Shetland Sheepdog Dog Breed Information

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shetland sheepdog dog

As the name implies, the Shetland Sheepdog (“Sheltie”) is indigenous to the Shetland Islands, which lie in the wild seas between Scotland and Norway. A land of brooding, barren beauty, Shetland and its inhabitants have long figured prominently in European mythology.

This probably explains the more fanciful stories about the Sheltie’s origins, such as the idea that they were originally called “fairy dogs,” or the notion that the breed was developed by prehistoric Picts.

In fact, Shetland owes its misty otherworldly aura to the incessant storms that sweep the North Atlantic. With topsoil and vegetation constantly threatened by erosion, Shetlanders of necessity practiced economy in all things.

The ponies and tiny cattle and sheep so essential to the natives’ livelihood were allowed to forage freely, while the few crops cultivated were protected in walled gardens on the tiny “toons” (from the Norwegian tun for “farm”).

However, the two means of subsistence often came into conflict when the nimble Shetland animals jumped the stone walls to feast on the tender sprouts growing within.


By the middle of the nineteenth century, the thrifty islanders began to breed small agile dogs which they called “toonies,” to keep the ponies and sheep out of their precious crops. Little is known of the dogs’ ancestry.

An earlier, larger sheepdog of Shetland, various British working collies, the Icelandic Yakkie, and the continental dwarf spaniels all may have contributed genes, but nothing is recorded of the Shelties’ history until close to the end of the century.

Around 1890, British dog fanciers became alarmed by reports that the Toonies’ numbers were diminishing. Sailors from whaling vessels had reportedly taken many away to serve as ships’ dogs, or as gifts for loved ones back home, and changes in the islands’ economy were making other kinds of herding dogs more important.

At this point, Scottish and English breeders set about the task of “preserving and purifying” the little island dogs, but almost immediately, serious differences arose among them. Some wanted to perpetuate the characteristics of the crofters’ dogs, which were described in a publication of the day as 10-11″ tall, weighing 6-10 lbs, “pretty, intelligent and hardy.”

Others, however, viewed the toonies as little more than mongrels, and in need of considerable refinement.

The latter group sought to strengthen what they perceived to be the Toonies’ best traits by crossing them with small rough Collies, a practice accepted at the time by the Kennel Club. These “declared crosses” produced a somewhat bigger dog, which was called the Shetland Collie.

Subsequent efforts to bring the dogs’ size back down by selective crosses with toy breeds resulted in a loss of Collie type and were soon abandoned.

The Kennel Club recognized the Shetland Collie in 1909, and a year later the first representative of the new breed was registered with the American Kennel Club. In 1914, to accommodate objections by Collie fanciers, the Shetland Collie was officially renamed the Shetland Sheepdog.

A World War I breeding ban in Britain significantly set back the Sheltie’s progress, but after it was lifted, American fanciers began to import more Shelties, and by 1929, enough U.S. enthusiasts existed to form the American Shetland Sheepdog Association. The ASSA would hold its first specialty show in 1933.

Imports from England continued until the 1950s when American and British Shelties began to diverge greatly in type. This may be partly attributable to Collie crosses in the U.S. which remain largely undocumented (Unlike England’s Kennel Club, the AKC has always forbidden cross-breeding.)

It may also stem from the fact that the English standard has long declared an ideal height for all Shelties (14″ for bitches; 14.5″ for dogs), while the American standard does not give preference to any height between 13 and 16 inches.

(Prior to the adoption of the present standard in the 1950s, American Sheltie champions could be as tall as 18″). Today Shelties from the two countries are distinctly different, and U.K.-U.S. imports are rare.

While Sheltie numbers increased modestly in the United States, for many years they remained considerably less well known than their Collie cousins. By the end of the 1970s, however, the situation had reversed, and the Shetland Sheepdog appeared on AKC’s list of the ten most popular dogs in twelve of the next fifteen years.

By the early 1990s, however, Sheltie popularity had peaked, and registration numbers began to drop. In 1992, Shelties were the #9 AKC breed with 43,449 individual registrations. By 1998, Shelties ranked #15 with 27,978 individual registrations.

The American Sheltie Today

  • Size
  • Coat color/markings
  • Other characteristics
  • Temperament
  • Special considerations

To some degree, the debate over which characteristics shall prevail continues in the U.S. today. This results in considerably more variation than is suggested by the AKC Standard.


American Shelties come in a range of sizes. Pet-owners cannot take too literally labels that tell how much to feed a Sheltie, charts that provide ideal weights for different breeds, or even advertisements for “Sheltie-sized” crates and other accessories.

While show Shelties must measure between 13-16″ at the shoulder, the vast majority are over 14″, and keeping their dogs “in size” is a constant challenge for some breeders. Pet Shelties have been known to reach 20″ or more and weigh upwards of 40 lbs.

At the same time, petite Shelties of less than 13″is still sometimes seen. This diversity gives rise to confusing terms. Newspaper ads regularly offer for sale “toy collies,” “miniature collies,” “mini-Lassies,” or even “toy Shelties.” No such breeds exist. A Sheltie is a Sheltie, regardless of size.

A Sheltie’s height is no indication of its health, soundness or temperament. Nevertheless, prospective pet-owners may have legitimate concerns about size. Your best resource in this matter is a knowledgeable breeder.

Both over-sized (over 16″) and under-sized (below 13″) dogs can appear in the same litter. This is particularly true when the litter is bred by an ill-informed person who, lacking a working knowledge of genetics, believes they can “average out” size by mating a big Sheltie with a small one.

Moreover, different Sheltie lines mature at different rates, and the biggest pup at six weeks may not be biggest at six months. A reputable breeder, who has invested years in studying both the breed and their particular line, will provide the best estimate regarding the size a given pup will reach maturity.

Coat color/markings

shetland sheepdogShelties come in a variety of colors. Although genetically, there are only two Sheltie coat colors — black and brown — many terms are used to describe the different shades of Sheltie.

Sable. Shelties are brown or tan, with coats ranging from pale lemon or ginger through mahogany. The darker ones usually have black guard hairs over the brown. These are called “shaded sables” or “tri-factored sables.”

Some sables, both light and dark, have a red cast to their coats, hence the term “red sables.” Sables usually have white markings, but these may range from very prominent to almost non-existent.

Regardless of the amount of white, or the amount of black or red cast, all brown Shelties should be registered with the AKC as sables.

Black. Shelties are registered with the AKC as tri-colors when they have white and tan markings, and as bi-blacks when they are marked with white only. When black Shelties have a coppery cast to their coat, this is called “rusting.”

Rusting (which is often aggravated by exposure to the sun) is faulted in the show ring, but in no way affects a Sheltie’s value as a pet or performance dog (e.g. one who competes in agility, obedience, tracking, herding, etc.).

Blue Merle. Shelties are genetically black dogs, whose coat color has been modified by the merling gene. This makes them appear to be dappled silver and black, usually with black patches.

Blue merles also differ from other Shelties in that they may have blue or brown eyes (or one of each), or merle eyes, which appear to be both brown and blue. This does not indicate any vision deficiency.

Blue merles are also usually marked with varying amounts of white, and may or may not have tan markings. Those without tan markings are called Bi-blues.

There are two kinds of white Shelties. One type is the color-headed white. “White factor” determines the Sheltie’s so-called “Dutch” or “Irish” markings (the white collar, bib, and cuffs) which are associated with Lassie but are not required for the show ring.

Some heavily white-factored dogs have white haunches and legs, a huge white collar, and completely white shoulders and forelegs. Such a dog may have so much white on its body that only a “saddle” or a few patches of color remain.

Its head, however, contains no more white than any other Sheltie’s might. (This is similar to what is called parti-color in other breeds). At present, the AKC Standard severely penalizes any show Sheltie that is over 50% white, which prevents them from earning championships.

Color-headed white Collies have long been accepted in the show ring, and some fanciers argue that color-headed white Shelties should not be discriminated against in the show ring. In any event, these color-headed whites are completely normal.

They compete at non-AKC shows, and AKC welcomes them in obedience, agility, and other AKC sports. Color-headed white Shelties are entirely suitable as pets.

The same cannot usually be said for the so-called “double” merles or homozygous merles which can result from merle-merle breedings. (Usually the parents are both blues, but there are rare sable merles as well.

Sheltie color genetics are very complicated, and no one should attempt breeding without a thorough understanding of all the possibilities.) The “double merle” usually has a great deal of white on its head as well as its body.

These dogs are often blind, unless a black patch appears over an eye, and may also be deaf unless a black patch appears over an ear. They frequently have heart and other problems as well and are generally not recommended as pets.

Some unscrupulous breeders advertise these for sale as “rare white Shelties” — an unconscionable practice.

With the exception of the “double” merle described above, Shelties of all colors make equally satisfactory companions. There is no connection between a Sheltie’s temperament or trainability and its coat color. Although the sables continue to be popular with the public, many breed fanciers prefer the blue merles and tricolors

Other characteristics

Pet Shelties may show similar variation in other characteristics. Some have the broad back skull and heavy ears of the early farm collies. Others possess the tiny, foxy faces and prick ears that were common among their early island antecedents.

Some Shelties are finely built and dainty looking, while others are heavily boned, with long heads, necks and/or backs. While most people find the above as endearing as any champion, it does mean that your pet Sheltie might look quite different from the one down the street.

Despite their thick coats, Shelties are not suitable for year-round outdoor living, except in the mildest climates. They should always be protected from extremes of heat and cold. Moreover, banishing a Sheltie to back yard, barn or basement is cruel.

Shelties are sociable animals and hate being isolated from their people. Those who feel abandoned can readily develop destructive behavioral problems, such as excessive barking, chewing or digging.

On the other hand, you don’t need to let a Sheltie have run of the house when you are gone. The breed has a strong denning instinct, and they can be readily trained to stay in a crate. (This takes time, however, so don’t buy a crate and expect the dog to stay happily in it the first day!)

Crates are also a great aid in housebreaking and will keep your youngster from gnawing on cords, etc. when he is bored.

While some Shelties are sedated and enjoy the quiet life, many modern Shelties have relatively high exercise requirements. Some experts recommend a two-mile daily walk. Shelties often take great joy in such sports as obedience, fly-ball, Frisbee, herding, agility, and tracking.

However, although the breed has an impressive record of achievement in these activities, not all Shelties are built to work, and sports enthusiasts may need to take greater care than in some breeds to ensure getting a sound prospect for competition.


As suggested above, Sheltie temperaments also differ, and this may be of considerable significance to the pet owner. Shelties characteristically make affectionate and intelligent pets, bonding strongly to their primary person(s).

They are also usually excellent household watchdogs, and those raised with children generally become fine family dogs. Possessed of a powerful instinct to please, Shelties are sensitive and respond best to gentle but consistent handling and training.

Around strangers, the breed is often described as reserved, although some of today’s Shelties greet strangers with enthusiasm. If relatively few still display the timidity which was an early fault in the breed, the type described by the older (and English) Sheltie books as content to sit home by the hearth, grateful for only an afternoon’s leisurely stroll, is also scarcer than it once was.

Many American Shelties now have noisy “terrier-type” personalities: spirited, sometimes stubborn, high-energy dogs, they need to be kept busy.

Because of this, choosing the right Sheltie is a lot more of a challenge than many people suspect. Don’t fall for the first sweet fuzzy face you meet. You want a dog that will fit in well with your family situation and lifestyle.

The perfect obedience or herding prospect can be a nightmare for a sedentary person, while a retiree’s docile darling might suffer sadly in a family of rowdy pre-teens.

When you seek out the services of a seasoned breeder, s/he will ask many questions in order to make the best possible match to your particular needs. This is one of the advantages of dealing with a responsible hobby breeder.

After all, acquiring a dog is a lifetime proposition. With luck and good care, your Sheltie should be with you for twelve or more years (some have survived to twenty!) and it is worth investing a little extra time, effort and money at the outset to get one from someone who will help you find the right dog for you.

Special considerations

While Shetland Sheepdogs possess many delightful qualities that make them rewarding companions, they have two traits that may give pause to potential pet-owners. They shed and they bark. Before acquiring a Sheltie, consider carefully whether you are willing to assume the special responsibilities associated with these.

The Sheltie is a double-coated breed and requires a minimum of one thorough brushing a week to maintain cleanliness and health. During sheds, daily attention is a must. Most adult, neutered or spayed Shelties cast coat once a year.

When youngsters “blow” their puppy coat, it seems as if there is fur everywhere, but this only happens once. Generally, dogs (males) have heavier coats than bitches, and of course the bigger the adult Sheltie, the more coat there will be.

Unspayed bitches molt the most, shedding with each seasonal cycle, rather than annually — one more argument for having your female fixed as soon as possible. (Bitches also lose much of their coat after each litter. Don’t be disappointed if your pup’s dam appears to be skimpily clad. Your spayed or neutered pet Sheltie need never look that naked!)

The other challenge to owning a Sheltie is that they are notorious barkers. To some extent, this varies with the individual, but as a breed, they are known to be vocal. And unlike some smaller breeds which are barky but have “baby” voices, Shelties possess a penetrating bark.

Your neighbors may not appreciate the fact that your dog’s ancestors lived close to the ocean, and had to make themselves heard over the crashing surf, the call of sea animals, the bleating of lambs, and the howl of high winds.

Train your Sheltie early to stop barking once you have determined that there is nothing to be concerned about. If you are unsure how to do this, ask your breeder or veterinarian for the name of a reputable trainer.

Two or more Shelties can be next to impossible to keep quiet, which is why many multiple-Sheltie owners have some of their dogs de-barked. You may want to discuss this option with your breeder or veterinarian as well.


shetland sheepdog breedThe Standard is the physical “blueprint” of the breed. It describes the physical appearance and other desired qualities of the breed otherwise known as a type.

Some characteristics, such as size, coat quality, and movement, are based on the original (or current) function for the dog.

Other characteristics are more cosmetic such as eye color, but taken together they set this breed apart from all others. The Standard describes an ideal representative of the breed. No individual dog is perfect, but the Standard provides an ideal for the breeder to strive towards.

Because of copyright concerns over the collection of all the Standards at any single site storing all the FAQs, AKC Standards are not typically included in the Breed FAQs The reader is referred to the publications at the end of this document or to the National Breed Club for a copy of the Standard.

Medical Problems

Regrettably, in recent years, the excesses of top-ten popularity permitted a number of congenital/hereditary problems to proliferate in this basically healthy, long-lived breed. Fortunately, testing can identify many of these before they are passed on, and the ASSA is doing much to support research into some of the ailments that more commonly affect the breed.

One hallmark of the responsible breeder is that they will have tested all their breeding stock for (a) eye disease, which in Shelties includes Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), Central PRA (CPRA), Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA) which is also called Sheltie Eye Syndrome (SES), and Corneal Dystrophy (CD); (b) von Willebrand’s Disease (vWD) and other hereditary bleeding disorders; (c) Canine Hip dysplasia (CHD), and (d) Thyroid disease, which in Shelties has been linked to several other medical problems.

Before being bred, both bitches and studs should be registered with CERF (the Canine Eye Registration Foundation, which lists dogs clear of eye disease during the past year) and cleared by the OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals).

In addition, they should be tested for both thyroid and vWD. Be wary of breeders who can’t be bothered, or those who have tested one dog and so claim to know all of their dogs are “clear.”

Alas, other inherited diseases found in Shelties cannot at this time be so readily detected: epilepsy (canine seizure disorder); liver, kidney and pancreas conditions; two forms of Lupus; several skin diseases, and occasional cancer have been reported to disproportionately affect some lines.

Recently autoimmune diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease seem to be becoming more common. See the Usenet Collie FAQ and Canine Medical Information FAQs for further discussion, as well as the Sheltie medical problems bibliography in the Information Sources section that follows.

Before you buy a puppy, always ask the breeder about any problems found in their line. Breeders who deny the existence of Sheltie medical problems are not being honest: shop elsewhere.

A reputable breeder will provide a written guarantee on the health of a puppy and will want to know immediately about any medical problems that arise.

Heartworm Medications

Heartworm has become a national problem, and most veterinarians recommend protecting your dog with some kind of regularly administered preventative medication. However, some Shelties, Collies, and related breeds seem to have an unusual sensitivity to Ivermectin, the active ingredient in the popular monthly heartworm preventative called Heartguard.

While some Shelties have taken this product for years without incident, a number have died after taking it, so caution is strongly advised. (The manufacturer used to include a warning with each package of Heartguard about using it on Collies and related breeds but has recently stopped doing so.)

The monthly medication Interceptor, which has as an active ingredient milbemycin, was developed for the Ivermectin-sensitive breeds, and there are now other Ivermectin-free heartworm preventatives on the market as well.

Buying and Registering your Sheltie

As suggested above, finding a responsible breeder from whom to purchase your Sheltie is paramount, and not always easy. Many reputable breeders do not advertise in newspapers, and few would post public notices about litters available.

“Backyard breeders,” who mate their pet Shelties to pick up extra cash, provide pets for friends and relatives, or teach their children about “the miracle of birth” may be well-intentioned, but they know little of the science (much less the art) of producing consistently sound purebred dogs.

They do not provide written guarantees for their pups, nor will they be available later to act as a resource. Buying from a responsible breeder means you will have someone to turn to throughout the dog’s life who will continue to be interested in its welfare and ready to offer advice.

Your best approach to finding a responsible breeder is through your local all-breed kennel club, your area Sheltie club, or the breeder referral services of the American Shetland Sheepdog Association.

When you write out a check to such a breeder, you are not just paying for a puppy. You are also buying access to the breeder’s years of experience, the extensive pedigree research they do prior to each breeding, and the assurance that comes from submitting both sire and dam, not just too extensive medical tests and exams, but to the judgment of AKC judges and other experts in the breed.

You are contracting the services of an expert, who will provide you with advice and information in the years ahead, and who on appropriate occasions can refer you to a network of knowledgeable people: other breeders, judges, trainers, veterinary specialists, etc.

Spaying and Neutering

A responsible breeder will insist that you have your puppy spayed or neutered. This is an important step in protecting the health of your puppy. The advantages of having your dog “fixed” are numerous. You will have lower vet bills.

Your pet will be less inclined to jump your fence and take off down the road. The dog will shed less. There will be no chance of unwanted pregnancy. But perhaps most convincingly, spaying and neutering reduce their chances of getting certain cancers.

A female’s chances of developing mammary cancer increase significantly with each estrus; those spayed before their first “season” are best protected from this terrible disease.

And dogs that are neutered young will have no chance of developing testicular cancer which male Shelties seem to be inclined to when they are left intact (See the medical problems bibliography below).

Puppy mill/Pet Shop Puppies

Above all do not purchase a pup from a commercial breeder or from one of their retailers. These breeders raise puppies in “mills” or farms, where the adults are minimally maintained (often under vile conditions) and kept in cages throughout their lives.

The bitches are bred at every cycle. Many are never vaccinated. The pups never get the all-important early socialization from dam and litter mates — they are taken away too young so they can be shipped cross-country and placed in pet shop windows or commercial kennels at their most appealing age.

Many of these have problems (physical, temperamental or both) that will show up only later in life. Most will bear only a passing resemblance to the best representatives of the breed.

Even if you luck out and get a puppy mill pup that is healthy and adjusts well, you will have contributed to the cycle of abuse that condemns their parents to a life of suffering.


When you acquire a Sheltie pup, you should be given an AKC “blue slip,” with which to register it. When you send this in with the registration fee, the AKC will provide a registration certificate with the dog’s unique AKC number on it. Save this slip.

You may need information from it if ever you decide to enter your dog in an AKC-sanctioned competition, register its tattoo or microchip (new more secure methods of identifying dogs), or transfer legal ownership of it to another person.

AKC registration assures that your dog’s sire and dam are entered in AKC’s stud books. However, AKC “papers” do not constitute any assurance of quality, temperament, or health.

Shelties in Other Countries

Note: in an effort to make this FAQ more relevant to readers outside the U.S., and to provide an international perspective for American fanciers, this section is available to whoever is willing to contribute information about Shelties in their country.

The information would be particularly welcome from fanciers in the UK and Canada. Meanwhile, special thank-yous to John De Hoog, who submits this revealing report from Japan.

Shelties in Japan

The first Sheltie to come to Japan by “official channels” was brought here in 1955 by Kameo Kido. Before leaving the U.S., Geronimo Jackpot had been bred to Ch. Geronimo Crown Prince. In Japan, she helped one female pup.

Kido then imported Geronimo Prince Regent to be her male counterpart. The Geronimo line never developed very far in Japan, however, and no more from this line were brought to Japan after they peaked out.

The Shelties coming out of the Page’s Hill kennel fared much better. They were imported by the Green Hill kennel of the Japan Shetland Sheepdog Club (JSSC) and included Ch. Stronghold O’Page’s Hill, the first American Sheltie champion to be brought to Japan.

Mr. Ohashi of Green Hill imported this dog after careful research of the breed, and he subsequently imported other outstanding dogs from this line, in the process creating a strain of Japanese Shelties quite different from those that preceded it.

Most of the other Shelties that were introduced to Japan in later years came from American kennels. The majority of Shelties now in Japan are registered with the AKC. A third are registered with the Japan Kennel Club and a mere handful (just over 3,000) with the English Kennel Club.

Meanwhile, Japanese breeders have been producing their own strains, some quite lovely. Since the AKC refuses to recognize any of these, they are registered instead with the JKC.

The Japanese public soon fell in love with these dogs, and in the 1980s the Shetland Sheepdog became the most popular registered breed in Japan. The number of Sheltie registrations peaked in 1988, then started dropping. In 1992 the Sheltie was the third most popular dog in Japan.

(Many Shibas and other Japanese breeds remain unregistered in their native land.) Since then the popularity of this breed has continued to decline, falling to tenth place in 1997 and all the way to 15th in 1998.

Japanese tend to have fickle tastes when it comes to dogs. The Sheltie’s looks and gentleness with children contributed to their initial appeal. Today there are fewer children, and the Sheltie’s tendency to run around excitedly and bark loudly is a definite disadvantage in a crowded city like Tokyo.

The current darling is the Dachshund, especially the miniatures with nearly 60,000 JKC registrations in 1998, followed by the Shih Tzu and then Goldens. Still, the Sheltie has established itself as a well-recognized breed in Japan, even if the initial fad has come and gone.

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