The Shetland Sheepdog

Shetland Sheepdog

The American Kennel Club calls him "an alarm system that likes to cuddle." Hence the appeal of this watchdog-cum-companion, the Shetland Sheepdog, or the 'Sheltie' as he is most commonly known. He is a likable fellow who looks like a scaled-down Collie, and for good reason, as he shares some ancestry with his bigger canine cousin. The Sheltie is a whole lot of dog in a compact package, a loyal friend and reliable sentry, but whose high-pitched bark and proclivity to nip at the heels of animals—and children—some find irksome. He's just doing his job, but needs a little finesse to control these tendencies. He'll steal your heart in spite of it all.


Other Names

The Shetland Sheepdog is also known as the 'Sheltie.


Shetland Sheepdog Mixes

Shetland Sheepdog mixes may be available for adoption in shelters and rescues. To adopt an AKC registered or a mixed breed Shetland Sheepdog, the best first step is to contact shelters and breed-specific rescues to let them know you're interested.


While a Sheltie mix may show some of the physical characteristics and traits of the breed—and will likely display herding behaviors—the genetics of the other breeds in the mix may also be present. Most shelters do not perform DNA testing on the animals they care for—breed is often determined based on physical characteristics, as well as information provided at the dog's surrender.


Rescue Shetland Sheepdog mixes may share physical characteristics of the breed, but their temperament may not match the breed standard. Shelters and rescues attempt to determine each dog's personality through a series of evaluations—even if the dog's temperament may not follow the breed standard, you can still find a dog who suits your home.


Shetland Sheepdog mixes may include retriever-type dogs such as the Golden or Labrador Retriever, or a variety of other breeds like Pomeranian, Australian Shepherd, or Collie.

Physical Description

Coat

The Sheltie has a short, dense undercoat, and a longer, rougher topcoat that stands out from the body somewhat. Most of his hair is smooth, except the mane and the frill (hair at the neck and forechest) are abundant, as well as the hair on the legs and tail. His coat comes in three colors: sable (from golden to mahogany), black, or blue merle (blue-gray with black). A Sheltie who's more than half white or has a brindle coat will be disqualified from the show ring, but still makes an excellent companion dog.


Height

Average Height: 13-16 inches


Weight

A typical Sheltie weighs about 22 pounds, but a large one can weigh as much as 35 or 40 pounds.

Breed Standard & History

Small and alert, the Shetland Sheepdog is an agile and sturdy working dog. He is symmetrical and well proportioned, with a refined head in the shape of a long, blunt wedge, tapering slightly from his partially erect ears to his nose. He has a moderately tucked up abdomen, a slight arch at the loins, the croup sloping gradually to the rear. His forelegs are well feathered, the hind legs heavily feathered, and his tail profusely furred. His trotting gait is smooth, fast, and effortless. His expression should be alert, gentle, intelligent, and questioning. While reserve towards strangers is acceptable in the Sheltie, fear is not. A sound Sheltie is intensely loyal, affectionate, and responsive to his owner.


This dog comes originally from the Shetland Islands, situated some 50 miles north of Scotland and a little south of the Arctic Circle. The diminished nature of life in the Shetlands extended to this smallish dog breed, developed to help crofters—small tenant farmers—tend their downsized livestock, and to warn of intruders. Ultimately the breed would gain notoriety as the Scottish farmer's 'best friend,' alerting his master to anyone approaching the property, and keeping birds and sheep out of the garden by barking. After later crossbreeding with other Scottish herding dogs, the Shetland Sheepdog was also used to herd and protect the crofters' flocks of Shetland Sheep, and perhaps also to protect the small sheep from birds.


Once referred to as the 'Toonie' Dog from the Norwegian word for farm, over time the Shetland Sheepdog has also been called Lilliputian Collie, Fairy Dog, and Miniature Collie. The Sheltie, in fact, came to England and Scotland as the Miniature Collie in the early 1800s. Meanwhile, the original Sheltie in the Shetland Islands was bred to be still smaller and fluffier; visitors to the Shetland Islands became enamored of the diminutive dogs and began taking them home as souvenirs. When locals caught on to the trend they began breeding them for income, perhaps crossing them with Collies to select for a more consistent look, but other unknown dog breeds may have been added to the mix—including the Pomeranian and King Charles Spaniel—resulting in the blue merle with tan Sheltie.


The English Kennel Club recognized the breed as the Shetland Collie in 1909, but changed the name to Shetland Sheepdog when English Collie breeders objected. The first dog registered with the American Kennel Club was Lord Scott in 1911. But crossbreeding had become a big problem in England so that by the end of the 19th century, the prototypical Sheltie had begun to disappear. In 1930 the Scottish and English Clubs finally agreed the dog "should resemble a Collie (rough) in miniature;" US breeders imported the dogs from England until the 1950s, but by then American and English Shelties bore less and less resemblance to one another. And ironically, the Sheltie has all but been replaced by the Border Collie in his native Shetland Islands.


Today nearly all American Shelties are descended from dogs imported from England between the World Wars. They make superlative companion animals, and shine at dog sports: their superior intelligence, paired with a willingness to please, makes the Shetland Sheepdog an excellent performer at agility and other sporting events, where they usually dominate in their size group.


AKC Breed Category

Herding Group

Personality

General Temperament

Reserve and suspicion of strangers is part and parcel of a herding dog breed, and even the companion Shetland Sheepdog may have it. Aloof disposition notwithstanding, the Sheltie is intensely loyal and affectionate with his own family. He has a tendency to yap, a thing some dog owners find undesirable, but a sound Sheltie should never be snappy or ill-tempered. Because of his herding instinct, he may also try to nip at children, a behavior that should be corrected every time it happens. A Sheltie can be boisterous and outgoing, calm and sedate, or even shy or retiring, but most possess a soft, sweet temperament, peaceful with other animals, and polite with everyone.


Family Life

Are Shetland Sheepdogs Good with Kids? Shelties may not be appropriate for homes with young children because of their sensitivity to loud voices and sudden movements—quick reflexes mean they'll possibly overreact to noise and the unpredictable movements of small children. Shelties also possess a strong herding instinct, and thus may try to chase and 'herd' children, running in tight circles around them while nipping at them. But overall, Shelties make excellent, trustworthy family dogs; teach your kids how to handle them respectfully and supervise your dog when the kids are around.


Are Shetland Sheepdogs Good with Other Pets? Shelties possess strong breed recognition and tend to be friendly especially with other Shelties, but can be reserved around other dog breeds. At home, your Sheltie will most likely get along with the family cat once the cat has put him in his place. Overall, the Sheltie scores relatively high marks in his willingness to peaceably coexist with other family pets.


Protective

Are Shetland Sheepdogs good guard dogs? Shelties make excellent watchdogs—it is the main task for which the breed was originally developed. The Sheltie is thus naturally protective, quick to bark if he deems anything amiss within his territory, and in fact, training is necessary to keep this predisposition from evolving into nuisance barking.


Energy Levels

On a scale of one to five—five being high-energy—Shelties score a solid five. Because of his working dog heritage, your eager Sheltie needs productive outlets for all that exuberance. Examples include daily walks or runs, playing fetch, or even running around the dining table. He'll also excel at agility or flyball, given the chance. Then he'll be happy to lounge with you on the sofa. Engage your Sheltie with stimulating activities he finds interesting, and be advised he won't repeat the same task again and again if he knows he got it right the first time.


Specific Concerns:

  • The Sheltie is sensitive to noise and stress, and responds best to positive corrections.
  • He is a vocal dog, with a loud, piercing bark that can progress to neurotic barking.
  • He likes to herd and nip at heels—a behavior that can progress into biting unless you correct it.
  • He chases things that move because of his herding instinct.
  • You must give him work to do to stave off boredom and consequently undesirable behavior.
  • He is more inclined to separation anxiety than other breeds and should not be alone for long periods.
  • Neurotic behaviors can include skittishness, hyperactivity, and mindless yapping.
  • He may be shy or fearful without socialization.
  • He can be reserved around strangers.
  • His long, dense coat demands frequent brushing and sheds profusely all year, but especially in the spring.

Requirements

Indoor 

The Sheltie is fiercely loyal to his family and wants to be included: he needs to be indoors with you. But he's prone to separation anxiety and does not enjoy long spells left alone. He will adapt to apartment living given plenty of opportunities for exercise, but his loud and possibly neurotic barking might be a problem for neighbors if you can't keep it in check. Whatever his home environment, the Sheltie needs to stay engaged in stimulating activities, and will gladly cuddle with you in his downtime.


Outdoor 

The Shetland Sheepdog is hardy and can tolerate cold temperatures, but his long, double coat makes him vulnerable to overheating in warmer climates. If he will spend time playing outdoors in warm weather—and hopefully he will—give him access to plenty of shade and drinking water; adding ice to his water will keep it cool longer. Limit vigorous outdoor activities to mornings and evenings during the warmer months.


Exercise 

Daily vigorous exercise is a must for the Sheltie's high energy, whether it's in your own back yard or out and about. He is fleet of foot, on a par with the Border Collie in contests of agility. Retrieving may not be in his wheelhouse, but some Shelties will play fetch tirelessly. And he certainly makes a wonderful walking, running, and hiking companion. The Sheltie needs mental exercise, too, to keep from becoming bored: he is up to the challenge of even advanced agility training, but will be as happy to play games of hide-and-seek with you at home.


Endurance 

Because this breed was developed for work, the Shetland Sheepdog can rise to just about any occasion where endurance is required, but needs conditioning over time to achieve it, as would any athlete.


Activity distance rating

  • Running Miles: Your Sheltie will never run a marathon with you, but once conditioned can easily handle a three-mile (or 5K) run with you. Choose the coolest parts of the day for warm-weather jogging, and use interval-style training to help him reach this milestone. Avoid running on a hard surface until the growth plates in the long bones have closed, which typically occurs at around 18 months in a Sheltie.
  • Hiking Miles: Once conditioned, the Sheltie makes an excellent hiking companion because of his high energy. Be advised that he should probably stay leashed because of his strong herding instinct, and expect his beautiful, long coat to pick up brambles along the way. You'll need to watch out for heat exhaustion on warm-weather hikes, and searching through his furry locks for ticks at the end of the trail will be challenging.


Food 

A Sheltie will thrive on ¾ cup to 2 cups of high-quality dog food daily, given in two meals, but the precise amount to give a specific dog depends upon his size, age, build, metabolism, and activity level; consult your vet. He can gain weight and should not be allowed to 'graze'—you should be able to see his waist when you look at him from above, and to palpate his ribs (not see them) without pressing hard.


Alone Time 

Shetland Sheepdogs do not tolerate long periods left alone. Welcome your Sheltie into your home and family, or choose another breed if your lifestyle will not allow it. He will develop undesirable behavior stemming from his separation anxiety if you leave him in isolation, including neurotic barking and destructive chewing. If you must leave him alone, make an effort to give him your undivided attention when you return home.

Health and Grooming

Life Expectancy

12-15 years


Grooming

This double-coated, long-haired breed sheds heavily. Brush him weekly at the minimum, all the way to the skin, and more frequently during peak shedding season in the spring. Avoid brushing the coat dry and instead mist it with a spray bottle of water first, to prevent damage; use a small slicker brush to address matting. In spite of his long coat, the Sheltie needs only occasional baths. Trim his fast-growing nails regularly, and check his ears for waxy buildup that can result in an infection; brushing his teeth twice weekly is recommended.


Common Health Issues

While this is generally a healthy breed, some health problems in the Shetland Sheepdog may include:


  • Hypothyroidism – signs include weight gain, thinning coat, dry skin, slow heart rate, and sensitivity to cold. This condition is easily managed with daily meds, but once diagnosed must be treated for the duration of the dog's life.
  • Collie eye anomaly (CEA) – an inherited condition that leads to blindness in some dogs, usually in both eyes. Dogs with a minor anomaly usually do not lose their eyesight. There is no treatment, but a blind dog can typically manage just fine. This condition is a genetic anomaly and you should notify the breeder if your dog has it so that they can stop the gene from passing to another litter.
  • Von Willebrand's disease – an inherited blood disorder caused by a clotting deficiency. Signs are excessive bleeding after an injury or surgery. Most dogs with von Willebrand's lead normal lives.
  • Hip dysplasia – an orthopedic condition where the femoral head does not fit snugly into the pelvic socket of the hip. This can lead to lameness and/or arthritis; medication or surgery can help.
  • Dermatomyositis – an inherited skin disorder characterized by lesions, and in some cases, affecting the muscles. Some dogs carry the gene but do not show signs of the disease, which is diagnosed through a skin biopsy.

When you buy a Sheltie, choose a reputable breeder and ask to see health clearances for both of the puppy's parents, from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for hips, thyroid, and von Willebrand's disease, and from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) for normal eyes. And look for a breeder who does not breed dogs until they're at least two or three years, as some health problems do not emerge until the dog has reached full maturity.

Trainability

Basics

The Sheltie not only excels at basic obedience, but needs the mental challenge of it. Start obedience training your Sheltie pup right away when you bring him home, even at eight weeks—he is smart enough to begin absorbing it. If you wait until he's six months you'll have a much bigger task and a more headstrong dog. Puppy kindergarten by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks is recommended. But a word of caution: the Sheltie is easy to train when your voice is calm and your touch on the leash is light—give only verbal corrections to this sensitive breed, for example, praise, gentle guidance, or food rewards.


Advanced Training

Shelties are smart, ranking sixth in intelligence in one study based on the ability to understand and retain a command after being told fewer than five times, and obeying commands on the first instance 95 percent of the time. This superior intelligence and a willingness to please combine to make him an excellent candidate for advanced obedience training; expect him to perform well in competitive obedience events.


Sporting Dog Training

The Sheltie is masterful in contests of agility, flyball, tracking, and rally, and he excels in herding instinct tests and herding trial.

Breed FAQ

Here are a few commonly asked questions about Shetland Sheepdogs.

Explore Other Breeds

The precise breeds are unknown, but it's thought the original dog was a mixed breed that occurred on the Shetland Islands, perhaps including spitz-type dogs—dogs with long, thick fur and pointed ears and muzzles—brought to the islands by the Scandinavians and Norse peoples who once ruled them. There is also an extinct breed called the Greenland Yakki which perhaps bore a resemblance to the first dogs in the Shetlands. By the 15th century more dogs from the Scottish mainland had arrived in the Shetlands, including Collies, with whom the Sheltie shares some of the same Border Collie ancestors. These ancestral Scottish herding dogs were bred with the local dogs in the islands; the term collie, in fact, is a Gaelic word meaning 'useful,' an apt term for this plucky little herding and guard dog.

No, the Sheltie is not a 'Miniature Collie,' even though it looks like a diminutive version of the Collie. Because Collies and Shelties share some ancestry, they do bear a resemblance to one another, and early versions of the Shetland Sheepdog were crossbred with Collies to refine them. But Shelties and Collies—two distinct breeds—developed independently of one another.


There is no such thing as a 'Miniature Sheltie,' and if a breeder claims to have them, they're merely breeding undersized Shelties to achieve a smaller dog. The AKC maintains standards for only one recognized breed, and that is the Shetland Sheepdog. If you want a smaller version of the dog, your best bet is to seek out a reputable breeder and choose the smallest pup in the litter.

Perhaps, with a little encouragement. Some Sheltie owners concede that their dogs absolutely hate water and refuse to fetch a ball tossed into it. Other Shelties appear to enjoy a cool dip on a hot day. Success in the water seems to boil down to early exposure to it, before nine months of age. And if your Sheltie can acclimate to it, swimming will be another way to keep him fit without stressing his joints, especially if he starts putting on weight as he ages.

In short, the Sheltie 'spin,' where he jumps and spins in tight circles like a top, is how he expresses excitement—you might call it joie de vivre, but many Sheltie owners simply call it the "zoomies." It is but one trait that makes this dog so endearing.