The Shetland Sheepdog (nicknamed “Sheltie”) draws its name and part of its history from the Shetland Islands (an archipelago off the Northeast coast of Scotland), where they were used as herding dogs for sheep. The Shetland Islands are located in subarctic conditions; as such they have long, mild winters and brief summers with the landscape varying from valleys of lush grass to craggy fault line canyons – all factors that added in to the evolution of the Sheltie. The chief manner of survival on the island chain was nomadic sheep herding, tasks for which the Sheltie was bred. Officially recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1911 with a Sheltie named “Lord Scott”, the breed’s history is a dramatic example of the honing of a breed.
The first of what would become Shetland Sheepdogs were Spitz-type dogs, most similar to the modern day Icelandic sheepdog. It is likely that the original stock comprised Scandinavian herding dogs like the Norwegian Buhund or the Icelandic dog. Although these early Nordic herding dogs are scarcely mentioned in the breeds history, it is reasonable to assume that the original Norse settlers who brought sheep, cows and horses; more than likely brought their dogs as well. Additionally archaeological evidence such as that found at Jarlshof (near the southern tip of the Shetland Mainland) of a single dog skeleton dating to the time that the Norse controlled the area between the ninth to the 14th centuries provides evidence of dogs prior to the transfer of the Shetland Islands to Scotland. From this we can assume that as more and more domestic animals such as sheep or cows were imported to the Island from Scotland, dogs such as the early ancestors of the modern Rough Collie and Border Collie accompanied them.
Unlike the majority of miniature breeds, however, the Shetland was not developed simply by selectively breeding the Rough Collie to smaller and smaller sizes. Instead the original Spitz-type dog was bred with these early working Collies brought to the Shetland Islands to herd sheep. The product of that breeding was then brought to England, where the breed was further crossed with the King Charles Spaniel, the Pomeranian and the now extinct Greenland Yakki; all smaller breeds of dog).
In their early days in both England and Scotland the Sheltie worked both as helpers on the farm and as protectors of the home. Shetlands also retained their original role as sheep herders, assisting the small-scale sheep herding tenant farmers called “crofters”. The keen instincts and distinctive bark of the Shetland made them ideal for the purpose, and their durability in treacherous environments and hostile weather made them a wise investment.
When the first formal efforts were made in Britain to codify the breed (by a club located in Lerwick, the capital and main port of the Shetland Islands) in 1908, James Loggie, the founder of the club, dubbed the breed “Shetland Collies”. A Scottish club was formed in 1909 with some 48 dogs, and an English club in 1914. Controversy arose, however, over the name of the breed, with breeders of Collies claiming the new breed was not a Collie at all. As now cogent argument could be made that the breed was actually a Collie (having only a small genetic crossover with Rough Collies and early working Collies) the name of the breed was changed to more generic “Sheepdog”.
The beginning of World War One in 1914 halted the breeds’ evolution in the British show world for five years. In the United States, however, the breed continued to flourish. Owing to its pleasing disposition and appearance the breed became popular both as pets and show dogs. The breeds’ line remained strong in the United States, and as World War Two in Europe decimated the indigenous population, it was once again American owners who kept the Shetland breed alive. In the interim, the American Shetland Sheepdog Association (ASSA), parent club of the breed, was organized at the Westminster Kennel Club in 1929, and held its first specialty show in 1933.
The Sheltie’s popularity as a companion dog grew throughout the 50’s and 60’s in both Europe and America, though as a competition dog interest waned. Sheltie’s became a commonplace pet, though in certain areas of Britain they maintained their centuries old use as a shepherding dog. In the United States Shelties are primarily a well loved and popular housepet. According to the AKC's 2010 list of most popular dog breeds the Shetland Sheepdog sits in 19th place out of a recognized 167 breeds .
Today, the Sheltie appears in the Herding Group in the USA and the Pastoral Group in their native Britain. Shetland Sheepdogs are still bred on the island from whence they draw their name. Indeed, the oldest Sheltie kennel in existence can still be found on the islands – “Hjatland Kennels”, run by a granddaughter of one of the breed's founders.
As stated, the general appearance of a Shetland Sheepdog is that of a miniature Rough Collie (even though they are not). The Sheltie has a long and wedge-shaped head and it’s muzzle is narrow and well-rounded. It boasts a black nose, teeth that should, ideally, meet in a scissors bite, eyes that are dark and almond-shaped, and small ears set high on the head and carried mostly erect.
The Sheltie's long tail should reach the joint in the hind legs between the knee and the fetlock. A Sheltie’s body should be muscular but lean, like a runner. The coat, with its lion-like mane and frill comes in blue merle, sable, and black with varying amounts of white and tan markings.
According to the standards set by the American Kennel Club, the Sheltie should be between 13 and 16 inches tall from the paws to the back, with an average weight of between 14 to 27 pounds. The gait should appear smooth and effortless, without any signs of stiffness or reticence. Sheltie’s feet are oval in shape with compact, well-arched, tight fitting toes, deep, tough pads and hard, strong nails.
The reputation of the Shetland Sheepdog as an excellent pet is well deserved: the breed is highly intelligent, playful, eager to please, relatively easy to train and exceedingly affection with their owners. Shelties are renowned as an intensely loyal breed, and as such can be weary of strangers. A well socialized Sheltie will lose this tendency, but the strongest bond remains between owner and dog.
Their history as Sheepdogs runs strong in the behavioral patterns of the Sheltie: they are active dogs, fans of watching and herding things (ranging from squirrels to cars – to the latter the owner is wise to be careful). Neglecting a Sheltie's need for exercise and intellectual stimulation can result in undesirable behaviors, including excessive barking, phobias, and nervousness. Fortunately, the reverse is also true; annoying behaviors can be lessened greatly by an hour of exercise that engages the dog with its owner.
Owing to the agility and strong instincts of the Sheltie, there are near limitless ways to exercise the dog that can be enjoyable for both owner and pet. From the classic Frisbee, to elaborate games of hide and seek, to “Flyball” (where dogs of similar size compete in teams racing against each other, jumping hurdles and releasing a ball that they will carry to their owners) the ways to keep a Sheltie entertained are only limited by the owners imagination.
According to Dr. Stanley Coren, an expert on animal intelligence and director of the Director of the Human Neuropsychology and Perception Laboratory at the University of British Columbia, the Shetland sheepdog is one of the most intelligent dogs, ranking 6th out of 132 breeds tested by Dr. Coren. Coren’s research, as published in the esteemed tome “The Intelligence of Dogs”, found that an average Sheltie could understand a new command in less than 5 repetitions and would obey a command the first time it was given 95% of the time or better.
Though the Shetland Sheepdog is likely too small to inflict any severe damage, as with all breeds of dog it is up to the parents to ensure that play between larger dogs and smaller children or other dogs is closely supervised to prevent the dog from acting out if it is placed in a situation where the dog feels it is being hurt and/or needs to defend itself.
Shelties have a double coat, which means that they have two layers of fur that make up their coat. The long, rough guard hairs lie on top of the thick, soft undercoat. The guard hairs are water-repellent, while the undercoat provides relief from both high and low temperatures. As such, excessive water based grooming can strip the water-repellent guard hairs of their natural oils, and as such should be avoided.
Mats can be commonly found behind the ears, under the elbow on each front leg, and in the fluffy fur on the hind legs (the "skirts"), as well as around the collar (if worn). Shelties are amiable to grooming, and repeated, soft strokes with a standard brush will work the mats out with ease. It should be noted that female Shelties will shed their entire coat either immediately before or immediately after giving birth.
Experts recommend thoroughly grooming Shelties about once a week, with a quick daily brushing to catch any nuisance mats and tangles in the problem areas. New owners may be advised to invest in an undercoat rake, a pin brush, a slicker brush, thinning shears and nail clippers to ensure complete grooming.
As one would expect from an athletic breed, the Shetland Sheepdog is a sturdy animal, not prone to many maladies. A well-attended Sheltie can expect to live from ten to fifteen years. Sheltie’s can be genetically predisposed toward inherited malformation and disease of the eyes, as well as the aptly named “Collie eye anomaly”. As such before buying a Sheltie caution should be taken in the individual dog’s line.
Shelties are also particularly prone to Transitional Cell Carcinoma (or TCC). TCC is a cancer of the bladder and can be fatal, as well as painful for both dog and owner. While the breed itself seems more likely than other breeds to acquire TCC, pesticide exposure is also believed to be a potential factor. Fortunately, early diagnosis can be easily performed by regular urinalysis from a normal veterinarian.
Although small breed dogs are not usually plagued by hip dysplasia, some Shelties do develop the condition. According to research conducted at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, the Shetland Sheepdog have a risk of being born with a MDR1 Gene Mutation. Data suggest the commonality among Shelties to be around 15%. A genetic condition, Shelties with MDR1 may exhibit sensitivity or adverse reactions to many drugs including Acepromazine, Butorphanol, Doxorubicin, Erythromycin, Ivermectin, Loperamide, Milbemycin, Moxidectin, Rifampin, Selamectin, Vinblastine and Vincristine.
As Shelties are an active and loving breed, changes in behavior are often very apparent, and though not necessarily cause for immediate alarm should be taken as a sign to have the animal examined for potential health issues.
Shetland Sheepdogs may also develop the following: