While the sweet-tempered and eager-to-please Shetland sheepdog would quickly forgive you for calling him a small collie or miniature Lassie, Shelties (as they're affectionately called) are their own distinct breed—and a popular one at that. Shelties came in at No. 25 on the American Kennel Club's (AKC) 2019 list of the most popular dog breeds, and it doesn't take much sleuthing to figure out why.
Shelties have earned a reputation for being as affectionate as they are whip-smart. As their name suggests, they were originally bred to herd sheep (as well as other livestock) in Scotland's Shetland Islands and are thus attentive, hardworking, and easy to train. In fact, the AKC named the Sheltie as one of the 13 most trainable dog breeds, and they thrive with regular exercise and activity.
But that doesn't mean they're opposed to unwinding. "Shelties are sensible and adaptable," says Meredith Hector, a second-generation Sheltie enthusiast and 25-year member of the American Shetland Sheepdog Association (ASSA). "When it's time to play they are all in, and when it's time to rest they enjoy relaxing with you."
Shelties are friendly and outgoing with their family members (even the ones who meow), but don't expect them to take a liking to strangers right away. They tend to be reserved and may bark in such situations, which, coupled with their loyalty, means they have the makings of an excellent watchdog.
Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention those glorious Shetland sheepdog locks. Their double coat served a very specific purpose when the breed spent its workday in the Shetland Islands' cold, wet, windy weather. And though most Shelties probably spend more time on padded rugs than on rugged paddocks these days, regular mane maintenance is a must.
The Sheltie bears a striking resemblance to the rough collie. Similar to their taller cousins, Shelties have long, slender, wedge-shaped heads that give them a refined appearance. But with their ample fluff, their kind, almond-shaped eyes, their small, high, erect ears bent slightly downward at the tips, and what many owners refer to as the "Sheltie smile," they certainly don't come off as being too prim and proper to be man's best friend. They look every bit as bright, friendly, and affectionate as they truly are.
The Shetland sheepdog is small—standing between 13 and 16 inches at the shoulder and weighing 20 to 25 pounds. (For comparison, collies tend to be between 22 to 26 inches tall and can weigh up to 75 pounds.) These double-coated dogs have a short, dense, wooly undercoat and an outer layer of long, straight, coarse hair. The ASSA notes that the Sheltie's coat tends to boast a variety of colors: sable (ranging from golden brown to mahogany), blue merle, black, tan, and white.
As you may have guessed from their impressive manes, Sheltie fur requires regular attention. While every dog is different, most will only need to be brushed once a week. However, brushing may need an extra boost in the fall and spring when shedding intensifies.
Beneath all of that flowing fur is a family-focused dog with a heart of gold and a sharp mind. "Shelties are wonderful with children and get along well with other dogs and with cats," says Hector—particularly if they're raised with the other animals, adds Mary Mahaffey, DVM, chair of the ASSA Research Advisory Committee. They are not, however, known for being immediately keen on outsiders. "They are loyal to their owners and can be a bit reserved toward strangers," Hector explains. "If you aren't a member of their family, they appreciate the opportunity to choose to come to you first versus you running up to greet them."
This brings us to another notable Sheltie trait: their inclination for communication. "They are a chatty breed originally used to keep livestock away from the house," Mahaffey says, "so they do like to bark." But according to Hector, it shouldn't be incessant. "They may do so to sound a warning or express excitement," she explains. While chattiness can be hard to deal with (especially if you live in an apartment), you can also use this barking bent to your advantage as Shelties can be great watchdogs (or delivery announcers).
Because they were bred to work alongside their owners, Shetland sheepdogs are intelligent, intuitive, and industrious—a winning combination when it comes to trainability. Hector describes them as "athletic and highly biddable, excelling in activities like agility, obedience, and rally." Shelties are eager to please and ready to play, but as long as they get plenty of exercise and mental stimulation, they're perfectly content to exchange romping for relaxing.
The ASSA notes that temperament is relatively consistent in Shelties regardless of whether the dog is male or female.
Shelties are easygoing and adaptable dogs. "They can be indoor or outdoor, but they prefer to be with their owners," Mahaffey explains. Again, this goes back to their DNA. Shelties were bred to be working companions and don't thrive in situations where they have to be left alone with nothing to do for long stretches.
Mahaffey says that a small yard will do but that a larger one is better as Shelties need moderate daily exercise—particularly when they're young. However, urban residents needn't rule out the breed as a potential pet. In fact, owning a Shetland sheepdog can be a boon to their health. "Apartment dwellers can do well with Shelties as long as the owners walk them regularly," Mahaffey explains. "This is good for both owners and dogs!" Because Shetland sheepdogs are born herders (and are thus prone to chasing moving things, including cars), it's recommended to keep them in a fenced yard and on leashes when walking.
Shelties are known to enjoy a variety of companions. The ASSA describes the breed as seeming to have a "natural affinity for children," and both Hector and Mahaffey say Shetland sheepdogs can get along well with other dogs and with cats, especially when raised with them.
Grooming is clearly a big deal when it comes to Shetland sheepdogs. "Shelties have a double coat," Hector says, "so they need to be brushed once a week to avoid matting." She notes that it's especially important to focus on the fur behind the ears, under the elbows, and in the skirts (i.e. the long hair that falls between the front and back legs). Working with a bone-dry coat isn't a good idea, so be sure to spray a mist of water on the area you're brushing. And as for nails, Hector advocates for a trim every two weeks.
The earlier you start with a grooming regimen, the better. Puppies who are used to being regularly handled and examined aren't just easier to groom—they make excellent veterinary patients, as well. With positive training and encouragement, grooming can become an enjoyable activity for Shelties and their owners.
In addition to daily, moderate exercise, socializing Sheltie puppies is extremely important and involves taking them out of their normal environment and exposing them to new experiences, people, and places. This might look like a walk to the park or a visit to a friend's home. These seemingly innocuous outings are actually fun, low-pressure training sessions where Sheltie puppies can learn how to adapt to and interact with new people, animals and experiences. Socialization doesn't end in puppyhood, and owners should remember that it is a lifelong process.
The Sheltie tends to be a healthy breed and can live as long as 14 years. Like all breeds, however, it is predisposed to certain health conditions. Mahaffey lists gallbladder mucoceles, hypothyroidism, and dermatomyositis as the top three breed-specific health conditions in Shetland sheepdogs (though it's important to note that these conditions aren't necessarily common in the breed, in general).
Gallbladder mucoceles are characterized by an accumulation of sludge and mucus in the gallbladder that can cause the organ to become obstructed or even rupture. If present, it's typically seen in older Shelties, though younger ones can be affected. Clinical signs include vomiting, loss of appetite, and abdominal pain, and a diagnosis is typically reached via ultrasound or exploratory surgery. While the exact cause of gallbladder mucoceles is unknown, the treatment is straightforward: gallbladder removal surgery.
Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone. Because it affects so many body systems, the clinical signs of an underactive thyroid gland can vary a lot but often include lethargy, weight gain, obesity, and changes in skin and haircoat. Most cases of hypothyroidism require lifelong medication.
Dermatomyositis is an autoimmune disease that affects both skin and muscle tissues. Shetland sheepdogs and collies are the most common breeds to be diagnosed with the condition. Clinical signs include crusty sores on the skin in areas with very little muscle, such as the face, ear tips, legs, feet, and the tip of the tail. The muscles of Shelties typically aren't affected. Dermatomyositis can't be cured, but it can be managed with the help of medication.
Every Sheltie is different, so the best way to promote an individual dog's health is to partner with a veterinarian who can provide regular preventative care and targeted guidance regarding diet, exercise, and other needs from puppyhood to adulthood.
There are some things we know about the origins of Shelties and others we don't. For example, we know they got their start in the Shetland Islands, a Scottish archipelago of around 100 islands (only 16 of which are inhabited) in the North Sea, but the exact combination of breeds that went into developing the Sheltie remains unknown. The ASSA lists Northern Spitz-type dogs from Scandinavia, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Pomeranians, Scotch collies, and other indigenous island dogs as likely contributors.
Shelties were bred to work, and their small stature meant they were high in agility and low in food needs—major perks on remote islands with rugged terrain and sparse vegetation. The ASSA describes the breed as "an all-around farm dog." Early Shetland sheepdogs helped their farming owners with various tasks, including keeping livestock out of the garden and rounding up sheep. Much like today, they also served as companions and watchdogs.
Though a visitor to the islands described the dogs as early as 1844, the ASSA says the breed didn't become official until 1908 when it was first registered in Lerwick, the Shetland Islands' main town and port. It was next registered with the Scottish Shetland Sheepdog Club in 1909, and both of these registries and the breed were recognized by the English Kennel Club (UKC) later that same year. The UKC originally referred to Shelties as Shetland collies but soon switched to their current denomination after collie fanciers objected to the title.
Shetland sheepdogs made their debut in the U.S. in 1908 and received AKC recognition in 1911. The ASSA, which was formed in 1929, notes that both WWI and WWII had an effect on what was imported to the States and what was kept in the UK. As a result, small differences between American Shelties and English Shelties remain to this day.