Shetland Sheepdog

by Doris Donnerman
(last updated April 6, 2009)

The Shetland Sheepdog, as the name implies, came originally from the Shetland Islands, a land unique for the diminutive breeds of domestic animals which it has given to the world. From very ancient times Shetland ponies have been bred on the Islands along with the comparably small Shetland cattle and Shetland sheep. Working sheepdogs of small stature are known to have been used for generations in the hills of Shetland as sheep drivers. Similar types of small dogs are found in the neighboring Orkney Islands and in the Outer Hebrides.

Like the diminutive dogs that guard the flocks, the Shetland sheep are very small, being only about half the size of the Scotch black-faced sheep. Because of their size it is never necessary to have so large a dog to herd them and keep them in bounds as it is in the Highlands of Scotland. The crofter prefers the smaller dogs for tending the flock, because they serve his purpose better than the larger dogs.

The origin of the Shetland Sheepdog is difficult to fathom for lack of authentic records. The Shelties are sometimes called Toonie dogs by the Shetlanders after the Toon or township; and the older inhabitants are wont to boast that their particular Toonie dog was the direct forbear of the breed. As many different theories are offered to account for their origin as there are separate types.

In times past the dogs were selected and bred solely for their working ability. The crofters took no particular pains to produce animals of good appearance and uniform type as long as they were capable of performing the duties expected of them. From the scant information obtainable it is believed that the forebears of the breed first found their way to the Islands through the travels of the fishing fleets from Scandinavia, Scotland, and Holland which stopped at Shetland in the summer time. There seems to be but little doubt that the beginning of the breed dated from the time of the arrival at the Islands of a black-and-tan King Charles Spaniel detained from a yacht that touched there.

The early Greenland whalers, stopping at the Shetlands to land members of their crews, brought with them their Yakki dogs, so named after the natives of Greenland, who were known as Yaks. The Yakkis were crossed with the Shetland dogs, and distinct traces of this cross can be seen in the large, erect ears, heavy brush, height, and the characteristic black muzzle. There is likewise little doubt about some connection between the Icelandic dogs and those of the Shetlands, either through cross-breeding or similarity of origin.

That the modern Collie and the Shetland Sheepdog possess a common ancestor in the old-time Hill Collie is a certainty. Although cross-breeding and evolution have so far removed each from its common forebear that they can no longer be regarded as belonging to the same breed. The Shetlanders often brought over from Scotland good working Collies of somewhat smaller stature than the exhibition Collies, and these were frequently crossed with the Toonie dogs. Thus the present-day Shetland breed is a combination of the older native types of the Islands with Collies selected for their small size and working capacity.

The earliest historical record in connection with the Shetland Sheepdog, bearing the date of 1840, is an old engraving of the town of Lerwick, capital of the Islands. The engraving shows a Shetland pony in the background, and a small, Collie-like dog in the foreground, indicating that the Shetland dogs had been commonly known there for perhaps a century or longer. The next recorded date is 1844, when an article written by a traveler to the Islands described the dogs as living in the house, playing by the fire, and sleeping on the couch.

The general appearance of the original Shetland dogs may be learned from a description published in 1906. The average type was described as Collie in miniature, but there were several points of divergence, notably the ears, which were set very close together like a pair of fluffy wings. The body was long, set low on sturdy, well-feathered short legs, and the usual weight varied from 6 to ten lbs. The prettier dogs were white or white with gold markings, although the black-and-tan or all black were more commonplace. The long, silky coat was rare, the half-long soft coat being most in evidence. The eyes were soft, round, and in good proportion to size.

The original Shetland Sheepdog was neither sufficiently pure-bred nor of enough real merit upon which to found a show breed without outside help. Reared in the rigorous northern climate, the dogs had lived and worked for many generations under conditions that begot unusual stamina, sturdy build, and a high degree of intelligence in the breed. Owing to environmental forces, however, the Shetland dogs that were sent out from the Islands in the beginning were very uneven in type, although they did possess great stamina and fine muscular development.

Shetland dogs were introduced in America for the first time at the 1911 shows following a series of notable exhibitions abroad. At the Crufts show this same year there had been another excellent entry. Although dogs of entirely different build had been benched, some of them standing low to the ground with relatively long backs and without the Collie appearance which is an essential characteristic of the true Shetland Sheepdog. The diversity of sizes and types precipitated anew the controversy over height and build that had flared up intermittently.

The temperament of the Shetland Sheepdog is directly traceable to the influence of his native environment. His beauty of form and feature with his instinctive intelligence for herding and driving come from the Collie. His affection for human beings, his love of family life, and his devotion to his owners is the direct result of his close association with the crofters. While his docility, sweetness of disposition, and love of the outdoors is a heritage from his Spaniel ancestry. His hardiness comes from the rigors of the climate, and his natural watchdog attitude is the outgrowth of his training as a guard and protector of the croft.

The Shetland Sheepdog has won a place for himself in America both in the role of a companion and as a working dog. Sheep growers in the western states of Montana, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Oregon have found the Shetland Sheepdogs well-suited to the duties required of them. Because of their light gait the dogs cover a great deal of ground without getting footsore. It enables them to stay on top of deep snow where bigger dogs would break through. They are also less rough with the ewes at lambing time than some of the heavier types of Collies.

The general appearance of the Shetland Sheepdog should be that of the ideal Collie in miniature. With a height of the Shetland Sheepdog that should be no less than twelve inches and no more than fifteen inches, measured at the shoulder, the ideal height being 13-1/2 inches. The coat should be double, the outer coat consisting of long, harsh, hair; the under coat short, soft, and close like fur. The mane and frill should be abundant, the fore legs well-feathered, the hind legs above the hocks and brush profusely so. The face and the tip of the ears should be smooth, the hind legs below the hocks fairly so. Smooth-coated specimens are barred.

Additional information on the Shetland Sheepdog can be found at the website for the American Kennel Club.

Author Bio

Doris Donnerman

Doris is a jack of all trades, writing on a variety of topics. Her articles have helped enlighten and entertain thousands over the years. ...

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