people had kennel staff to care for and groom their beloved Bobtails.
Early breeders in the United States tended to misinterpret the breed standard calling for “profuseness” of coat as meaning “excessiveness” of coat. For a time, this deterred many potential pet owners from pursuing the breed, when in fact the proper and typical Old English Sheepdog coat is no more difficult to care for than that of any other longhaired breed. Today’s Old English is an ideal house dog: home-loving, not inclined to roam or wander and not given to fighting with other animals. It is agile, intelligent, affectionate and calm and resembles a friendly, shaggy bear. The Old English Sheepdog has a soft mouth and can be trained to retrieve. It also makes an excellent sled dog, agility competitor and watch dog and is equally comfortable in a small city apartment, a large rural estate or an urban neighborhood.
The average life span of the Old English Sheepdog is 10 to 12 years. Breed health concerns may include bloat (gastric dilatation and volvulus), cataracts, canine ataxia, cerebellar abiotrophy, congenital deafness, dilated cardiomyopathy, pododemodicosis, epilepsy, immune-mediated hemolytic anemia and thrombocytopenia, congenital elbow luxation, keratocanthoma, nasal carcinoma, progressive retinal atrophy, cryptorchidism and hip dysplasia. Old English Sheepdogs are prone to having adverse reactions to high doses of Ivermectin and Milbemycin, which can cause tremors, ataxia, coma and death.