To address this question, it is first necessary to answer the question "what is a breed?" Perhaps surprisingly, this question does not have a simple black & white answer. While there is a trend (promoted by certain medical labs!) toward DNA testing dogs to determine "breed", in fact these tests do not -- can not -- identify BREED. This is because "breed" is not a categorization based in science -- breeds are defined by social convention.
The following excerpt from the University of Oklahoma's website provides a clear explanation of this point:
"...this definition from The Genetics of Populations by Jay L. Lush helps explain why a good definition of "breed" is elusive.
"A breed is a group of domestic animals, termed such by common consent of the breeders, ... a term which arose among breeders of livestock, created one might say, for their own use, and no one is warranted in assigning to this word a scientific definition and in calling the breeders wrong when they deviate from the formulated definition. It is their word and the breeders common usage is what we must accept as the correct definition."
As you can see from Dr. Lush's definition it is at least in part the perception of the breeders and the livestock industry which decides when a group of individuals constitutes a "breed".
This may seem like a slippery answer but it is critical to understand this point. Breeds exist when a group of breeders say they do. How breeders identify members of a breed will vary depending on their particular values & purposes; there is no single test that applies for all breeds. The DNA tests currently marketed can tell you who a dog's parents are; for the past 100 years, some dog breed registries (such as the AKC) have actively promoted the idea that breeds are defined SOLELY by parentage (pedigree). For these registries, parentage equals breed. This is NOT how most dog breeds originated or were maintained for hundreds of years, however, and the process of defining breeds by pedigree ("purebreeding") has proven disastrous for the health and integrity of many types of dogs.
Prior to the advent of "purebreeding" in the late 19th century, dog breeds were identified based on the dogs' location and use: "English Shepherd" dogs were dogs in or from the U.K. that worked as shepherds, managing livestock. Pretty simple! These dogs were selected for qualities that suited them to this environment and work; consequently, they typically were of a particular size and character. Because the qualities of size and character are heritable, practical people would choose a puppy out of parents that had proven their success as working shepherd dogs. And so the breed was established. A group of dogs was identified that was characterized by their appearance, ancestry, and abilities. Members of the breed passed these qualities on to their offspring.
This practical definition of "breed" -- that is, a group of dogs characterized by their appearance, ancestry, and abilities, and that reliably pass these qualities on to their offspring -- describes the approach to breed identification traditionally used by English Shepherd breeders. Using this approach has produced dogs that have maintained consistent type (appearance), character and working abilities for over 150 years. Very few AKC "purebreed" populations can say the same!
So... yes, English Shepherds are a unique and valuable "breed"!
The AKC was founded in the late 19th century to "promote the sport of purebred dogs". The principal focus of the club was the organization and promotion of shows in which dogs were evaluated based on their appearance. English Shepherds have never been valued primarily for their appearance; historically, the breed has been valued and promoted for their usefulness as farm dogs. English Shepherd breeders generally did not have resources for or interest in participating in dog shows, and English Shepherd buyers were generally not impressed by "fancy papers" -- and so, English Shepherds remained independent of the organized dog fancy in the U.S.
For more information, read on...
To skip to next question, click here.
It is now clear that English Shepherds have benefited greatly by not adopting the culture and practices that adhere to the Dog Fancy in the United States. To understand why this is the case requires some understanding of the history of the AKC and purebred dog registries. Some of the key points are encapsulated in the following excerpts from Ann Hier's "Dog Shows Then and Now":
Pitfalls in the History of the AKC
(1) Motives of AKC founders: "... those in control of the canine political process in America (AKC) had personal vested interests to protect and promote, many making their livings, in whole or in part, from dealing in dogs... blatant partisanship became ingrained in the system".Comment: I really can not over-emphasize the cultural and practical differences between dog owners who look at dogs as potential employees, to be hired for a job (farm work), and those who "deal in dogs" as commodities for sale. English Shepherd owners have traditionally been in the former group; the founders of the AKC were decidedly in the latter.
(2) Benched shows as a forum for politics and self-promotion: "...the Westminster Kennel Club (predecessor to AKC)... is probably the most responsible for the creation of the great chasm which exists today between the field trial and conformation factions... from the first WKC benched show in 1877, it became very clear that conformation judging was based, quite largely, on personal opinion. Field trials, on the other hand, required performance which couldn't be manipulated as easily by merely installing the "right" judges. Thus, when a large circuit of field trials was officially established in 1884, this gave further impetus to the birth of the American Kennel Club, formed with the specific requirement for membership being the holding and promotion of benched shows".
(3) Fads in judging: "Probably nothing is so harmful to any breed or variety of animals as the fads which periodically set in for their supposed improvement. At one time coat was the great fad and one constantly saw good (dogs) put back in the prize list because their coats were considered too straight and smooth (!)... this went on for a considerable time until a breed was established of fluffy, soft-looking dogs with great open feet and spongy thick legs, long bodies and heavy ears -- the very opposite of a what a real hard (dog) should be. The next fad was "front, legs and feet". Everything else was ignored for the time being... I don't know how these fads are started, but certainly they are the very worst things which possibly could befall a breed." (from Fox Terrier Chronicle, 1892).
(4) Loss of health and diversity: "... the uniquely extraordinary genetic quality of the canine -- diversity -- may contribute to its decline. This available variety tends to foster dog fanciers only interested in their favorite breed with little reality based concern that the health and viability of all breeds has a direct impact on (their own)... even a concerned fancy, saddled with a registry body which defines canine progress as continual growth in registrations (revenue), will be doomed to failure unless urgent and relevant steps, beyond public relations window dressing, are taken...".
The health problems of modern "pedigree" dogs have received a good deal of attention in the press recently. These concerns are not new, however, as evidenced by this article from Field and Fancy, published in 1901:
The Life Span of Show Dogs
"A subject that will bear consideration, and really requires serious thought, is the ever growing shortness of life evident in some breeds of our domestic or show dogs. The dog is supposed to be an animal that might be hale and hearty at 12 year of age, and would live to 15 or 16 years or over, but we hear of breeds, popular on the show bench, averaging about 6 years, and a dog of that age may look very old. In other cases we hear of certain families of dogs that that do not live beyond the age of three or four years, three being nearer the limit than four; and in some cases two years might really strike the average. If dogs were bred from, whose age limit is about three years and at the most six years, it, of course, necessarily follows that the progeny inherit the weakness of the parents and mature quickly, are in their prime, we might say, for a year or two years, and at four years of age are beneath the ground.
... it is a fact that the carnivores, among which the dog is included, are a hard working race, living active hunting lives and taking a lot of exercise. The question of early mortality and decadence among the dog tribe is occasioning considerable anxiety in the minds of some breeders; but as many of our fanciers come and go, staying in the fancy a short time and then giving place to others, the subject has not been given the prominence it deserves.
Should many of our most prominent races acquire the character of being very short lived, their financial value will depreciate accordingly, and such breeds as acquire the worst reputations in this line will suffer the most. The time has come to call a halt to breeding puppies from a short lived strain."
Sadly, these warnings about the need to prioritize health were not heeded, and the health and longevity of many AKC breeds has declined over the past 100 years. And, the beautiful Rough Collie sketched below bears little resemblance to the dogs winning in the show ring today - after 100 years of "improvement". The AKC has supported some important initiatives to improve canine health via their Canine Health Foundation but unfortunately practices that perpetuate the problems -- closed stud books and conformation competition -- have not significantly changed.
Origin of a Second American Multibreed Dog Registry - The UKC
English Shepherds have been registered by another multi-breed registry -- the United Kennel Club -- since the 1920s. Ann Hier also provides some interesting history on the relationship between UKC and AKC in her book, from which the following is excerpted:
"Chauncey Zachariah Bennett founded the United Kennel Club in 1898 as an alternative registry to what he believed was the AKC's emphasis on conformation-only show dogs owned by wealthy hobbyists. From the beginning, his goal was to provide a reliable registration service for the average man interested in preserving original working qualities, as well as conformation, of particular breeds. Bennet had been a clerk, then traveling salesman for the Desenberg grocery firm. He later formed the Bennett Novelty Works, manufacturing peanut-roasting machines. Obviously, this was not the glamorous Gilded Age background of those in charge of the AKC. Initially, Bennett had little support and, certainly, no backers for his dog registry service. For two decades he pursued the UKC as a passionate hobby from his home in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A skilled mathematician, Bennett was the first to base a registry filing system on a numerical basis rather than by name of either the dog or its owner. Clearly a more logical method in anticipation of growth, the original system made UKC's eventual transition to computers relatively painless.
Although AKC had already been in existence fourteen years prior to UKC's birth, registration of dogs was still a novel idea. The prinicipal difference in initial concept between the two organizations was that AKC was first a show-giving organization, in which dogs must be either registered or listed in order to compete, whereas UKC's primary concept was providing reliable pedigrees and record keeping services to breeders, with performance events and shows as adjunct activities. Because many of the UKC's potential customers had no interest in showing their dogs as long as they could do the work for which they were bred, Bennett became a tireless promoter of the value of registered stock. As UKC gained acceptance and started to make slow but steady growth, the company made visible inroads into what AKC felt were registrations which should rightfully be theirs -- even though most of these registrations were breeds the AKC didn't recognize. Nevertheless, by the mid-1920s, UKC had significantly expanded its events and AKC threatened fanciers with expulsion or being barred from AKC services if they exhibited their dogs at UKC shows. Bennett responded by encouraging exhibitors to show at both AKC and UKC events, stating that boycotting shows was of no particular benefit to the dog world. However, when AKC officials started referring to UKC as an "outlaw organization," matters finally ended up in court. The result was legal recognition that AKC was not the only dog registry in the United States. For many years following, the AKC refused to recognize the legitimacy of UKC pedigrees for those dogs which their owners wished to cross-register. This, despite the fact that UKC had always honored AKC pedigrees for anyone wishing to utilize their services.
From the beginning, UKC provided registry services for many rare breeds, or breeds not AKC recognized... In 1905, their company magazine, "Bloodlines" was introduced and is still in publication along with two other periodicals, "Coonhound Bloodlines" and "Hunting Retriever". When Bennett died in 1937, UKC registered 30,000 dogs compared to 84,000 for AKC. UKC is now the second oldest and second largest canine registry in the United States. However, because the AKC version of the dog show has developed into a more competitive forum where, in many breeds, a professional handler is almost a necessity, UKC conformation shows, which do not permit baiting or grooming in the ring, have never really attracted the entries or attention of the AKC shows."
English Shepherds can be distinguished from related breeds such as Border Collies and Australian Shepherds by considering differences in the breeds' recent history, use, and appearance (type). All three derive from the shepherd's dogs of the British Isles. From this group, Border Collies as a breed started to diverge roughly 150 years ago, with the advent of sheep dog trials and the subsequent widespread selection for a type of herding dog characterized by "strong eye". The quality of "eye" is not unique to Border Collies, but it is stronger and more consistent in that breed than in English Shepherds or Australian Shepherds. Both Australian Shepherds and English Shepherds work in a what is often called a "loose-eyed" fashion, to contrast it to the strong eye of Border Collies. Click here to read about the types of "eye".
For an overview of the relationships between the various breeds, see Linda Rorem's diagram of the Collie family tree.
For more a more detailed explanation of breed differences, read on...
To skip to next question, click here.
History of Border Collies
-excerpts from The Border Collie Museum (great website!):
"Sheila Grew, in her small but significant work, Key Dogs from the Border Collie Family (1984 Payne Essex Ltd.), describes the Border Collie as a "type of herding dog developed by shepherds and sheep farmers during the last hundred years", that is, since the latter part of the 19th century. She goes on to say it is:
"...characterized by its ability to move large or small numbers of sheep in a silent controlled manner in complete co-operation with its master...[and] a most useful asset possessed by many of these border working collies was the power of the 'eye', the ability to control the sheep by staring at them in a fixed and steady manner. Dogs with the right amount of 'eye' can keep their sheep bunched together well when driving them and thus avoid a great deal of flanking, running from one side to the other. This in turn keeps the sheep calmer and so they are less fatigued.". . .
"It was generally known as the 'Working Collie' to distinguish it from the developing show (Lassie) type collie which started to flourish frim 1860 when the first dog show to include farm collies took place in Newcastle.". . .
"The Working Collie was bred for one purpose only in those days--for work..."
Left, Old Hemp, the progenitor of the Border Collie breed.
"The history of the Border Collie as a breed is inexorably married to the first sheepdog trial at Bala in 1873, to the birth of Adam Telfer's Old Hemp (considered the progenitor of the Border Collie breed) in 1894, to the formation of the International Sheepdog Society in 1906, and to the coining of the name "Border Collie", attributed to the first secretary of the ISDS, James A. Reid, in 1921. Prior to that, there were just collies or sheepdogs or shepherds' dogs, and shepherds picked the type or working style that were most useful to their needs."
~ Carole Presberg, Border Collie Museum
While useful and stylish, strong eye is not always an effective tool for managing livestock. In some circumstances, the strong-eyed collie types were found to lack "power" to move stubborn or aggressive animals; and, some dog owners prefer to work with dogs that have a steadier, sturdier temperament than some of the very keen and sensitive trial dogs. Finally, biting (gripping or heeling) livestock was selected against in trial-type Border Collies; biting in a trial may earn a disqualification. A great many farmers and ranchers needed a dog that was willing and able to use teeth when necessary -- as can be seen in the many advertisements for English Shepherds and Australian Shepherds highlighting this attribute ("heeldrivers").
Comparison of Australian Shepherds and English Shepherds
-- from a discussion on the ESC list:
"Taking the three-part approach to breed identification described by J. Bragg, here are a few comparisons:
(1) History/ Ancestry --
Both breeds have ancestral roots in the shepherd's dogs from the UK, imported to US and selected by American farmers/ranchers as all purpose stock dogs. Both breeds are "American" breeds despite being labeled English & Australian. ES have a longer history of registration -- going back to 1920s. Aussies were first registered in the mid/late 1960s, I believe.
Geographically, ES had a relatively stronger presence in the eastern half of the country (south & north) & midwest (and of course down into Texas); Aussies have had a stronger presence in the west (especially California & Nevada), though the range of the two breeds overlaps.
Aussies have a much larger population (now) and a larger, more active, independent breed club (ASCA), with an emphasis on performance & conformation events -- but also supporting registry and health research.
Aussies are recognized by AKC, ES are not. The pressures created by AKC recognition and the associated culture have been discussed extensively here and elsewhere; in short, English Shepherds are fortunate to have avoided the pitfalls of the AKC.
You might say that Aussies as a breed have a stronger "mainstream" presence in the dog world... for better and for worse. To the extent that popularity tends to push all breeds into similar roles, and obscure the differences that originally defined them -- all are bred to be "good pets" -- AKC Aussies have a challenge maintaining their core identity as working farm dogs. The development of distinct "working" and "pet" (or "show") lines in that breed is one consequence.
(2) Type --
ES have had a breed standard for longer than Aussies (ASCA did not approve a standard until 1977 -- the first ES standards were written many decades prior to this).
The ES standards disqualify merle, and red (liver) is not particularly common; Aussies have long been identified with the merle pattern ("blue dogs") and red is common -- but sable (acceptable in ES) is a disqualification. Right there -- in the color line -- you have a distinction that created an artificial division in the ancestral group of dogs... merle was a common pattern in the shepherds dogs of the UK, but for whatever reasons, the ES registries opted to exclude it when establishing their standards. As I read Aussie history, a desire to recognize and promote the "blue dogs" was a driving factor in organizing the breed... the dogs weren't ONLY blue (breeding merle-merle is not advisable) but the blue dogs were a hallmark of the breed. You have to wonder whether Aussies would ever have been established as a distinct breed if the original ES standards had allowed merle.
Aussies are docked or natural bobs; ES allow any tail length.
(3) Purpose --
Both breed standards describe all purpose working farm dogs. The ASCA standard describes the dogs as follows: "The Australian Shepherd is intelligent, primarily a working dog of strong herding and guardian instincts. He is an exceptional companion..." The ESCR standard reads: "English shepherds have been bred for generations as all-purpose, working farm dogs. Their responsibilities have ranged from herding and protecting stock, to dispatching vermin, guarding the home, and watching over children."
Both herd in upright, loose-eyed manner -- in contrast to the strong-eyed style characteristic of Border Collies (and now Kelpies).
Aussie history places relatively stronger emphasis on working large flocks/herds in the western US but Aussies also have a strong presence on small farms in other parts of the country. Aussies were also valued for their ability to work in close, in tight spaces, as are ES. The ASCA stockdog trials emphasize this latter ability with their arena format.
English Shepherds were promoted for many years as "America's premier cattle dog", natural low heelers that would gather or drive as required, able to adapt themselves to working a variety of different types of livestock.
In both cases (Aussies & ES), the distinguishing characteristic in their working style was not how they compare to one another (Aussie vs ES) but how they compare to the strong-eyed Border Collie type. Aussies were lauded for their ability to work in close, with heavy/stubborn stock, and their willingness to bite when needed -- as were English Shepherds."
~ posted by Mary Peaslee
Finally, having reviewed some of the distinctions between English Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, and Border Collies, I would like to add one final thought -- in the words of my friend Kay Spencer, let's not forget that they are all (just) collies!
English Shepherds are currently registerable with four key registries -- the United Kennel Club (UKC), the International English Shepherd Registry (IESR), the English Shepherd Club Registry (ESCR),and the Animal Research Foundation (ARF). The alphabet soup of registry acronyms can be a little daunting but it is a fact of life in this breed! The registries operate independently but their histories are intertwined; they do not represent four separate breed populations, but rather overlapping and interwoven threads in the history of English Shepherds.
The UKC started registering English Shepherds in the 1920s (see history above), and has registered a subset of the breed population continuously since that time. The UKC was not the first registry to recognize English Shepherds -- some breeders had registered their dogs with the now defunct "Southeastern Kennel Club", but later shifted over to the UKC. In 2003, there was some controversy within the breed community over the UKC's shift to include English Shepherds in the conformation ring. Some owners and breeders felt strongly that conformation showing was inherently detrimental to breed health and saw the shift in UKC policy and practices -- undertaken when UKC changed owners -- as a sign that the organization had lost sight of its original purpose. Very few English Shepherds have been shown in conformation, however, despite the shift in UKC policy, and the controversy has subsided in recent years. (Note: ad to the right was published the UKC magazine "Bloodlines", March 1952)
The second registry to become available was Tom Stodghill's ARF in 1950, which was used to develop a studbook supporting the first English Shepherd breed club ("English Shepherd Club of America" or ESCOA -- another acronym!). ARF included dogs that were registered with UKC as well as dogs that had not been registered previously. Tom Stoghill was a tireless promoter of the breed, with strong opinions. One of those opinions -- that black and tan English Shepherds were the most desirable members of the breed -- did not sit well with some other breeders. Eventually, disagreements over use of club funds combined with differences of opinion regarding color to create a split that resulted in the founding of a second breed club, The English Shepherd Club (ESC), in 1954. ESCOA eventually folded, but the registry Tom Stodghill founded continues to operate today.
One of the founders of the English Shepherd Club, Ed Emanuel, also launched a breed registry, the International English Shepherd Registry, headquartered in Butler, Indiana. Although Mr Emanuel was active in the English Shepherd Club, the registry operated independently of the club. Eventually the registry grew to include other breeds, and operates today as the National Stock Dog Registry. One of the more notable events in IESR history was the decision to allow "step in" registration for dogs that lacked a prior history of registration. The registrar would review photos and information on the dog, and if it was deemed consistent with the breed, the dog could be registered as a "step in" dog. After three generations, dogs from that original step in dog would be fully registered. The rationale provided for this policy was "to begin the pedigrees of future generations of useful working dogs." (National Stock Dog magazine, vol 46/ number 1). While this decision provoked some controversy, and accusations of registrations being issued to "mutts", it can also be viewed as a refreshing acknowledgement of the reality that breeds did not step off the ark with Noah! The fact that closed studbooks are now widely recognized to have contributed to the health problems in purebred dogs is validation that a "step in" policy, properly administered, can be a source of ongoing vitality.
One side note to the history of English Shepherd registrations is the issue of how dogs are named. Combing through English Shepherd pedigrees can be an exercise in confusion because it quickly becomes apparent that names are changeable things... turns out, it was the policy at IESR to register a dog using the convention of "owner's name" + "dog's call name" -- so, Joe Smith's dog Rover would be registered as "Smith's Rover". Since a great many English Shepherds carried the names "Duke" and "Shep", the potential for redundancy in registered names is obvious. Complicating things even more is the fact that registered names CHANGED if the dog changed owners. This means that when Joe Smith's Rover is sold to John Martin, Rover's registered name became "Martin's Rover". When scanning English Shepherd pedigrees, you will have the interesting experience of finding the same dog listed under different names -- for instance, in my own dog's pedigree, "Snyder's Carolina Jazz" and "Karr's Carolina Jazz" are both present (same dog) -- AND you may find the same name used for different dogs (there is an ongoing controversy over whether this accounts for the different pedigrees available for "Mann's Texas Ranger"). All in all, it makes pedigree research a little trip down the rabbit hole!
The most recently launched registry, the English Shepherd Club Registry, was founded in part to address a weakness in the operation of the other English Shepherd registries -- specifically, the lack of a publicly available studbook. The fragmentation of breed records -- divided among the three older registries -- and the lack of a published studbook created a situation in which it was impossible for breeders to identify potential breeding stock or research trends in the breed. Simple questions, like how many litters are being registered, or how many stud dogs are available, could not be answered. (Not to mention more complicated questions like, how many Mann's Texas Rangers are there?!). The English Shepherd Club database and registry was launched in 2004. (Note: the lovely sable dog pictured to the right is Brink's Molly Jo, the first dog registered by ESCR). There continues to be a problem with research and reporting on the breed population, unfortunately -- perhaps not surprisingly, the involvement of a breed club in registration did not do away with breed politics! -- so work remains to be done.
One final note: registration is sometimes viewed as a ticket to events or services (your dog may have to be registered to participate in shows or trials), or as a stamp of quality ("purebred, pedigreed" stock). In truth, those are not the PRIMARY value of registration. Registration provides a way for breeders with a common goal -- breeding dogs of a particular type and character -- to work together. Sharing information on pedigrees and heritable traits (like health, temperament, working style) allows breeders to act as stewards of the "genepool" we inherited from previous generations of breeders. PLEASE register your dog somewhere and share information on your dogs with others!! By doing so, you help fill in the picture of what is going on in the breed, today. And, you will help ensure that your dog's lineage does not get lost over time. Registration is NOT just for dogs that will be bred, or shown; it is for ALL members of the breed!
This is a difficult question to answer because there is very little data on the breed population. Most of what you read about English Shepherds is based on anecdote, individual experience, and -- sometimes -- wishful thinking. In that vein, my personal experience has been that it is not uncommon for dogs to live 14 years or more with relatively few vet expenses other than routine exams and immunizations.
That said, there are a few conditions -- common to many breeds -- which deserve attention. Hip dysplasia occurs in English Shepherds. Breeders can address this problem by screening their dogs with hip x-rays. Because hip dysplasia is genetically complex, it is not possible to eliminate all risk simply by breeding choices. It is important for breeders to make informed choices, however, and to take susceptibility to hip dysplasia into account when selecting breeding pairs. X-rays are necessary to do this; you often can not identify hip dysplasia simply by watching a dog move.
Non-breeders should also have their dog's hips x-rayed to help identify inheritance patterns in the breed and to guide management of their dog. Keeping your dog lean and fit throughout life can greatly reduce the signs and symptoms associated with hip dysplasia. Attention to the surfaces your dog lives and exercises on can help limit the development of arthritis as well; slick surfaces, such as slippery concrete or laminate floors, can stress joints and result in damage to joints.
English Shepherds are also known to carry a genetic mutation that results in sensitivity to some medications. The mutation is called "MDR-1 mutation". Dogs can be tested for this mutation (DNA test) and dogs with either one or two copies of the mutant gene should avoid taking certain medications. Check with your vet for more information.
Finally, there are certain genetic eye diseases that are common in herding breeds. The genetic mutations responsible for Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA) and Progressive Retinal Atrophy-rod cone degeneration (PRA-prcd) are known to occur in English Shepherds so breeders are wise to screen their breeding dogs.
These (MDR-1, CEA, and PRA-prcd) are undoubtedly not the only disease-causing genes to occur in English Shepherds but they are ones that have been identified and for which a test is available. In general, breeders can minimize the expression of genetic disease by cultivating a breed population that is sufficiently large and diverse to allow breeders to select for health and performance without resorting to close inbreeding. The level of inbreeding (referred to as the coefficient of inbreeding, "COI") in any particular litter can provide an index for assessing the relative risk of genetic disease.
The following questions are offered NOT as a means of interrogating breeders, but to highlight some issues to keep in mind as you search for a puppy. With many breeders, buying a pup means joining their extended family, so take the time to get to know breeders and to find someone you would enjoy adding as a friend! Also, there is not one "right" answer to most questions. Look for people who share your values and who put the well-being of their dogs and the breed first. Finally, be prepared to answer some questions yourself!
About their breeding program:
- What is your history with the breed?
- What are your goals as a breeder?
- How do you determine whether or not to breed a dog?
- How many litters do you produce each year?
- How do you follow up on your puppies (buyers)?
About their current litter:
- Tell me about the parents of the litter -- their age, health tests, temperament, accomplishments.
- What made you decide to breed these two dogs?
- What do you expect (or hope) to get from this breeding?
About their puppies:
- When are (were) puppies born, and when will they be ready for new homes?
- How are the puppies being raised?
- How do you determine placements?
- What sort of contract or terms do you apply to sales?
English shepherds are generally wonderful with children. However, as with all breeds, individual dogs have distinct personalities, and some will be more suited to a family with children than others. If you are thinking about a puppy and you have small children, look for a calm, outgoing, resilient puppy -- by which I mean a puppy with the ability to forgive, and bounce back, after stressful experiences. An experienced breeder should be able to direct you to those pups; take their advice . Do not choose a puppy based on looks! The infatuation you feel for that cute little pup will quickly fade if the puppy is not right for your family.
Also, do not expect a puppy to join your family with the manners and temperament of a mature adult English shepherd. A well-bred English shepherd will be a wonderful family companion if you are willing to invest the time and energy required to socialize and train him. Be very honest with yourself about this... adding a puppy isn't quite as much work as another child, but only because they grow up much faster!
I recommend Brian Kilcommons' short book, "Child-Proofing Your Dog", as a resource for new owners.