As a child with a passion for dogs, constantly bringing home the strays that crossed her path, Sylvia Calderwood read every book written by Albert Payson Terhune, the beloved author who was also a renowned Collie breeder. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that her heart was eventually captured by the Shetland Sheepdog, which resembles a Collie in miniature. (Though, for the record, that’s too facile a description: Raised by crofters, or small tenant farmers, the original dogs were more spitz-like, thanks to stock brought by early Scandinavian settlers to Scotland’s remote Shetland Islands.)
For more than a half-century, Calderwood has bred her Kensil Shelties along with her husband, David, who is an AKC Herding Group judge. The Calderwoods, who live in Eugene, Oregon, have bred or owned more than 150 champions, two dozen-plus grand champions, and seven Register of Merit sires and dams.
Here, Platinum Breeder of Merit Sylvia Calderwood talks about how she discovered the Shetland Sheepdog, why the last part of its name is a misnomer, and the constant push-me-pull-you of size in the breed.
Checking (almost) every box: “When my three daughters were small, I searched through AKC’s dog book to find a breed that was perfect for my situation. At the time, I think there were 115 recognized breeds, and I studied them all. I wanted a fairly popular breed that was good with children and low maintenance, that didn’t need to be cropped or docked, and that had short hair. Eventually, I gave on the hair.”
Fur sure: “If you can keep your dogs out of mud and grass and debris, there really isn’t a lot of grooming. All of our dogs are on wood products – shavings or sawdust or wood pellets – and they stay very clean. Shelties can develop small mats behind their ears, so I tell my clients to keep a brush by the table near the TV, and they can just run it through the back of their ears every day.”
Biggest misconception: “That Shelties herd sheep. They can handle ducks just fine, but sheep are intimidating to most Shelties. There are quite a few Shelties with AKC herding titles, but very few sheep ranchers actually use Shelties.”
Judges, take note: “When you examine a Sheltie, going over the head first often makes the dog pull back. If you go over the head and then reach back to examine the shoulders, the dog will rack back and you aren’t going to feel what the shoulder is really like. I much prefer when the judge goes over the front assembly, then comes forward to examine the head.”
Then and now: “Temperament has improved dramatically. The first champion I ever saw was hiding behind the couch in his own home, and that was not atypical of a Sheltie at the time. We soon found out that those dogs that stood up and showed did a lot better in the show ring than those that cowered. But that soft temperament lurks in the pedigrees, so breeders have to be careful. As far as the show ring, it feels like there is more emphasis on the head detail now than when I started.”
Building bridges: “My clients noticed my Breeder of Merit status and were impressed. The program requires that you register all your pups, and the EZ application makes that easy and efficient. AKC keeps in contact with the pet owners, who have told me that has been helpful. This is especially good for folks who don’t think it’s important to register their dogs. In this day and age of ‘adopt, don’t shop,” we need to keep dog owners connected to the purebred world. The Breeder of Merit program does that.”
Breeding philosophy: “Look at what you need in your kennel, find the male that is producing that quality, then breed your bitches to him.”
Roadmap for new breeders: “First and foremost, always protect your reputation. It’s your most valuable asset. Most Sheltie pups go into pet homes. Make sure it’s the right home and nourish the relationship with the new owner. Then, if you want to show, don’t be in a hurry. There are a lot of folks with a lot of experience, and they all have information they are willing to share. If you get in too big of a hurry, you can get yourself painted into a corner. Since we’re dealing with the lives of dogs, we need to be able to do justice to each one. Consider educating yourself as a vital part of the adventure.”
Uphill battle: “Shelties are very difficult to breed. They do not breed true, and we have a size disqualification, which eliminates a large portion of the pups we produce. I’ve been breeding them for 55 years, and I’ve virtually never bred anything that wasn’t between 14.5 and 16 inches tall, yet I can still get a 10-inch and an 18-inch dog in the same litter.”
Do the math: “Given a litter of five pups, I can expect one to be too small, two to be too big, and I hope like heck the two in the middle have teeth and testicles. Friends with other breeds brag that they have three champions in a litter. We brag if we have one champion in three litters. But once you give your heart to the breed, you don’t leave it.”
The essence of the Sheltie: “Its willingness to please. They do that, every day, in every way.”