These big bundles of fur have advertised Dulux and danced with David Bowie, but numbers of old English sheepdogs are plummeting, warns Katy Birchall.
When The Beatles released their eponymous 1968 album The Beatles, fans believed one of the songs written by Sir Paul McCartney, Martha My Dear, was perhaps an indirect message to his former fiancée, Jane Asher. With lyrics such as, ‘You have always been my inspiration’, you can understand the assumption.
Years later, however, the musician revealed the true muse behind the song: it was about a real-life Martha, his beloved old English sheepdog.
To fans of the breed, it is no surprise that an old English sheepdog — or OES, as they’re sometimes known — might inspire poetry. An instantly recognisable dog, it is striking in both its large size and heavily coated appearance. To put it simply, it’s a big, soft bundle of fur, known for its gentle nature and a comical streak that melts the hardest of hearts. The Kennel Club standard fittingly reads that, when walking, the old English sheepdog ‘exhibits a bear-like roll from the rear’.
‘My first old English sheepdog had two black legs, so it looked as if he was wearing pyjamas,’ laughs Helen Woods of the Greater London Old English Sheepdog Club. ‘They’re clowns, but they’re also intelligent and affectionate.’ Miss Woods knew it was the dog for her when one starred alongside David Bowie in the 1986 film Labyrinth — ‘two of my favourite things in one film’ — and is the owner of three.
‘They’re a great family pet and fantastic around children,’ she says. ‘Wherever you go in the house, the old English sheepdog will be at your feet. I simply wouldn’t have any other breed.’
However, the old English sheepdog is in trouble — in 2020, it recorded its lowest ever numbers with only 227 puppy registrations, officially joining the KC list of Vulnerable Native Breeds for the first time in its history. ‘The old English sheepdog is one of our most iconic dog breeds,’ says Bill Lambert, head of health and welfare at The Kennel Club.
‘Although we would expect the numbers to reduce gradually over the years due to lifestyle changes and the trend towards smaller homes and dog breeds, this steep decline is particularly worrying.’
Acknowledging that they need a lot of grooming and exercise, Mr Lambert asserts that ‘they are fantastic pets, incredibly loving and have the perfect temperament’.
“Every time we take the dog anywhere, it gets mobbed like a rock star”
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment the breed emerged, but it seems to have cropped up during the 18th century, when livestock was continually on the move, undertaking long, arduous journeys from farms to markets. Drovers needed an intelligent, hard-working and steadfast dog without aggression in its herding technique to ensure the livestock arrived at markets in top condition. Such a vocation required stamina, loyalty and a weatherproof coat — enter the shaggy and dependable OES.
Theories abound about its origins, with suggestions that it evolved from Scottish and bearded collies crossed with European breeds, such as the French briard, the Italian bergamasco or perhaps even the robust Russian ovcharka. There is also a strong argument that the breed was in fact native to the South Downs, albeit going by the title of the Cotswold sheepdog.
Its beginnings may be hazy, but, by the 19th century, the old English sheepdog was an established drover dog with the nickname ‘bobtail’, thanks to its trademark docked tail, marking it as a working dog and thus exempt from tax.
The ‘bobtail’ acquired another affectionate nickname: the ‘Dulux dog’. In 1961, the director shooting an advertisement for the British paint brand brought along his old English sheepdog, Dash — true to his name, he bounded around the set and, when it came to editing, the footage of Dash was so charming, it was kept.
An instant hit, the old English sheepdog was catapulted into the limelight: Dash went on to star in Dulux adverts for eight years and has since had 13 successors. ‘It melts people’s hearts,’ says Dulux creative director Marianne Shillingford.
‘The Dulux dog has always stood for trust and family. Every time we take the dog anywhere, it gets mobbed like a rock star. We love dogs in this country — and the bigger and hairier, the better. It’s terribly sad that the old English sheepdog is under threat. What could be more wonderful than a big ball of fluff always happy to see you?’
Current Dulux dog Madison gladly welcomes her fame. ‘She loves attention and fuss, and that comes in heaps as the face of Dulux,’ reveals owner Ellen Wheeler. ‘I’ve met people who travelled hours to meet her. They definitely draw the eye — I get stopped every few steps on our walks — and they’re intelligent, intuitive dogs.’
Julie Love of the old English sheepdog Rescue and Welfare charity maintains that although they’re biddable dogs, they can also be stubborn. ‘These are strong, bouncy dogs,’ she cautions. ‘You can’t possibly have a dog this big at home without training.’
Mrs Love fell head over heels with the breed when she got her first old English sheepdog more than 30 years ago: ‘They’re addictive. We had one and the next thing we knew, we had four.’
Today, she takes care of the rescues with her husband until they find new homes. Currently living with seven under her roof, she can’t quite fit them all onto one sofa for cuddles. ‘I’m afraid they have to take it in turns,’ she admits.
More old English sheepdog facts
- In the early 1900s, the old English sheepdog had such prestige in America that five of the country’s wealthiest families — the Vanderbilts, Morgans, Harrisons, Guggenheims and Goulds — bred and exhibited them.
- Dulux isn’t the only brand to spot the breed’s star quality. In 1963, an advert appeared of a couple laughing as they attempt to bathe an OES, with the tagline: ‘Big jobs call for the Refreshing New Feeling only Coca-Cola can give’.
- The old English sheepdog is a Hollywood favourite and has appeared in films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) and alongside Al Pacino in Serpico (1973).
- In 1979, the old English sheepdog breed peaked in popularity, recording 5,731 puppies registered with the Kennel Club, compared with last year’s 227.
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