The Shetland Sheepdog dates back to the Viking invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries. The fierce invaders who colonized the Shetland Islands brought with them small herding spitzes to tend their livestock. These dogs were ideally suited to the harsh climate of the islands, being quite hardy.
In the 1470s, however, the Shetland Islands became part of Scotland. The Scottish introduced their own farm collies, dogs of Border Collie type. When crossed with the spitzes, an excellent little sheepdog arose. The new breed was an all-purpose dog for the small-scale farmers of the islands. They herded both miniature cattle and sheep, gathering them when needed on the uninhabited islands or driving them out of the gardens and fields of the inhabited islands.
The union between Scotland and England in 1707 brought a new era to the Shetland Islands, albeit one of great hardship to the common people. Fish trade became very important to feed Industrial Revolution towns, so a class of wealthy fish merchants arose on the islands and reduced the farmers to serfs. However, the regular influx of fishing boats also introduced new dogs, ranging from King Charles Spaniels to more herding spitzes of the Scandinavian countries. Mixing and remixing regularly took place, leading to a rather nondescript population of farm dogs. However, any gentle dogs with herding instinct were valued.
The Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s brought the need for a strong British naval force, so the fleet regularly appeared near the islands to practice maneuvers. Navy members who stopped on the islands often bought any puppies that had struck their fancy to take home for souvenirs. The Shetland islanders quickly realized that a comfortable income could be realized by selectively breeding dogs to be little, furry, and cute.
This led to a lengthy debate over what the perfect dog of the Shetland Islands should look like. Some breeders simply did not care about appearance just so long as their puppies sold well. Others felt that crossing to the old farm collie to get closer to the original specimen was necessary. As time went on, breeder James Loggie came to the forefront, helping to establish the Shetland Collie Club in 1908 and in the process establishing the ideal Sheltie as the one most resembling a miniature show Collie. Thus, the breed departed from its original Border Collie background.
Like many dog breeds, the Shetland Sheepdog (the word Collie soon being dropped to avoid pressure from offended Collie fanciers) faced extinction during the tumultuous times of World War I. Further crossbreeding with Collies was carried out to preserve the breed. These upgraded Shetland Sheepdogs were the ones that populated our shores between World War I and World War II.
The Sheltie was a tremendous success in America, quickly capturing the hearts of those who loved Collies but preferred a smaller dog. It became particularly popular in the 1970s and is still a global favorite. Today, the Sheltie ranks 24th in AKC registration statistics.
Many Shetland Sheepdogs today are simply well-loved pets. However, their trainability makes them the Border Collies of the small-dog world. They dominate many dog sports ranging from obedience to tracking to agility, and also win frequent accolades in the conformation ring. But their sharp minds can be put to use in less competitive ways, including therapy work and watchdog duty. Shelties are excellent when it comes to trick performances as long as they are not expected to do fancy retrieving. Most Shelties dislike carrying objects for any great distance.
Although few Shetland Sheepdogs still herd, many retain the necessary instinct. Their gentle disposition makes them a good choice for working sheep.
The Shetland Sheepdog is known for a sweet, sunny personality that endears him to all. He is an inquisitive little fellow that prefers to stay busy, so keep his mind occupied. Providing him with a job will help channel his energies productively. If he is unsure about what is required of him, he can become rather tense.
Use a soft voice and a light touch when training the Sheltie. Anything harsher will damage his sensitive nature. If he has fallen into bad habits through misunderstanding, a verbal reprimand is the only correction needed; follow it up with a positive demonstration of the correct course of action to keep him from becoming anxious. The Sheltie loves to please and is happier knowing what to do rather than what not to do. But even the obedient Sheltie is not immune to spoiling—he will cheerfully ignore anyone who has demonstrated that they do not necessarily mean what they say.
The Sheltie is extremely family-oriented and must be allowed to live indoors with his people. While he will regard only one person in the household as the master, he enjoys following all of the family members around. Forcing him to spend long periods of time alone is a recipe for a noisy and psychologically disturbed dog.
As long as his companionship needs are met and a reasonable amount of routine is maintained throughout the day, the Shetland Sheepdog is flexible enough to fit the needs of most households. He loves cats, adapts to the presence of other dogs (especially other Shelties), and makes an excellent playmate for children who are old enough to treat him gently. He even takes travel in stride. However, the Sheltie is rather reserved, perhaps even timid, around strangers. He may tolerate their presence, but a stranger who attempts to pet him may meet up with a protest in the form of the “Sheltie spin,” where the dog whirls in a complete circle, barking the whole time.
Beware, however, of puppy-mill Shelties. These dogs are not trustworthy around children, as they are extremely reactive and prone to fear-biting. They also to tend to be the most compulsive barkers.
Unchanneled herding instinct can create some interesting situations for Sheltie owners. Puppies may nip at heels until trained otherwise. Even adult Shelties, however, have a strong instinct to chase fast-moving objects ranging from squirrels to cars. For this reason, a fenced yard is recommended to prevent accidents, even though Shelties do not have any inclination to roam. Safely confined, the dog will probably vent his feelings in a noisy Sheltie spin.
Even when actually herding, the Shetland Sheepdog tends to rely heavily on voice and the Sheltie spin to move animals. He works close to the livestock for maximum effect.
Unfortunately, the Shetland Sheepdog is prone to several severe health problems:
- Collie eye anomaly, a genetic defect that prevents the eye from developing properly.
- Progressive retinal atrophy.
- Hip dysplasia.
- Legg-Perthes, a disease of puppies in which the blood supply to the femur is cut off, causing joint death.
- Skin allergies.
- Thyroid disease.
- Dermatomyositis (Sheltie skin syndrome), which causes hair loss and skin lesions that come and go with stress.
- Multi-drug resistance, which can cause life-threatening reactions to some tranquilizers and heartworm medication.
Note that shaving a Sheltie in the summer is not a good idea, no matter how hot it is outside. The Sheltie’s coat forms a protective layer that guards him from sunburn and allergies.
Keep your Sheltie slim. He loves to eat and will put on weight very quickly if you let him.
Also, do not breed two merle dogs together, as the resulting puppies may be born white, blind, and deaf.
- Suitability for first-time dog owners.
- Suitability for families with children and other pets.
- Small size.
- No slobber.
- Cold tolerance.
- Low food requirements.
- Irresponsible breeders.
- Vocal tendencies.
- Need for almost constant human companionship.
- Need for a job.
- Grooming requirements.
- Profuse shedding (“blowing coat”) yearly for males and spayed females and twice a year for unspayed females, plus additional moderate shedding year-round.
- Serious health problems.