English Shepherds 101
English Shepherds are a breed of farmcollie, related to the Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, and Rough Collies. Despite their name, they are an American breed. English shepherds are traditionally all purpose farm dogs, having skills in hunting, herding, and guarding. Most of them are still bred for these qualities, and many English Shepherds still live on farms and ranches fulfilling their traditional function. More recently, some English Shepherd owners have explored more modern jobs with their dogs. There are English Shepherds participating in Search and Rescue work, therapy work, or dogsports like flyball, agility, and canine freestyle with their owners.
Information about the breed can be hard to come by in print, but there are a number of good internet websites, specific webpages, and blog entries that give a good description of the breed. I have attempted to organize what I think are some of the best online resources in this document, and also to give enough explanation to the reader so they can absorb the information without confusion.
There are two club websites to check out, the English Shepherd Club, and the United English Shepherd Association. The ESC is the older one, and has a larger membership. The UESA was formed when the ESC broke with the United Kennel Club over the question of conformation showing. Many ES people want nothing to do with showing because they are of the opinion that ES should primarily be bred for working characteristics. The USEA people are interested in conformation showing. Neither the ESC or UESA want ANYTHING to do with the AKC, as there is a general feeling that the AKC puts too much emphasis on looks, too little emphasis on working ability, has questionable ethics when it comes to puppy mills, and would encourage a surge in popularity that would be detrimental to the breed.
Technically there is also third club, now that individuals have been importing ES into the United Kingdom. As of yet there are only a few ES in England. However the people involved are dedicated and more are being exported, so it seems that the “reinvasion of the motherland” is going well.
The American Working Farmcollie Association is a multibreed performance registry dedicated to recognizing the traditional working characteristics of the farmcollie breeds. It is not specifically for ES, but many of its members have ES.
The AWFA also has an excellent page that outlines the traditional "farmdog" jobs that ES should be capable of:What is PRGN?
National English Shepherd Rescue is the best little rare breed rescue in existence! (Ok, I may be biased here.) With the help and support of the English Shepherd community, they do a great job of getting English Shepherds out of bad situations. The most notable rescue in recent years involved over 200 English Shepherds seized from a hoarder/puppy miller in Montana. One nice thing about the English Shepherd community is that there isn’t a rift between rescue and the breeders; many of the breeders provide either financial support or serve as expert foster homes. NESR is also very open to placing the right dogs in working situations, and is committed to the lifetime well-being of the dogs they place.
Here is a magazine article published about the breed that is good reading:
In my opinion he following breeder websites have good descriptions of the breed and its working characteristics. Please note that while I may cite specific pages, further exploration of the website is usually worthwhile. Most websites will have descriptions of their dogs, and perhaps even updates on the puppies they have bred.
Shepherd's Way describes the working traits and also emphasizes that this is a diverse breed, because "good work" can vary from farm to farm, and also describes how some of the ES working traits can be a bit...problematic...if you are not prepared for them:Working Traits in English Shepherds
English Shepherds are...
Flyby also emphasizes the diversity in their "Is an English Shepherd Right for You" page:
Blacksheep Homestead has a good treatise on Farmdog Motivation:
...and traits that a herding trial cannot test for:
...and some opinions on how ES are different from Border Collies:
If you want to get a more detailed idea about the diversity in the breed, both the ESC and the AWFA post working evaluations for dogs, which often include descriptions of sociability and other temperament traits. However, it is wise to remember that how outgoing a dog is depends on how it was socialized in addition to its genetics:
These blog posts are more detailed and better portray what it is like to live with an individual English Shepherd. Unfortunately such insightful blogs are few and far between, due to the relative rarity of the breed. I’ve chosen some entries that I feel are illuminating, but as with the breeder websites, further exploration of these blogs is worthwhile.
These two blog entries concern two dogs that are half siblings owned by a dog trainer who participates in Search and Rescue and has a farm. It should be noted that her dogs are probably more outgoing with people because she is breeding for SAR in addition to the traditional farmdog functions. Rosie would probably be on the “more difficult to manage” end of the ES temperament spectrum, but this narrative makes it clear how the breed’s intelligence and drive to work can be focused in positive ways. As described in the other entry, her half brother Moe has what I would consider to be ideal working drives and temperament for the breed. (Note that I also do prefer a more social dog.)
This blog entry involves Rosie’s brother Audie, and foster dog Charlie, who was a puppy from that mass rescue in Montana. I’ve included it because Audie’s actions illustrate the breed’s intelligence and drive for order. English shepherds are into enforcing the rules.
These last three entries concern English Shepherds on a working ranch. They are very eloquent about the breed’s character. I think the last entry is particularly illustrative of the breed’s work ethic.
As mentioned earlier, very few people show their English Shepherds in conformation. Instead the breed community has a tradition of holding meetups and Gatherings. This can range from a few ES owners getting together at a park to a large event involving be benefit raffles, herding, demonstrations, and presentations. Most often these happenings are coordinated through the online discussion lists (mentioned below). A schedule of the larger Gatherings can be found on the Events page of the English Shepherd Club website. These events are always a great place to connect with people and learn about the breed; people interested in the breed are encouraged to attend. The following two blog posts describe what a Gathering is like.
So, what does this mean?
English shepherds are a diverse breed. Their temperament can range from shy to outgoing, from fearful to confident, from biddable to hardheaded, and from easygoing to pushy. Some may be reactive, while others are more laid back. They may be dog social or dog aggressive. Levels of prey drive and working drive can vary. These characteristics can combine in interesting ways in individual dogs. My Chandler has fear and confidence issues and is simultaneously one of the most outgoing and snuggly with strangers ES that I know. It is best to work with your breeder or NESR to find the right dog for your situation. Many breeders know their lines and will match the puppy with the correct characteristics with each prospective family. Rescue does the same work when evaluating and rehabilitating individual English Shepherds.
Some generalizations can be made.
English Shepherds are intelligent. They learn quickly and can be independent thinkers. The challenge is making sure they learn the things YOU want them to learn. They’re smart enough to “play the system” once they figure it out. I’ve heard of dogs purposefully wandering away so they could get a treat when they were called back. They get bored with repetitious training drills that have no purpose that the dog can understand. For example, Chandler once went on strike during “send out to mat” exercises. He collapsed at my feet, refused to move, and amused himself by watching the other dogs.
English Shepherds are devoted to their people. Ideally, and ES should be bred to be your “right hand man”; helper, enforcer, and protector. They should “have your back”. Over the years I’ve read several instances of ES stepping in when their owners were threatened by farm animals. They are dogs that want to work with you.
English Shepherds are territorial. They are protective of their turf, and their owner’s possessions within it.
Levels of this vary, but they would traditionally drive predators and trespassers away from the farm. Socialization and training are important so that the dog learns how to behave in different situations.
English Shepherds are concerned with order, correct behavior, and the Rules. They can be bossy about this. It can be a wonderful thing when your sheep break out of the pasture, because the ES will notice them out of place, gather them up, put them back, and sit in the hole in the fence until you fix it. (Yes, there are instances of ES doing this.) However, if you want to move the sheep to a different pasture, it may take a little time before your ES believes that you actually want them there and stops trying to put them back where they are supposed to be. It can also make them intolerant of rude and over-the-top excited dogs. The overly friendly retriever that just jumped all over your ES may get snarked at. It can also make them problematic at dog parks, because they often become the “fun police”.
English Shepherds need leadership. They must be taught when and where behavior is appropriate. Their intelligence, bossiness, and territoriality can cause problems if it is not appropriately channeled. You must be able to tell them “no” if necessary and redirect them to more appropriate behavior, but unfair corrections will make them shut down and damage your relationship with the dog. Socialization and training are critical, as is having a set of “Rules” the dog is taught to understand. If the owner is not a good leader, the ES will often make up its own rules and get into a LOT of trouble. It seems to me that most puppies that are returned to the breeder that I have heard about failed in their first home because of a lack of structure and rules. Some ES are "a lot of dog" and need very clear-cut guidance. Once they are placed in an environment with more strict expectations and education about those expectations, the problems seem to vanish.
Registries can be complicated when it comes to English Shepherds. There are four legitimate registries; the United Kennel Club, the International English Shepherd Registry, the Animal Research Foundation, and the English Shepherd Club Registry. Breeders may register with one or more of them. The ESC Registry is the newest of the registries, and was created in response to the needs of the breed community for a comprehensive database of the English Shepherd population, and because the registration of litters with parents from different registries was difficult.
English Shepherds seem to be a relatively healthy breed, despite their small breed population. It is not unusual for dogs to live into their teens. The most prevalent problem in the breed seems to be hip dysplasia. Breeders in the USA may test their dog’s hips using either OFA or PennHIP.
Another sometimes problematic condition that is found within the breed is the MDR1 mutation, which involves the effects of certain drugs upon dogs carrying the mutation. Fortunately there is a genetic test available to determine if a dog has the mutation. Not all veterinarians are aware of the breeds affected by the mutation or of all the drugs that are dangerous for affected dogs, so it is wise for an ES owner to know their dog’s MDR1 status, either through testing or by parentage. (In my personal experience, knowing that Chandler didn’t have the mutation was a relief when he ate an entire 6 month supply of Interceptor heartworm medication and I was on the phone with the ASPCA Animal Poison Control hotline.)
Otherwise, there have been some English Shepherds that have problems with allergies or idiopathic epilepsy. At the moment, these do not seem to be common problems.
Online Groups and Lists
Now, if you are looking for more information about English Shepherds after reading all this, I highly suggest joining the English Shepherd Yahoo Group, which is the largest and most active chat group devoted to the breed. The people are very helpful, and there are archives that go back to 1999 and cover all sorts of topics:
For a group with a more specific focus on traditional farmdog work, and advice on how to raise and train a farmcollie for farm work, the AWFA also has a Yahoo Group:
...and the Working English Shepherds Group is specifically focused on stockdog work:Working English Shepherds Yahoo Group