The Shetland Sheepdog or “Sheltie” hails from a harsh and remote homeland – the Shetland Islands of northernmost Scotland – but today ranks as an exceptionally popular and widespread pet. This attractive and friendly dog resembles a Rough Collie downsized a few pegs, and like its larger cousin the Sheltie is marvelously smart, loyal, and obedient.
The Shetland Sheepdog breed
It’s not at all clear exactly when the Shetland Sheepdog developed, but it’s likely not simply a Rough Collie bred down in size to adapt to the tough, often lean conditions of the Shetland archipelago: It’s thought interbreeding between Rough Collies and ancient Norse Spitz-type herding dogs helped give rise to this island breed, which shares its diminutive size with the indigenous Shetland pony and sheep.
These herding dogs were also sometimes known as “Toonie Dogs,” according to the American Kennel Club; in the Shetlands, toon means “farm.”
The remoteness of the Shetland Islands kept the Shetland Sheepdog off the international radar for a long time. In the early 1900s, they were being shown on the Scottish mainland and in England as “Shetland Collies,” but breeders of the Rough Collie resisted this: In 1908, according to Bred for Perfection: Shorthorn Cattle, Collies, and Arabian Horses Since 1800, the British Collie Club lamented “the foisting of this despicable cross-bred toy” on the public as having “some pretene or right ot be dubbed Collies.” Ultimately Shetland Sheepdog became the official moniker of this collie-type herder.
Shelties grew in popularity throughout the 20th century; the American Kennel Club currently ranks them as the 25th most popular breed in the country.
The mixed origins (and the distaste of those stuffy Collie purists notwithstanding), there’s no question the Shetland Sheepdog – which stands 13 to 16 inches tall at the shoulders and weighs 20 to 25 pounds – looks essentially like a slightly miniaturized Rough Collie. The long face, the partly erect ears, and the deep chest are shared with that long-popular breed, as is the lush and plush uniform.
That double coat of the Sheltie, with its weatherproof outer layer and denser underlining, is long-haired, especially on the mane. The coat comes in several recognized color variations, the best-known of which is likely the “sable” pattern: dominantly brown with black and white patches. Others include the mostly black “tri-color” form, the “bi-black” black-and-white form, the gray, black, white, and tan “blue merle,” and the gray, black, and white “bi-blue.”
Personality and temperament
The Sheltie is a whip-smart working dog whose breeding translates to strong, loving devotion to its owners and easy trainability. They make fine family dogs, happy to be a part of the gang both indoors and out. Shetland Sheepdogs are also great watchdogs, as they tend to be suspicious of strangers and aren’t shy about letting loose their sharp, sturdy bark.
Unsurprisingly, Shelties also perform fantastically in agility, obedience, and herding trials.
Keeping your Sheltie on a leash or within a fenced space is essential, as these dogs are fond of giving chase – including to those stubbornly hard-to-bring-down (and obviously highly dangerous) automobiles.
Shedding and grooming
One look at that magnificent coat, and it likely won’t come as a shock that the Sheltie is a significant shedder. During the seasonal peaks of its shedding, even more brushing than the weekly usual will be required to keep things under control.
Scrutinize the coat, especially behind the ears, on the front legs, and on the pantaloons, for the development of mats.
Health and lifespan
Shelties are quite healthy dogs on the whole, though they can be prone to genetic eye disorders such as progressive retinal atrophy and Collie eye anomaly. Hip dysplasia, Sheltie skin syndrome (dermatomyositis), and von Willebrand’s disease are other health issues good Shetland Sheepdog breeders guard against.
A healthy Shetland Sheepdog will often live 12 to 13 years.
Bred to herd sheep around the farm, Shelties are naturally athletic and energetic, but their considerable exercise needs can be easily met in a city environment. Give them lots of walks and play sessions, and they’ll be equally content to engage in some well-earned lounging-around-the-house with you.
Training and intelligence
The Shetland Sheepdog is famously intelligent, and this combined with a strong desire to please its owner translate to a superbly trainable breed. (The Sheltie’s aforementioned willingness to bark may demand some moderation, by the way.)