Shetland Sheepdog Breed Profile, Characteristics and Fun Facts

  • Pedigree: Pure breed
  • Other Names: Sheltie
  • Height: 13 to 16 inches
  • Weight: 15 to 25 pounds
  • Breed Group: Herding
  • Lifespan: 12 to 14 years
  • Intelligence: High
  • Trainability: High
  • Exercise Needs: Moderate to High
  • Shedding: Moderate
  • Good with Kids: Yes
  • Good with Dogs: Yes
  • Good with Pets: Yes

Affectionately known as the Sheltie, the Shetland Sheepdog is a lively little dog known for his herding ability as well as his friendly nature. These dogs look like a miniature version of the Collie, but it is not a direct descendant. There was some controversy over the breed’s name in the past but its name has remained the same since its recognition by The Kennel Club in 1909. Shetland Sheepdogs have thick, double coats that make them appear larger than they are and they come in a variety of attractive colors. This breed is extremely intelligent, ranking 6th on a list of more than 130 breeds tested for their intelligence. If you are looking for an active, intelligent breed the responds well to training and makes a great family pet, the Shetland Sheepdog is one to consider.

Fun Facts About the Shetland Sheepdog

  • In addition to being world-champion herders, Shetland Sheepdogs are also great family pets and excel in a variety of dog sports including obedience, agility, and flyball.
  • The Sheltie’s herding instincts are so strong that they may try to herd small children and other pets at home.
  • As long as they get enough exercise and their fair share of attention when you’re around, Shelties don’t mind being left alone at home – they do prefer to spend time with family, however.

Coat and Appearance

According to the AKC breed standard, the Shetland Sheepdog is a small breed that stands 13 to 16 inches tall and weighs 15 to 25 pounds. These dogs are similar in appearance to a miniature Rough Collie but there are some key differences. This breed is small, alert, and rough-coated with long hair, great agility, and sturdy composition. Males of the breed have a decidedly masculine appearance while females are feminine. The body is well proportioned, the heat refined, and the muzzle well-rounded. These dogs have dark, almond-shaped eyes with a gentle but intelligent expression. Their ears are small and placed high, carried three-fourths erect.

In terms of its coat, the Shetland Sheepdog has a thick double-coat with a short, dense undercoat and a long, straight outer coat of harsh hair. The fur on the face, feet, and tips of the ears is smooth while the fur around the neck forms a thick mane and frill, particularly in males. Most dogs have feathering on the forelegs and hind legs, though the fur is smooth below the hock joint. The hair on the tail is profuse. Common colors for the breed include black, blue merle, and sable with white or tan markings. There should be no rustiness or pale, washed-out color.

History of the Breed

Although he looks like a miniature version of the Rough Collie, or simply the Collie, the Shetland Sheepdog is a breed of his own. Unlike many miniature breeds that bear a striking resemblance to their bigger counterparts, the Sheltie was not developed simply by selectively breeding the Rough Collie down for a smaller size. In fact, the Sheltie is not a direct descendant of the Collie at all. The early version of the breed is likely descendant from a Spitz-type dog similar to the Icelandic Sheepdog, a breed that was eventually crossed with working collies. Upon being brought to England, it was then likely crossed with various breeds including the Rough Collie, the King Charles Spaniel, the Pomeranian, and perhaps even the Border Collie.

While the exact origins of the breed are unclear, the Shetland Sheepdog hails from the Shetland islands which are located 50 miles north of Scotland between Scotland and Norway. For years, the breed was known by the name Toonie, a word derived from the Norwegian word for farm. The Toonie was used as a farm dog to herd and protect sheep. The breed was taken to England and Scotland in the early 1800s where it was often referred to as a miniature Collie. Farmers bred their dogs with other breeds to make their coats even fluffier but there was so much crossbreeding that, by the end of the 19th century, it became evident that the original type was being lost.

In an effort to revive the original type, breeders followed three lines of thinking. One was to return to the original type by breeding with Collies. Others bred the dog only with existing Shelties who were close to the original type. A third group continued to crossbreed with other breeds to create small, attractive little dogs. All three types were entered into shows until the First World War and the breed was accepted by England’s Kennel Club in 1909, though they were known by the name Shetland Collie. The first Sheltie was registered by the AKC in 1911 and within a few years, the name had been officially changed to Shetland Sheepdog.

Temperament and Personality

The Shetland Sheepdog is a lively, playful, and active little dog. These dogs are intensely loyal and very affectionate with family, though they tend to be fairly standoffish with strangers, even once introduced. For this reason, early socialization is highly recommended for this breed. The Shelties does have a fairly wide variance in terms of individual personalities with some dogs being shy and reserved and others being outgoing, even to the point of being boisterous. When shopping around for a puppy, be sure to talk to the breeder about what kind of personality you are looking for so you can find a dog that matches your preferences.

In terms of children and other pets, the Shetland Sheepdog makes an excellent family companion. These dogs can get along very well with children as long as they are introduced at a young age and the children know how to safely handle a small dog. Shelties do tend to prefer other Shelties, but they can get along with other dogs too, though they may be a bit standoffish at first. This breed can get along with cats as well, though he may try to herd them. Most dogs of this breed don’t have any trouble with small pets either, though you should still supervise interactions to be safe.

Training Tips

The Shetland Sheepdog is a highly intelligent breed, so it should come as no surprise that these dogs are very easy to train. Although the Sheltie is easy to train, they can sometimes be prone to stubbornness, especially if they find the training boring. The best thing you can do is keep your training sessions short and sweet – opt for two or three daily sessions of ten minutes over a single session of 30 minutes. There should never be a need for yelling or harshness with this breed (or with any breed) but you should maintain a firm and consistent hand in leadership with your dog to encourage obedience.

Shelties generally do fairly well when left alone at home, as long as their exercise needs are met. They do, however, have a tendency to bark so you may want to curb this behavior early by teaching your dog to bark and to stop barking on command. You should start training your Sheltie as soon as you get him home because, even at 8 weeks of age, these smart little dogs are capable of learning very quickly. You may not be able to teach him to sit and stay at this young age, but it is never too early to start enforcing house rules and to lay the groundwork for obedience training.

Exercise Requirements

Developed as a herding breed, the Shetland Sheepdog is a very active breed. These dogs are not typically hyperactive, though they can become destructive if their daily needs for exercise aren’t met. This breed requires a 30- minute walk once a day and will also appreciate having a fenced yard in which to run and play. These dogs are happiest when they have a job to do, so even if you are keeping your Shetland Sheepdog as a family pet, you should consider training him for dog sports like flyball or agility to provide mental stimulation as well as extra exercise. Though the Sheltie is not a retrieving breed, some dogs do develop a love for tennis balls – you can buy a handheld ball launcher to throw the ball, giving your dog some more exercise without tiring yourself out.

Grooming Tips

Because the Shetland Sheepdog has such a thick coat, it does require a good bit of maintenance. The Sheltie’s coat is double-layered, so you should expect it to shed fairly heavily throughout the year but it may also shed extra heavily during the spring and fall. The undercoat for this breed is short and soft, but it is fairly dense as well so it can sometimes mat underneath while the top coat still looks normal. For this reason, it is recommended that you brush your dog’s coat once a day and use a grooming rake to get down to the underlying layer – ask a professional groomer to show you how to effectively brush your dog’s coat.

It generally isn’t necessary to trim a Shetland Sheepdog’s coat, but you should consider professional grooming every 6 to 8 weeks to keep the coat in good condition and to prevent matting. This breed is pretty good at keeping themselves clean, so you shouldn’t have to bathe your dog often – only once every 4 to 8 weeks. In addition to caring for his coat, however, you should trim his nails twice a month, brush his teeth daily, and clean his ears as needed.

Nutrition and Feeding

The Shetland Sheepdog is a small-breed dog, though some specimens of the breed may weigh a little more than 20 pounds at maturity. It is important to realize that small-breed dogs have very fast metabolisms so they may need a more calorie-dense diet than larger breeds. Whereas the average dog needs about 30 calories per pound of bodyweight (large breeds may need less), the Sheltie will probably need something closer to 40 calories per pound. Your vet can help you determine how many calories your dog needs based on his age, weight, and activity level.

To ensure that your dog’s nutritional needs are met, feed him a high-quality diet formulated for small-breed dogs. Start with a small-breed puppy recipe and switch to a small-breed adult formula when the dog reaches about 80% of his expected adult size. You might also consider a working breed formula for your adult Sheltie if he gets a lot of exercise or if you’re training him for herding or dog sports. In general, small-breed formulas are rich in protein with extra fat as a source of concentrated energy. Working breed formulas are similar, typically being higher in calories and fat than the average adult dog food recipe. Just be sure that any formula you choose is protein-rich, listing a high-quality animal protein as the first ingredient.

Common Health Problems

As a small breed, the Shetland Sheepdog has a fairly long lifespan of 12 to 15 years. These dogs are healthy for the most part, but all dogs are prone to certain diseases. Similar to the Rough Collie, the Sheltie is at risk for various eye problems and they may have a higher risk for certain types of cancer including bladder cancer and transitional cell carcinoma. Here is an overview of some of the health problems that are most likely to affect this breed:

  • Collie Eye Anomaly – An inherited eye condition that may lead to total blindness, Collie eye anomaly (CEA) usually sets in by the time the dog reaches 2 years old. In most cases, both eyes are affected but it may not be to the same degree. Many dogs adapt well to a loss of vision which is good because there is no treatment for this condition. It is a genetic disease, so it is important that you don’t breed a Sheltie who has this disease.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy – A progressive eye condition affecting the retina, PRA is a hereditary disease that affects many different breeds. This condition is characterized by a gradual loss of vision in both eyes, caused by degeneration of the photoreceptor cells in the retina. There is no treatment or cure for this condition, unfortunately, but most dogs adapt well to a loss of vision.
  • Dermatomyositis – An inherited skin condition, dermatomyositis is often misdiagnosed as mange but it is a separate condition that, in addition to causing skin lesions, may also affect the dog’s muscles. This condition can be passed on, even if the dog doesn’t show any signs of having the disease, so be very careful if you choose to breed your Sheltie.
  • Cancer – All dogs are at risk for cancer but the Shetland Sheepdog is prone to two specific types – bladder cancer and transitional cell carcinoma. Signs of bladder cancer may include blood in the urine, frequent urination, and straining to urinate. Transitional cell carcinoma is the most common type of bladder cancer seen in dogs and, unfortunately, treatment is difficult because they are likely to have already grown very large by the time they are detected.
  • Von Willebrand Disease – An inherited blood disorder, von Willebrand Disease is caused by a deficiency of clotting factor VIII antigen, also known as von Willebrand factor or vWf. This condition is characterized by excessive bleeding even with small wounds – it may also cause nosebleeds, bleeding gums, or internal bleeding. In most cases, dogs are able to live normal lives but extra caution must be taken with surgery.
  • Hypothyroidism – A condition characterized by insufficient production of thyroid hormone, hypothyroidism is a progressive disease. This condition often causes symptoms such as dry skin, thinning coat, unexplained weight gain, slow heart rate, and increased sensitivity to cold. Hypothyroidism is easily managed with medication but must be continued throughout the dog’s life. It often manifests during middle age, but you should be on the lookout for symptoms throughout your dog’s life.
  • Hip Dysplasia – This condition is more commonly seen in larger breeds but it can affect the Shetland Sheepdog as well. Hip dysplasia is a condition in which the head of the femur (thigh bone) doesn’t fit properly into its place in the hip joint – it may slip out of joint at times as well. This condition can be minor or it can be severe, causing pain or lameness in the affected joint. Treatment for minor cases may involve anti-inflammatory drugs and pain medications but serious cases may require surgery.
  • Congenital Deafness – If a dog is born with total congenital deafness, he will be completely deaf – other dogs are born with normal or limited hearing and lose it over the first few weeks or months of life. When a dog loses his sense of hearing, he is usually able to compensate with his other senses but you may need to make accommodations to keep him safe. Signs of deafness in dogs include failure to respond to their name or to auditory stimuli – these dogs may also be difficult to wake from sleep and they may be less active than other dogs of their breed.

Because the Sheltie is prone to numerous inherited health conditions, breeding is of the utmost importance. Make sure to get your puppy from a responsible breeder who does DNA testing on all breeding stock. You should also be sure to take your dog to the vet every six months for a checkup and to monitor ongoing conditions.

Kate Barrington

Kate Barrington holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and is the published author of several self-help books and nutrition guides. Also an avid dog lover and adoring owner of three cats, Kate’s love for animals has led her to a successful career as a freelance writer specializing in pet care and nutrition. Kate holds a certificate in fitness nutrition and enjoys writing about health and wellness trends — she also enjoys crafting original recipes. In addition to her work as a ghostwriter and author, Kate is also a blogger for a number of organic and natural food companies as well as a columnist for several pet magazines.

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