The Shetland Sheepdog

Bright, happy-go-lucky herding dogs are devoted companions


The temptation exists to label the lovely Shetland Sheepdog as a miniature Collie, but this diminutive Collie look-alike is a breed unto itself in spite of its striking resemblance to the larger herding dog.

Both breeds probably have a common ancestor, a herding dog bred in the British Highlands, perhaps similar to today's Border Collie. The dogs that remained on the Scottish mainland eventually developed into the majestic Rough Collie; those that were taken to the Shetland Islands were “down-sized” to meet the needs of the island people and their undersized livestock.

The Shetland Islands lie northwest of the British Isles, between Scotland and Norway, about 50 miles north of Scotland and south by a bit of the Arctic Circle. The harsh climate, rugged terrain, and limited space of the islands have given the world a number of small breeds of animals, including Shetland ponies and the rare Shetland sheep. Winters are long, vegetation sparse, and growing season short. Wool and lamb are important commodities, and the crofters (small farmers) needed a small, hardy dog to herd the flocks. The Sheltie fit the bill.

The Sheltie's home islands are mostly uninhabited most of the year but are used for pasturing ponies, sheep, and cattle. The crofters made occasional inspection visits, but the dogs were independent and intelligent enough to leave in charge of the herds and flocks.

The Shetland Sheepdog is double-coated for warmth and weather-proofing; the long, flowing outer coat repels the cold rain and blocks the wind, and the soft undercoat insulates the skin. His small size and tremendous agility are suited for working sheep in rocky territory and for easy-keeping—he doesn't eat much or take up much room in the house.

In the early 1800s, the Sheltie was brought from his home islands to the mainland and he began to gain some notoriety as a herding dog. In 1909 the breed was recognized by the English Kennel Club as the Shetland Collie and in 1914 became known as the Shetland Sheepdog, a completely separate breed. Early on, the breed was described as "approximately a show Collie in miniature," and some crossbreeding with Rough Collies was done to fix the Collie head, ears, and coat. Unfortunately, the bigger dogs also introduced longer legs and larger bodies to the Sheltie gene pool. Spaniels were also crossed into the breed with mixed results; they brought calm dispositions and a conglomeration of undesirable physical traits, including domed heads, spaniel ears, and curly coats.

The Sheltie came to the US a year or so after it was recognized by the English club. The American Kennel Club registered its first Sheltie in 1911.

Physical characteristics

There is obviously no denying that, at first glance, the Shetland Sheepdog looks like a miniature Collie. However, closer examination reveals some subtle but important differences. The Sheltie head is a long, blunt wedge, not as narrow as that of the Collie, with a definite stop (the step up from the muzzle to the top of the skull) which is less defined in the Collie. The Sheltie head has more room for the almond-shaped eyes. In addition, the Sheltie is not as refined for its size as the larger dog; just as a magnified Shetland pony would resemble a heavy draft horse rather than a riding or riding horse, so a proportionally enlarged Sheltie would be heftier than a modern Collie.

The Sheltie standard allows a height range from 13-16 inches at the withers (top of the shoulders), and dogs that are taller or shorter are disqualified from the conformation ring. However, they may show in obedience.

The lush and lovely coat is the trademark of this vivacious breed. Rich sable and glossy black colors and marbled merle patterns of diluted black or sable, each with white markings, are shared only with the Collie. The sable can be a clear pale or deep gold or have black frosting or shading. The black and merle coats can have tan markings. Although white Collies are accepted in the conformation ring, Shelties that are more than 50 percent white are so severely penalized that it is foolish to enter them in breed competition.

The typical white markings include a white collar and chest, white legs, and sometimes a white blaze on the face.

Only the merle-patterned dogs are permitted blue eyes; light eyes on black, sable, or tri-colored dogs are a disqualification.

The coat needs some brushing to maintain its luster and keep it free from tangles, particularly the rear skirting and tail, the front legs, and the ruff around the head and ears. Like all double-coated breeds, the Sheltie sheds profusely each year.

Temperament, health, and behavior

The Sheltie is a herding breed, and like the other dogs in its group, needs a job to do. If there are no critters to herd, he'll round up the children. If he isn't given a job to do, he can become yappy and nervous in an attempt to dissipate his pent-up energy and drive.

Herding dogs have a great affinity for people as well as work, a connection confirmed by the great success of Shelties and Border Collies in the obedience ring. Shelties are almost always among the highest scorers in obedience trials.

Well-bred Shelties are bright, responsive, and devoted to the family. They are suspicious of strangers and so are good watchdogs. They love to play ball and Frisbee, so are wonderful children's companions. Their desire to please makes them easier than many other breeds to train, so they are a delight to take on walks in the park and they tend to travel well.

However, because the breed is in the top 20 in popularity, the Sheltie can be poorly bred in commercial kennels for pet store sales or by backyard breeders with little knowledge of breed temperament or health problems. A poorly bred Sheltie can be timid to the point of fearfulness, yappy, high-strung, and nippy. Well-bred Shelties are hardy and can withstand the attentions of well-behaved, active children; poorly bred specimens may be temperamentally unsuited for families with children.

Shelties are susceptible to progressive retinal atrophy and Collie eye anomaly, two eye diseases that cause blindness. Buyers should search for breeders who test for these diseases. The breed is also susceptible to heart disease, epilepsy, and von Willibrand's Disease, a bleeding disorder. Merle puppies with double merle inheritance may be deaf. Structural problems can include elbow and hock joint subluxation (looseness) and hip dysplasia is possible.

The Shetland Sheepdog is a good dog for novice dog owners. The breed is generally healthy and hardy, generally even-tempered, and unusually bright and willing to please. The breed adapts well to apartment and condominium living as long as it receives sufficient mental and physical exercise. A Sheltie is a wonderful dog for a child's 4-H project or introduction to junior showmanship. Shelties also enjoy agility work and can be trained for herding competitions.

[More on finding a dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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