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Breed Spotlight

The Sheltand
Photo © Paulette Braun

The diminutive Shetland Sheepdog is game for anything, from rounding up sheep to racking up obedience points, as long as it involves working with its human flock.

The Shetland Sheepdog

The Treasure of the Shetland Islands

By Kim D.R. Dearth

The Sheltie's beginnings
A beauty in the eye of many beholders
The Sheltie charm
Is this the breed for you?
The active Sheltie
Health issues

"What a cute miniature Collie!" "Look at the little Lassie!" "Is that a toy Collie?"

Every owner of a Shetland Sheepdog has heard and responded to countless comments such as these. Although the Sheltie bears a striking resemblance to its herding cousin, and indeed shares Collie blood, it has been bred true for generations. This loyal, enthusiastic, charming dog exhibits many unique qualities, making it truly a breed unto itself.

The Sheltie's beginnings

The Shetland Islands, the Sheltie's original home, are located off the northern tip of Scotland and are characterized by rocky coastlines and a harsh climate. It is believed the Sheltie's ancestors originally were imported by fishing fleets from Norway, Sweden and other northern European countries. These Collie-type dogs were put to work by the islanders, most of whom lived on crofts (townships or small farms). The islanders mainly raised sheep; however, some of the islands' inlets were discovered to be fertile enough to sustain small farms. Stone walls were erected around these farms to keep the livestock out on the surrounding hills. However, when harsh weather beat down on the hills, foraging livestock would exploit any gaps in the walls and wander onto the farmland. It was the Sheltie's job to drive the sheep and cattle back to the hills.

These early Shelties showed the influences of not only Welsh and Scotch working Collies, but also the Greenland Yakki dog, Border Collie and King Charles Spaniel. The islanders didn't care much about what their dogs looked like; they just wanted a tough, eager and intelligent breed with a coat that could withstand the climate.

These early Shelties were not strictly working dogs, however. They quickly insinuated themselves into the family, earning the nickname "Peerie" dogs (meaning fairy or small). The breed's close contact with people coupled with its strong herding instincts appear to be the basis for the sensitivity and responsiveness seen in today's Sheltie.

With the eventual arrival of large sheep operations from the mainland and larger sheepdogs to work them, the Sheltie's duties shifted to mainly being a companion. It is believed that small breeds such as the Pomeranian were introduced at this time, adding one more blend to the pot.

In an attempt to save some semblance of the original breed, the Shetland Collie Club was founded in 1908 in Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands. In 1909 a breed club was formed in Scotland, and the English Shetland Collie Club was formed in 1914. Because of the Sheltie's diverse bloodlines, matings with Collies were introduced around 1912 to unify type.

Although Collie crosses continued to occur, Collie breeders were so disturbed by the name "Shetland Collie" that the clubs decided to rename the breed the Shetland Sheepdog. Around 1910, the first Shelties were brought to the United States. In 1929 the American Shetland Sheepdog Association was formed. In 1935 the American Kennel Club registered 120 Shetland Sheepdogs. According to the AKC's most recent figures, the club registered 33,721 Shelties in 1995, making it the 13th most popular breed.

A beauty in the eye of many beholders

What first attracts many Sheltie fans is its beauty. The general description of the breed found in the AKC standard rather blandly describes it as "a small, alert, rough-coated, longhaired working dog."

Although developed for utilitarian reasons, the breed's luxurious coat is one of its hallmarks. The double-coat consists of an outer layer of long, straight, harsh hair covering a short, dense, furry undercoat that gives a stand-off appearance and lends to the Sheltie's regal look.

While color was not important to the breed's originators, certain colors eventually were developed for the show ring. The standard allows for five color variations to be shown: sable (ranging from golden through red to mahogany with an overlay of black, all showing varying amounts of white), tricolor (predominately black with tan and white markings), blue merle (a background of silverly blue with black merled throughout and white and tan markings), and the less-commonly seen bi-black (tricolor without the tan markings) and bi-blue (blue merle minus the tan).

Predominately white Collies can be shown in the ring, but any Sheltie that is more than 50 percent white is severely penalized by the standard. Full white collars and white blazes, while preferred by some, actually are not important in the show ring.

Size, however, is another story. The standard calls for a dog standing between 13 and 16 inches at the shoulder. Any dog that falls under or over this range is disqualified from showing but still can compete in obedience and other performance events.

The head of the Sheltie truly captures the essence of the breed. A correct head sets the Sheltie apart from the longer-faced Collie and exhibits the sweet expression that is the Sheltie.

The standard states the head should be refined and appear as a long, blunt wedge tapering slightly from the ears to the nose. The eyes must be dark with the exception of blue merles and bi-blues, which may have one or both partially or completely blue eye.

The ears should be small and placed high, carried three-quarters erect with the tips breaking forward. While many Shelties have naturally tipped ears, a great number need coaxing into the correct carriage. There are various methods of doing this, including gluing and bracing. Many pet owners get discouraged by the involved process of training the ears and leave them in a pricked position.

The Sheltie charm

While most people are first attracted by its beauty, the Sheltie personality is what gets them hooked. This breed lives to please its owner and thus is highly responsive, which allows it to excel at many different activities, from obedience to agility to herding. It is extremely loyal and protective of its family because, in the Sheltie's mind, the family is its flock!

Occasionally, the Sheltie will choose one family member as its special person and remain aloof with the others. This is because Shetland Sheepdogs need to be involved. If a family member repeatedly appears to be too busy to play, they will learn to seek out more responsive companions. The Sheltie is happiest when the whole family is together in one room, enjoying each other's company. A family spread throughout the house can lead to a very restless, pacing Sheltie!

Is this the breed for you?

The Sheltie may display reticence around people it doesn't know. Slight reserve around strangers is actually a correct trait for this breed. However, the breed should not show fear, timidity or aggressiveness. Most Shelties do not like strangers reaching for them, but if they initiate contact when they feel comfortable they will be friendly. If you want a happy-go-lucky dog that is friendly to everyone, this may not be the breed for you.

Another potential drawback of the Sheltie temperament is its penchant for barking. Although not all Shelties are equally vocal, this trait again stems from its need to protect its flock and sound a warning at the hint of danger. Without proper training, this can translate into a pet that barks at leaves blowing down the street. If you would like a consistently quiet companion you may want to research other breeds. But remember, the Sheltie's bark, if properly directed, makes it a wonderful watchdog.

Shelties and children are a natural combination. Many Shelties are in their glory when playing with their two-legged charges or quietly supervising to be sure no harm comes to them. However, as with all breeds, it is best if Shelties are introduced to children while they are puppies, and they should never be left unsupervised with infants or toddlers.

George Page, corresponding secretary of the ASSA, believes Sheltie puppies should not be placed in homes with children that are in the 4- to 5-year-old age range. "Children this age often become jealous, seeing the dog as an interloper. They may wait until their parents are out of the room to mistreat the dog," says Page. Even if a child does not mean to be vicious, he or she may pull an ear or tail not realizing it causes pain.

Shelties do well in a wide variety of family situations. They adapt to most environments and enjoy being with owners of all ages. Although they were bred as herding dogs, their varied bloodlines have diluted some of their working drive, which is actually an advantage for anyone seeking a pet. However, they are very active and are not suited to sedentary lifestyles. Shelties can be happy living anywhere from an apartment to a farm, but they need a daily outlet for their high energy. If they do not have access to a fenced yard (which is the ideal situation), they must be taken on walks daily.

Play also is important. This is a breed that tends to get bored with repetitive tasks. Be creative in your play. Hunting dogs live to retrieve things; herding breeds do not. Don't just play fetch; throw two balls or more to keep it interesting. Even better than fetch is any game that involves chase.

Grooming is another consideration when obtaining this breed. Contrary to appearances, the Shetland Sheepdog is relatively easy to care for. With a thorough brushing once a week, occasional baths and regular nail and dental care, this breed can be kept lo king its best by any novice. If the coat is ignored, however, it will show definite signs of neglect.

The active Sheltie

A working Sheltie is a happy Sheltie. Since all this dog wants is to please you, it can find happiness doing a wide variety of activities. Shetland Sheepdogs are consistently found in the top ranks of organized dog sports such as obedience and agility. They also excel at herding, tracking and flyball.

Outside of dog sports, Shetland Sheepdogs have proved themselves competent therapy dogs in hospitals and senior centers and are excellent assistance dogs for the hearing- or physically-impaired.

Health issues

Although the Shetland Sheepdog is generally a hardy, long-lived breed (it is not unusual for them to live to their upper teens) some genetic abnormalities have been diagnosed in the breed.

Several of these diseases affect eyesight. The first of these is Collie eye anomaly. This disease is widespread in the Collie and was prevalent in the Sheltie when it first was diagnosed in the breed. However, due to the diligence of breeders over the last 15 to 20 years, the incidence has been greatly decreased. CEA is present at birth; therefore, carriers can be easily weeded out of a breeding program. Most dogs with CEA are only mildly affected, but severe cases, although rare, can lead to blindness.

Sheltie eye syndrome is a similar condition, which also can be detected at a young age, that ranges from mild sight loss to blindness. Again, dogs carrying this defect should not be bred.

A more serious eye disease, but one that is rare in Shelties, is progressive retinal atrophy. This disease, not present at birth, is gradual and leads to blindness. Although not prevalent, central progressive retinal atrophy is more common than PRA in Shelties and may or may not lead to blindness. Because both of these diseases tend to show up later in life, it is essential that all breeding stock be tested.

Hip dysplasia is a hereditary disease that thankfully is rare in the Shetland Sheepdog due to the breed's fairly light and balanced structure. However, it is very difficult to breed out of a line of dogs due to its polygenic nature (more than one gene controls the disorder's inheritance). Ideally, a dog should not be mated unless its ancestors (and all the littermates of those ancestors) were dysplasia-free, and determining this is a difficult undertaking. Dysplasia can range from a mild degree that manifests itself as just a hitch in gait to severe dysplasia in which the dog has difficulty standing and is in severe pain.

Von Willebrand's disease is a potentially fatal bleeding disorder that has been seen in the Sheltie. The disease affects the blood's ability to clot, leading to severe bleeding after surgery or neutering or even after toenails are cut.

According to Page, the above diseases have been virtually eliminated from most reputable Sheltie lines, but thyroid problems have become more prevalent. Hypothyroidism can produce symptoms such as listlessness, loss of hair in matching patterns on each side of the body, easy weight gain with obesity or dramatic weight loss.

"There is also a skin syndrome problem in some lines that has not been identified that results in partial loss of hair," says Page. "The ASSA is spending much on research to determine if this is genetic or environmental." Until the cause is determined, dogs with this condition should not be bred.

To ensure you are obtaining a healthy pup, contact your local breed club to get the names of re utable breeders in your area. Ask to see all health certificates of the puppies and the parents of a potential litter and the litter's pedigree.


American Shetland Sheepdog Association
George Page, corresponding secretary, 1100 Cataway Place, Bryans Road, Md. 20616.


Baker, Maurice. "Book of the Breed, Shetland Sheepdogs Today." Hertfordshire, England: Ringpress Books Ltd. 1988.

Davis, Mary. "Pet Owner's Guide to the Shetland Sheepdog." New York, N.Y.: Howell Book House. 1993.

McKinney, Betty Jo; Rieseberg, Barbara. "Sheltie Talk." Loveland, Colo.: Alpine Publications. 1985.

Merrithew, Cathy. "The Shetland Sheepdog, An Owner's Guide to a Happy, Healthy Pet." New York, N.Y.: Howell Book House. 1995.

Nicholas, Anna Katherine. "The Book of the Shetland Sheepdog." Neptune City, N.J.: TFH Publications. 1984.

Riddle, Maxwell. "The New Complete Shetland Sheepdog." New York, N.Y.: Howell Book House. 1992.

Ross, Barb. "The Illustrated Guide to Sheltie Grooming." Loveland, Colo.: Alpine Publications. 1993.

Sucher, Jamie. "Shetland Sheepdogs, A Complete Pet Owner's Manual." Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barron's Educational Series. 1990.


"Shetland Sheepdog" breed video VVT825. American Kennel Club, attn.: Video Fulfillment, 5580 Centerview Drive, No. 200, Raleigh, N.C. 27606; (919) 233-9780.


Sheltie Pacesetter. 117 Park Ave., Millbury, Mass. 01527.

Sheltie International. P.O. Box 6369, Los Osos, Calif. 93412.

About the author

Kim D.R. Dearth ...

Kim Dearth, former managing editor of DOG WORLD, has been taught obedience and the fine art of being chased by a herding dog by her own Shetland Sheepdog. She and Rio relocated to Toronto with her husband and two cats.

Copyright© 1997 DOG WORLD Magazine, PJS Publications, Inc., a K-III Communications Company.
Photo © Kent & Donna Dannen.

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