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Historial image of Shetland Sheepdog
AKC Library & Archives

Known to much of the public for decades as a “toy Collie” or the “little Lassie dog,” the Shetland Sheepdog has in recent years come into its own as a distinguished, popular breed — and, happily for its devoted fanciers, the public has moved beyond these inaccurate nicknames. Indeed, although the Shetland Sheepdog, or Sheltie, may closely resemble its larger cousin the Collie, it is a distinct breed with its own rich history.

As its name indicates, the Sheltie originated on the Shetland Islands, an intemperate and craggy cluster of islands off the northern coast of Scotland. Early Shelties were quite small, standing 8 to 10 inches at the withers, and were a blend of numerous breeds, including Greenland’s Yakki Dog, Pomeranians, small spaniels, and others. The Shetland islanders employed these hardy little dogs for various tasks around the farm, including keeping hungry birds and the diminutive, free-roaming Shetland sheep out of vegetable gardens and away from fish that were being dried for winter storage.

The dogs also warned owners of approaching strangers and served as family companions. Shelties were often left with sheep on some of the remote islands to guard them, primarily from predatory birds. As time passed, working sheepdogs from Scotland — frontrunners of today’s Border Collie — came to the islands along with larger, imported sheep, and some of these dogs’ bloodlines may have found their way into the breed.

Historical image of team of Shelties
AKC Library & Archives

Diverse Background, Diverse Talents

In the early 1900s, the Sheltie came to the attention of fanciers on the mainland of Great Britain. Breed clubs formed in the Shetland Islands, Scotland, and England, and breed standards were written. At the same time, Sheltie breeders began work on improving type by intro­ducing crosses with the conformation-ring Collies of the tune. Soon, interested breeders in the United States began importing Shelties, and in 1929 the American Shetland Sheepdog Association (ASSA) was formed.

Although the parent clubs both here and in Great Britain barred further Collie crosses from their registries, it is known that at least several unreported Collie crosses were made in the ensuing years on both sides of the Atlantic. This chapter of the breed’s history is recounted by Barbara Cuny and Charlotte McGowan in McGowan’s book, The Shetland Sheepdog in America.

Even today, the diverse genetic recipe of the Sheltie makes itself evident. The breed is still difficult to breed true to type and within the size limits of the standard, which require that dogs under 13 inches or over 16 inches at the withers be disqualified from the conformation ring. As a result, longtime breeder Sylvia Calderwood reports that most breeders estimate it takes up to 25 puppies to make one champion — and this in a breed whose average litter contains four puppies.

“Add to that the very stylized presentation of the Sheltie in the show ring, and you have a difficult dog to breed and to finish,” says Calderwood. But experienced breeders agree with judge Mildred Nicoll, a breeder with decades of experience, that the Sheltie’s varied background also accounts for the breed’s many diverse talents.

A Conveniently Sized Companion

The Sheltie excels as a versatile family companion in a most conveniently sized package — small enough for apart­ment life, but athletic and hardy enough to join in almost any outdoor activity. Shelties love playing ball, joining children on frog hunts and hiking (some Shelties have accompanied their owners in covering the entire 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail). Some even enjoy swimming.

Breeders also agree that significant progress has been made in improving the breed’s temperament — and, thus, its suitability as companion, conformation champion, or performance competitor. In years past, it was not uncommon to see Shelties in the show ring spinning nervously at the end of their leads, cringing from the approaching judge. This kind of shyness, which is not desired in the breed, is rarely seen today.

Historical image of child with Shetland Sheepdog
AKC Library & Archives

Although the breed standard says the Sheltie may be reserved with strangers, timidity is faulted and breeders condemn excessive shyness or spookiness. However, according to ASSA member and obedience competitor Sandy Ganz, the Sheltie has a “natural tendency to marked sight- and sound-sensitivity,” as is typical of herding breeds.

As a result, responsible breeders stress that early socialization of Sheltie puppies is important to the development of their personality and stability. But at its best, the Sheltie is a devoted family member, eager to please and sensitive to the moods of the people to whom it is bonded.

A Moderate and Balanced Breed

The current standard for the breed was adopted in 1952 after seven years of discussion and was slightly revised in 1959. It describes a breed of moderation and balance hardy but agile, with an outline of blended curves as opposed to angles or a blocky, square look. The head is described in the standard as “refined” and its shape is that of a long, blunt wedge when viewed from the front or the side. Eyes are to be of medium size and almond in shape, set nicely into the skull.

“Smoothness of head and sweet­ness of expression are essential,” adds Nicoll. “Without these qualities, you cannot have a good representative of the breed no matter how functional the body may be.”

The size of the breed must be between 13 and 16 inches at the withers, and dogs outside these limits are to be disqualified from the show ring. Shelties below the 13-inch minimum are not often seen, but almost all breeders have had their share of bigger dogs. “When the standard was revised in 1952, voices of moderation who suggested a size of 14 inches lost out, and the breed stepped away at that point from the English club,” says McGowan.

“Many old-time breeders still prize the beautiful 14-inch Sheltie, but today most stand above that size in the United States” she continues. The tendency toward oversized animals is still strong, perhaps because the Collie was the latest addition to the genetic foundation of the breed.

However, size is no obstacle in obedience and performance events, and many Sheltie fanciers admit their first dog was an oversized companion that kindled their interest. Realistic breeders recognize that the vast majority of their puppies have a future, not in the conformation ring, but as bright, companionable, and versatile family dogs — the job, everyone agrees, that the Sheltie does best.

Related article: Great Dane History: The Apollo of the Dogs
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