What Really Happened to Old Shep...by Mary Peaslee
Originally published in “Stockdogs” magazine, 2005
This article was first published in Stockdogs magazine in 2005. Most of the information remains true today however it is important to keep in mind that regardless of breed, all dogs are individuals, and not all individuals are good representatives of their breed. Please be sure to do your research before purchasing a dog from a breeder or adopting one from a rescue group. Dedicated breeders evaluate and select breeding stock with the character and potential to carry on the legacy of “old Shep”. Dedicated dog owners take the time to find and work with those breeders!
Stories flourish about “Old Shep,” the farm dog of American legend — the one that was always there but never in the way; the one that was a hard worker without being hard headed; the dog that moved your cows, watched your back, or babysat the kids (2 and 4-legged type) as the need arose. As far back as the early 1900s, however, the plaintive question — “whatever happened to old Shep?” — was creeping into farm publications. Worry spread that old Shep was being supplanted by newer breeds. his replacements promised more “style” but delivered less substance and heart than the dogs they appeared to be upstaging.
Happily, the fears of old Shep’s demise were premature — he is alive and looking for work in an original American breed, the English Shepherd. Although they have become rare, English Shepherds are present across America. For folks looking for a good all around farm dog, who grew up with the legend but never had a chance to experience the reality, the English Shepherd is worth meeting again –for the first time.
English Shepherds are a true American breed with roots that are broad as well as deep. Registered since the 1930s but recognized for decades before that, English Shepherds have a history that extends back into the late 1800s. Unlike some related breeds (such as the Australian Shepherd or McNab), English Shepherds have never been tightly regulated by a powerful breeder or club nor have they been restricted to a particular region. English Shepherds have remained outside the mainstream, selected and used by individual breeders who trusted their own ability to recognize a good dog. As one midwestern breeder explained:
“Jim and I have had English Shepherds for over 30 years. Jim’s family has had English Shepherds through 3 generations (that I know of) on both sides of his family. The Sears catalog took pictures of Jim’s great grandfather and his English Shepherd on the front porch of their home becuase it was a “Sears” house…
The dogs we added to our family over the years came from Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. The Kansas and Nebraska dogs came with papers that we didn’t file. We didn’t care if our dogs were registered. All we cared about was keeping the line pure and getting good working dogs for our own use and anyone else who needed a dog. We have had many repeat families over the years because our dogs worked for them. When you have livestock, you don’t care how many papers the dog has. You want a dog that is your partner and helps you.”
The lack of a centrally organized force shaping the breed does not mean that English Shepherds evolved haphazardly, however. To the contrary: freedom from the fads and fickleness that come with living in the spotlight has prodcued an amazing consistency over the years. Modern English Shepherds resemble their ancestors from 100 years ago in both form and character. On their own, without judges, show rings, or ribbons, breeders have been allowed to focus on the qualities that made these dogs indispensible in their role as stockdog, guardian, and companion on farms.
Letter from a brochure for Gerhard Wolter, breeder of “Black English Shepherd Dogs” in Hamburg, MN:
“Palo, Iowa, April 15, 1919
Dear Sir: I am again writing to you about your cattle dogs. Maybe you remember when we bought the other pup off you… We would not have sold him for $100 or more because we could leave a gate open where there were lots of cattle or hogs and he would stay there till I returned, if I was gone for an hour. He was always at my heels and ready to work. He was the best hunting dog I ever saw… He was genuine heeler… I believe there are no dogs that will beat these… ~ Mrs. G.B. VanNote”
Structure and Type
English Shepherds have a moderate, natural form lacking exaggeration in feature. They are typically more substantial in build than a Border Collie, have a broader head than a Rough Collie and a practical, double coat that is less effusive than the coat of many Australian Shepherds. There is some variation in the breed, particularly in cosmetic features, but these features have never been the measure of an English Shepherd. As one gentleman whose history with the breed extends back over 70 years notes, “I have always said that if the worst fault you can find with a dog is the way it carries its ears or its tail, then you are looking at one grand dog.” This pretty well captures the sentiments of English Shepherd breeders!
Character and Working Traits
In character, English Shepherds are defined by their devotion to their people, place, and job. They like to keep an eye on things, quickly learn the rules and routines that define their day, and then do their best to maintain those rules when their owner is absent.
“Buck (one year old) is really growing up. The week before Christmas I looked out my front window to see the whole herd in a pasture they don’t belong, and they were milling around wildly. As I stepped out the front door to see what was disturbing them I saw Buck gathering them up and driving them back down the fence. Then one of our Collies joined, leaping over the fence. Both of them took the herd to the back corner and forced them through a small hole in the fence, patiently waiting as each goat climbed back through to the other side. I was absolutely amazed! I had read about how these dogs can take care of escaped livestock, but it was something else to actually SEE my dog(s) do it! Buck has trained our Collie girls well, as this was not something they would have EVER done before he arrived!” (~ A. Smith)
English Shepherds are true all around farm dogs, capable of making themselves useful in a variety of settings. The following stories — from longtime owners and breeders — illustrate some of the roles English Shepherds have played on farms and ranches.
The Low-Heeling, Bobtail Cow Dog:
“I bought an English Shepherd puppy many years ago & carried him in my arms while driving my milk cow into the barn. The puppy was about 10 weeks old & was a male, sable & white. I called him Turk. He began jumping & wiggling in my arms so I let him down & he ran up behind the cow & bumped his nose on her heels every time she took a step. All I had to teach him was obedience commands, he was a born heeler, one of the best I ever owned. He would get ahead & turn an animal or behind to drive them. After a year old, I allowed him to work the cows & he would bring them in by himself. If I wanted to load a cow in a trailer, he would heel as hard as necessary to get her in.” (~ Marvin Hampton, Oregon)
The Small Farm Guardian and Herding Dog:
“I have tried almost all the modern herding dogs over the years; they are either too keen or too hard hearted to work sheep for me. My sheep are mostly pets, and dead tame — I like them that way, but still need to control them and move them about. On my small 38 acre place the English Shepherd is the perfect dog. Suzy was the cow expert, Bob specializes in sheep with a bachelor’s in goat herding.
English Shepherds have their own style of herding, a mix of indulgence and brawn when needed. One of my favorite sheep, Freckles the Katadhin, made such good friends with Suzy that Suzy flatly refused to herd her — I had to put a collar on the sheep and lead her after the rest of the flock. I was determined that I would not have this ridiculous problem with Bob, and would start him off right.
Sure enough, Freckles explained to Bob that she was not a common sheep and Bob said “yes, ma’am” and stepped around her. I stood boldly up, and said “you get on her, Bob!” He stopped dead, looking in apparent embarrassment at the rest of the flock watching with rapt attention, and back at me. He reached out and tenderly flea nibbled a fat flank. She didn’t move, standing with her head up and arrogant.
I yelled at him from the distance, to get on with it. He nibbled the thin skin near the udder area — she flinched, but stood firm. Then he had an idea. he continued nibbling on along the side of her belly, until he got to her “armpit”. She began to look worried, and started seriously wiggling without moving her feet. By this time, he had figured out that was her most ticklish spot, and he really went to work.
Pretty soon, she couldn’t stand it any more, shook her head, stamped her foot and galloped off to be with the others. Puppy Bob was very pleased with himself and now, 2 years later, that’s how he still moves that ewe. She’s getting older but just as stubborn as ever, and Bob tickles her under armpit to move her along. No hard feelings, everyone is still friends, but the job got done. That’s how English Shepherds do it if you give them the time they need.” (~ Amy Hayner, Virginia)
The Controlled Power of a Working Dog on a Dairy Farm:
“We just started renting some new property across the road. There are 94 head of 1100 pound heifers in that pasture… So, Dan and his brother, Dave, who rarely helps with the heifers and has not seen Shooter work in the pasture, were trying to get to church on time Sunday morning. They had these heifers in a new, unfamiliar pasture where they didn’t know where the gate was. They had a dog that had been “off” for the winter with much less herding work to do. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Dan and Shooter moved into the pasture (Dave’s job was to open the gate) and began moving the heifers toward the gate. Shooter was just trotting along beside Dan ready to drive the herd. At that point, the heifers spooked at something and took off at a dead run. Dan told Shooter to “stop’em” and Shooter kicked it into high gear, ran ahead of the herd of 94 stampeding cattle and turned them back. They began running the other way. Shooter ran around the herd to the front again and stopped them. This happened a couple of times. Finally, the stupid heifers got the idea that they couldn’t go anywhere. Dan called Shooter to be “easy” and Shooter began his normal wearing to try to crowd them through the gate. Those in the rear began getting agitated at not knowing what was happening. Dan called Shooter to “come”. Shooter stopped and went to Dan immediately. Then they did “easy” for a long time until all the heifers got through the gate.
Stopping a stampede takes extraordinary power and confidence and heart. Being able to work slowly and gently after such a burst of adrenaline takes signifcant self control. Shooter usually does a good job, but Sunday was excellent. We even got to church early!
Dan said Dave, the skeptic, sat there with his jaw on the ground.” (E. Hischke, Wisconsin)
With all this diversity in use, it is easy to question what ties this breed together — or wonder what to expect from your own English Shepherd. Herding instinct and intelligence are present, to be sure, but these can be found in other breeds. The key to understanding this breed and their adaptability is their heart: these are dogs that live to please. Their instinct and abilities readily adapt to suit the person and place that has captured their loyalty — whether that be a rancher in eastern Oregon or a dairy farmer in Wisconsin.
The breed standard summarizes the working qualities of the breed as follows:
“The English Shepherd typically works stock in an upright, loose-eyed manner rather than crouching and showing strong eye. He is generally a natural low heeler and will gather or drive as is needed. He will be forceful in necessary, but not too rough, discerning the amount of force needed and handling stock accordingly.
The seamless combination of independent working ability and a desire to work in partnership with his master is a hallmark of the English Shepherd. His natural instincts enable him to carry out his work with a minimum of direction; his confidence, purposefulness, and a deep commitment to rules compels him to maintain order in his environment even in his master’s absence. At the same time, he is intensely loyal to and ever aware if his master and possesses a willingness to obey.
The English Shepherd is not obsessive about herding and is capable of resting quietly at his master’s feet when there is no work required. He can be trusted to not bother livestock and does not require kenneling when chores are done. Indeed, the English Shepherd frequently develops a bond with, and displays a nurturing attitude toward, his owner’s livestock and will keep them in their place while guarding against unwanted predators and pests.
The English Shepherd is agile and quick, sturdy and muscular, with the stamina and grit to cover many miles over all types of terrain. He has keen senses, and can trail lost of injured animals. Calm in disposition, the English Shepherd will withstand the pressure of long hours of demanding work.”
English Shepherds are a breed that has remained — contentedly, for the most part — out of the spotlight of public attention. They are rarely encountered at working trials, almost never in the conformation ring. Sadly, in recent decades the low profile working life of the breed has meant that fewer and fewer are around. Shifts in the economy have pushed many long time owners and breeders off the farm and into the city; the larger corporate farms which replaced them either didn’t use dogs or sought out one of the better known and more numerous breeds. English Shepherds have not vanished altogether, however, and over the past several years there has been a renewed effort among breeders to work together for the preservation of this American treasure. For all their stubborn independence, and skepticism of “expert” opinion when it comes to dogs, English Shepherd breeders are not a closed group. These are people who understand the value of a good neighbor.
Anyone interested in learning more about the breed and potentially offering a job — and a future — to a good dog and a great breed is encouraged to contact Shepherd’s Way.
~ Mary Peaslee, Oregon