The social media theme of “too many dogs” has a corollary, the lament that there are “too many breeders.” This lament seems to reflect a variety of concerns. One is a sense that there is inadequate health screening in dogs being bred, the idea being that the lack of health testing is due to growth in the number of inexperienced breeders. A second concern is that breeders are facing a crowded market, with even well-established breeders finding it difficult to identify enough homes for their puppies. And finally, there is the fear that an influx of new breeders is changing the breed: without a connection to the breed’s history and established lines, they are making choices that put that legacy at risk.
All of this anxiety – over indiscriminate breeding, competition, change – casts a shadow over what could, framed differently, be considered an opportunity for a more secure future for the breed. In this post we will look at some data that can help us understand the current status of English Shepherd breeders and what opportunities, or needs, they present the breed.
Number and Demographics of Breeders
We can get some idea of the number of breeders by looking at registration statistics and breeder directories. For a historical perspective, we reviewed the list of recognized breeders published by the English Shepherd Club (ESC) 30 years ago. In 1993, there were 42 breeders listed across 20 states, with roughly 80% located in the eastern half of the country. Men made up a slight majority of breeders, accounting for 43% of breeder listings; women provided 40% of the listings and couples filled in the remaining 17%.
The most recently published Breeder Directory for the English Shepherd Club is from 2022. That directory lists a total of 38 breeders across 21 states, with a demographic shift such that women account for 84% of the listings and couples and men providing 8% each. The 10% decline in ESC breeder listings from 1993 to 2022, reflected in the blue bars on the chart below, clearly does not reflect the growth within the breed. Shifting our data source to look at number of breeders registering litters with ESCR (orange bars) shows that number of breeders essentially tripled between 2009-10 and 2019-20.
In the 2 year interval spanning 2019-2020, 233 breeders across 44 states registered one or more litters with the ESC registry. The largest concentration of breeders is in the Central & mid-Atlantic states, with a second regional concentration in the Pacific Northwest. Approximately 67% of registered litters were bred by women, 33% by men (registrations do not allow a couple to be listed as breeder).
Overall, there are many more breeders registering litters with ESCR today than 10 years ago – perhaps 3 times as many – but a majority (~ 85%) are not listed in the club directory. This breeder count misses breeders registering solely with UKC but it is likely that the general trend in numbers is similar.
Characteristics of Breeding Programs
A closer look at the litter registration data for the decade spanning 2011 – 2020 shows that the growth in number of breeders consisted primarily of small scale breeders. A majority (56%) of breeders in the breed for 5 or more years registered only 1 or 2 litters, total. Only 1% of breeders who have been registering litters for over 5 years average 2 or more litters per year.
Taking a longer view, 96 breeders first registered a litter between late 2004 – 2009. The chart below describes their breeding programs, with follow-up through 2021 ( > 12 years). The first row, assessing “longevity”, is the number of years between the first and last litters registered by a breeder.
|Longevity of Breeding Program (years)||1 to 18||3||1|
|Number of Litters Produced||1 to 30||3||1|
|Number of Dams Used||1 to 13||2*||1|
|Number of Sires Used||1 to 13||1||1|
|*47 of 96 breeders produced litters from only 1 dam; had one more breeder used only one dam, the median would have been 1, as it was for sires|
The data for all breeders registering a litter from 2005 thru late 2021 (623 breeders total) shows that 74% of breeders only produced litters from one female; 89% produced litters from 1 or 2 females.
It is difficult to draw firm conclusions about the prevalence of health testing in English Shepherds due to the lack of a system for surveillance. There are some promising signs, however: over the past 5 years, over 1000 English Shepherds have undergone genetic testing by Embark. Many of those tests were done by curious owners rather than breeders screening breeding dogs. Nonetheless, these tests are helping to build a breed-specific genetic database.
By other measures, however, English Shepherds continue to lag with respect to health testing. The first and most widely recommended health test for English Shepherds is x-ray screening for hip dysplasia. The first English Shepherd was OFA certified nearly 40 years ago, in 1984; since that time, however, only 838 English Shepherds total have had OFA hip evaluations. The rate of hip testing appears to have declined over the past decade (see chart): when the number of dogs with OFA reports is compared to the number of dogs producing puppies in two intervals (2009-2010 and 2019-2020), it appears that the prevalence of hip screening among breeding dogs is less than 20% and is declining.
There is another widely available screening test for hip dysplasia, the PennHIP evaluation. Adding PennHIP evaluated dogs to the screened population would slightly increase the number of dogs with hip evaluations but it is unlikely to change the picture significantly.
Summary of English Shepherd Breeder Data
- Demographic shift with increase in percentage of women among breeders over past decade
- Geographic expansion with concentrations in central & mid-Atlantic region and the Northwest
- Rapid growth in number of breeders, roughly 15% increase in numbers per year
- Decline in breeder listings with breed club; 84% of breeders not listed
- High turnover among breeders: Only 5 – 10% of breeders remain active for 10+ years
- Small scale breeding programs: most breed one female & one male, 1-2 times over ~ 2 years:
- 74% of all breeders breed only one female; 50% of breeders followed for 12+ years
- 68% of all breeders only register 1-2 litters; 50% of breeders followed for 12+ years
- Minority of dogs have OFA hip evaluations and the rate of testing has declined
Topics for Conversation
The English Shepherd community has experienced a great deal of growth over the past 10 – 20 years. The English Shepherd breeder today is likely to be new to breeding English Shepherds, with less than 5 years’ experience, and not affiliated with the breed club. Most are small scale breeders and will remain actively breeding for only one generation. Despite the high turnover among breeders, a steady influx of new breeders has resulted in an increase of roughly 15% per year in the number of active breeders over the past decade. While the number of breeders is increasing, the rate of health testing – as reflected in OFA hip evaluations – by breeders appears to be declining. Genetic testing has increased dramatically, however, over the past 5 years.
What opportunities or challenges do these changes present?
- What does all of this mean for the future of English Shepherds?
- Where and how do breeders get the information they need to make breeding decisions?
- Do the traditional institutions and methods for networking meet the needs of today’s breeders?
- What tools and resources do breeders need?
Please join us on Facebook to talk about how to take of advantage of opportunities and how to help breeders meet the challenges that go along with change.