Shetland Sheepdog

Shetland Sheepdog dog breed
John Walton
Written by John Walton

The Shetland Sheepdog is a direct descendant of the Collie. They originated on the Shetland Islands between Scotland and Norway and this is where they got their pet name – Shelties. Here, they were bred to guard and herd sheep as well as act as a watch dog to potential trespassers onto the farm’s territory.

Breed characteristics

AdaptabilityAbove Average
Health and GroomingAbove Average
All Around FriendlinessHigh
Exercise NeedsHigh

Dog breed group:Herding dogs
Height:13-16 inches tall at the shoulder
Weight:11-27 lb.
Life span:12-15 years

Most people might recognize them as the tiny rough Collie look-alike but the two breeds are different. The Shetland Sheepdog is known to be one of the smartest breeds out there, and they regularly dominate the field in competitive obedience, fly ball, tracking, herding and agility events.

They make a great family pet and get along with children and other pets if they have been properly socialized. Due to their size, they also make good apartment dogs as long as they are exercised daily. Their ideal home will come equipped with a large fenced yard which will come in handy in stopping them from trying to herd bypasses or cars as the herding instinct is very dominant in the breed.

Although they require plenty of physical exercises, they require constant mental stimulation even more. Being as intelligent as they are, they need many different ways and activities to vent their energy, both physical and mental. Training needs to be kept interesting and innovative as they get bored easily and don’t see the point of doing the same exercise over and over again if they mastered it already.

Being a sensitive breed, they are also prone to separation anxiety and sensitive to high levels of stress or loud noises, with which crate training will help greatly.

Today, the Shetland Sheepdog ranks as the 20th most popular breed in the world.

Main Highlights
  • The breed is descendant from the Border Collie and shares a remarkable physical resemblance with the rough Collie.
  • Although they rank as the 20th most popular breed in the world, they are very rare in their homeland of the Shetland Islands where they were replaced by the Border Collie for farm work.
  • Ranked 6th out of 132 different breeds in Dr. Stanley Coren’s dog intelligence trials.
  • They tend to be a little standoffish with other dogs, but immediately recognize other Shetland Sheepdogs and display affectionate and playful behaviour towards them.
  • Due to their intelligence and sensitivity, they are extensively used as therapy dogs.
  • They are prone to separation anxiety and small dog syndrome.
  • The Shelties are a very sensitive breed and don’t do very well in homes with high stress levels and tension.
  • They have a strong herding instinct and will try to herd anything that moves. Humans and cars included. It should be strongly discouraged as it might lead to biting.
  • Often dominate the field in tracking and herding events, agility and obedience competitions.
  • The breed was used to be called the Shetland Collie until their present name was adopted, which made the Collie lovers very disgruntled.
  • It should be taken into consideration prior to adoption or purchase that the Shetland Sheepdog is a very vocal breed.
Breed History

The Shetland Sheepdog originated in the Shetland Islands where they were also called Toonies, which derives from the Norwegian word for farm.  They were first introduced as the Shetland Collie, to which the Collie lovers took offence.

Not much of the breed history is known, and to this day, there are many opinions as to who exactly are the Shetland Sheepdogs’ ancestors. Some opinions claim they are the result of a breeding between a Border Collie and multiple smaller breeds such as the Pomeranian. Others claim the ancestors are a Border Collie and the extinct Icelandic Yakkin. It is clear though, from the Shetland Sheepdog’s resemblance to a rough Collie, that the Collie breed played a major role in the Sheltie’s genetic makeup.

The Shetland Sheepdog was introduced in England in early 1800 and was known as the Shetland Collie until the present name was adopted. Due to their beautiful looks, intelligence and work ethic on the farm they shot to fame and remain one of the most popular breeds to this day.

Interestingly, they are very rare on the Shetland Islands, where they originated as they were replaced by the Border Collie for the farm work the Shelties used to perform.


The Shetland Sheepdogs vary greatly in size. Generally they measure 13-16 inches tall at the shoulder, and weigh in at 11- 27lb. As with other breeds, the females are generally smaller than the males.

Personality and Character

Don’t take offence when we say that the Shetland Sheepdog is probably smarter than most humans, or at least one of the smartest breeds out there. There is even scientific proof!

Dr. Stanley Coren ran multiple experiments with 132 different breeds in dog intelligence trials and the Shetland Sheepdog ranked 6th out of 132 breeds. They were able to understand a new command after it being repeated less than 5 times and obeyed the command the 1st time of being told 95% of the time on average.

They are not only a beautiful breed but they are also extremely intelligent. They need a vent not only for their physical energy but they also need plenty of opportunities to work their big brains. As with all brainiacs, they get bored easily and tend to develop irritating habits if not allowed to express themselves. These habits include excessive barking and chewing. The Shetland Sheepdogs are a vocal breed and need to be taught the proper things to bark at and what to let go, especially if you live in an apartment.

They will do well in an apartment as long they receive enough attention and daily walks. For that reason, they are also a good selection for working people.

They make a great family pet as they get along with children and most other pets. They love their humans and tend to follow them around from one room to the next. One thing that should be considered is their strong herding instinct; the breed will herd everything and anything. They need to be taught that such behaviour is unacceptable, especially with humans and other companion pets.

They were bred to withstand extreme climate but will be unhappy being a backyard dog. They need to be indoors, loving their people. The breed can become very unhappy if left alone for extended periods of time.

Being a sensitive breed, they are used as therapy dogs as they are very eager to please and are very in tune with their humans’ wants and needs. Any harsh treatment or training will break the Sheltie’s spirit and should be avoided at all cost.

Health and Potential Problems

The Shetland Sheepdog is usually a very sturdy and healthy breed. Their popularity left them vulnerable to improper breeding without regard for their temperament and well-being. That’s why you should never purchase a puppy from a puppy mill.

Here are the most common illnesses that may affect your dog’s life:

  • Epilepsy — a condition that causes unpredictable seizures and unfortunately doesn’t have a known cause or treatment. Most dogs with this condition live happy and long lives with the condition being managed by medication.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy- An eye disorder that causes a slow deterioration of the retina, leading to blindness or limited vision.
  • Collie eye anomaly — an eye condition that, sometimes, leads to blindness. It has no known treatment.
  • Dermatomyositis- an inherited autoimmune condition that usually affects Collies and Shelties, causing muscle problems and lesions.
  • Hypothyroidism- A condition that occurs when the body is unable to regulate and maintain proper thyroid hormones levels. Symptoms may be weight gain, baldness and sensitivity to cold. The condition is usually managed with diet and medication.
  • Obesity- Due to their small frame, the Shetland Sheepdog is prone to obesity like so many other small breeds. It is crucial to provide them with a proper diet for their needs and daily exercise in the form of walks or light jogs.
  • Von Willebrand Disease — A condition that is found in both humans and dogs and affects the clotting process. Symptoms may be bleeding gums, nosebleeds and bloody stool. There is no known cure but it is usually managed with special treatment.
  • Hip Dysplasia — A common condition in dogs. It occurs when the femur doesn’t fit properly into the hip joint, causing lameness and discomfort. It is usually treated with medication for pain and in severe cases can be surgically corrected.

With proper diet, daily exercise, and regular vet visits, your companion is sure to remain by your side for many years to come.

Care Features

The Shetland Sheepdog requires early socialization as they tend to be timid and shy around strangers. They should start being introduced to different people, children, dogs, cats, other animals, different environment and scenarios as soon as possible to grow up to be a well-rounded dog.

Enrolling the puppy in puppy kindergarten is highly recommended, where the puppy can explore the world around them in a healthy and proper way under professional guidance. It is not only beneficial for the puppy’s development, but it will also help you form a special bond with them.

Training should be kept interesting and innovative as they get bored easily. They need a firm and consistent pack leader that can set the rules and reinforce them using treats and praise. They don’t respond well to harsh training or treatment. The Shetland Sheepdogs are extremely intelligent and usually only require gentle corrections and loving guidance.

The breed is very vocal and needs to be taught proper ways to express themselves, otherwise they might become nuisance barkers. They also have strong herding instincts and will herd anything that moves. It is important to discourage that behaviour with humans. It may be adorable when they are young, but it might lead to biting later on.

They should not be off leash unless they are in a closed off and monitored area or a fenced yard as their herding instincts might lead them to wander off in search of worthy animals or people, and in some cases, cars to herd.

Being as sensitive as they are, they are prone to separation anxiety and crate training would be highly efficient in teaching them that even though the owner is gone, they will come back every time. Besides teaching them not to be fearful of abandonment, crate training also helps with house training and provides them with a special spot they can retire to when tired or needing space.

Due to their small frame, the breed is also at risk to develop small dog syndrome much as other small breeds. It is a human induced condition when the dog displays pack leader mentality, runs the household and gets away with behaviours bigger breeds do not. These dogs become ill-mannered and develop aggressive tendency.

The Shetland Sheepdog requires daily walks and plenty of mental stimulation. It is highly recommended to enrol them in obedience or agility classes, fly-ball, herding and tracking events. Not only is it a much needed vent for their physical and mental energies, but it will also help you strengthen the bond between you.

Feeding Schedule

The Shetland Sheepdog requires 1-2 cups of high quality dog food a day, divided into 2 meals. Of course, each dog’s nutritional needs vary, depending on size, age and activity level.

High quality, filler and grain free, rich in meat protein and vitamins dry dog food will go a long way in providing your companion with healthy skin, coat and healthy and happy disposition. The richer the food, the less they will require.

Due to their small frame, the Shetland Sheepdog is prone to obesity. It is important to provide them with food specifically formulated for their own requirements and properly exercising them daily.

Coat, Color and Grooming

The Shetland sheepdog has a double coat. The undercoat is dense and short while the top coat is harsher and longer and stands out from the body. Common colours are tan, white, blue Merle, black and sable.

The breed’s rich and beautiful mane requires weekly brushing to avoid mats and tangles. A pin brush is best suited for the job. Some owners prefer the services of a professional groomer, at least 4 times a year to maintain the coat shiny and healthy. They shed heavily all year round and perhaps not the best choice if you can’t keep up with the clean-up.

Children And Other Pets Compatibility

The Shetland Sheepdog makes a great companion to children, and is very sensitive and gentle with kids as long as they have been properly socialized.

As with other breeds, play time between dogs and children should be supervised by an adult at all times.

The breed usually gets along well with other dogs and cats as long as they’ve been properly socialized. They are very well mannered and peaceful with other dogs, although sometimes can display a standoffish demeanour. They also get along with cats and other pets as long as they are discouraged from attempting to herd them. Cats tend to be very good at nipping that behaviour in the bud.

The Shetland Sheepdog is the perfect choice for someone who is looking for a loyal, intelligent and sensitive companion. Their size and calm demeanour makes them a great choice for apartment dwellers and working people as long as they are sufficiently exercised and given plenty of attention.

They need a job to do and need plenty of mental stimulation. It would be highly recommended to enrol them in agility or obedience classes, tracking and hunting events. The Shetland Sheepdogs tend to get along great with children and other pets as long as they are taught to direct their herding instincts properly. They love their humans and make a good watch dog but need to be trained on proper ways to use their voice or else they will become nuisance barkers.

The breed might require some work to share your life with them, but the reward you will get by having them as a companion is that much greater.

If you can keep up with them, you’re a very lucky human to be loved by this sensitive and wonderful breed.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.