History of the Shetland Sheepdog
Shetland Sheepdogs, or “Shelties”, as they are more commonly called, were originally bred for driving and guarding sheep and protecting gardens in the Shetland Islands.
The Shetland Islands are located 170km off the northern coast of Scotland, between Scotland and Norway. There are 100 islands in total, although only 16 are inhabited. The islands are rocky, cold, and ill-suited for agriculture. Despite these disadvantages, humans have lived there for thousands of years.
Just as today’s human inhabitants of the Shetland Islands share their genetic heritage with Scandinavia, likewise the Shetland Sheepdog’s origins most likely began with northern breed dogs as well.
Not much is known about the beginnings of the Shetland Sheepdog, for authentic records were never properly kept. So although their origins are somewhat unclear, there were a number of oral stories and tales, some written records, and an occasional drawing or two, to help piece together the mystery history of the Shetland Sheepdog.
The first true Shetland Sheepdogs most likely originated from Collie-type dogs from Scotland and Wales, mixed with Greenland Yakki dogs and Spitz-type dogs that were descended from northern European and Asian wolves, then brought south by Viking settlers.
For centuries, farmers of the Shetland Islands had been breeding any useful dog they could find to help tend their flocks. There was no one particular type of dog, in size or shape, which was used exclusively. The local inbred dogs were called “Toonies”, and they were said to have been used to breed as well.
Then came the 1800s – A time of great change for The Shetland Islands, as they were leaving their Norwegian heritage behind them and becoming more British-Scottish, as English became the dominant language in government and religion. This was also a time of extreme poverty and starvation for the Islanders as well, and they could ill afford to breed dogs without a set purpose. They still needed a small, sturdy, loyal, independent dog, which could traverse the impossible terrain of the islands. There was no food to spare and small dogs could protect themselves from the harsh weather on the islands.
As the Islanders began strengthening their trading ties with Scotland, they became fascinated by the intelligence, devotion and other qualities of the larger, hard working Collies-type dogs. This Collie dog most likely originated in Rome, for it was the Romans who introduced the craft of tending sheep to the British Isles.
Thus, the Shetland farmers began breeding their Nordic mix dogs with these Collie dogs, such as the Border Collie, to improve their local stock.
The Islanders knew right from the start that they needed a smaller type Collie dog to work on the island. Their sheep were half the size of their Scottish counterparts and the larger Collie dogs scared their small sheep. The Islanders soon began breeding their dogs with the smallest Collie dogs they could find. The result was a breed resembling a miniature Border Collie.
The most striking changes to the local breeding scene came as the ties to Scotland and Great Britain strengthened even more, which in turn, brought tourists, traders and fishermen from other parts of the world to the small Shetland Islands. Along with these new groups came the dogs that traveled with them as well.
In a relatively short span of time there was a grand parade of various breeds introduced to the locally bred dogs. The Islanders soon discovered that they could easily sell little fluffy fur balls to the tourists. So they began to breed their locally bred dog to any breed that was small and furry. Among the breeds that were said to have mixed with the local dogs were: large white Pomeranians, Papillions, Welsh Corgis, and even, legend has it, a black and tan King Charles Spaniel that was left behind from a visiting yacht!
The first reference of the Shetland Sheepdog as being a distinct breed though, was in 1840 when an engraving was created of the town of Lerwick. On it, there was a Sheltie with an acknowledgement that the dog had been known on the Islands for at least one hundred years.
By the end of the nineteenth century, there was so much crossbreeding going on, that Islanders realized the original breed was vanishing. There was great discussion and dissension, as to what the original dog looked like and what the breed should look like going forward.
There were three main camps of thought:
First, were the breeders that wanted to crossbreed with Collies in order to maintain, what they believed, the look of the breed should be. Rough Coat Collies were brought to the islands to breed with their local stock. The heavy importation and breeding of the Rough Coat Collie is why today’s Shelties resemble miniature versions of the Rough Coat Collie.
Second, were those who believed that they should breed only the existing Shelties who were closest to the original type. They argued that improvement of the breed could only be carried out by selecting those specimens showing the best traits of the old Toonie- type mix. These dogs looked more like a miniature border-type collie mix.
Third, was the group who cared nothing about characteristics of the breed, use, or adaptability, or any other traits. They just wanted to produce the fluffiest, prettiest coats to sell as small, lap dog pets.
As the early 1900s rolled in, the Shetland Island dogs saw the biggest changes for their breed and recognition as well. In 1908 the Shetland Collie Club was founded in Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands by James Loggie. In 1909, the English Kennel Club registered the first Sheltie named “Badenock Rose”. That year, 28 Shelties were registered as Shetland Collies. But it was not always smooth sailing. Collie breeders in England were unhappy, to put it mildly, about the name of the breed, however, and protested to the Kennel Club. This led to the breed’s name to be changed to Shetland Sheepdog.
Still, for the five year period, from 1909 to 1914, the Shetland Sheepdog was not officially recognized as a breed. During that time, the new Shetland Sheepdog had to be registered under the “any other variety” category. Finally in 1914, the Shetland Sheepdog shook off the “any other variety” designation and was recognized as a breed.
The first true Shetland Sheepdogs came to the United States in 1910. The American Kennel Club registered “Lord Scott” as the first Shetland Sheepdog in 1911. In just a few years, though, shows and breeding were brought to a standstill because of World War I. Breeding and show activity did not regain its momentum until the mid 1920’s. But because of the breeding restrictions during World War I, many of the notable bloodlines before the War were lost. Thus, the American Sheltie breed known today is descended almost entirely from dogs imported between World Wars I and II.
Finally in 1929, the American Shetland Sheepdog Association was formed. But the Shetland Sheepdog controversy, both in Great Britain and the United States, was still far from over. Right through the end of the 1920s, there were persistent rumors of crossbreeding, and disagreements about what the breed (especially height), should ultimately look like. Many various Shetland Sheepdog clubs were formed to support the various viewpoints. Finally, in 1930 the Scottish and English Clubs got together and agreed that the dog “should resemble a collie (rough) in miniature.”
By the 1950s, the importation of Shetland Sheepdogs into the United States came to a halt. Thus the British and American Shelties began to differ significantly in type. The AKC has always forbidden cross-breeding, and would not accept any references to crossbreeding with Collies. For then the Shetland Sheepdog would, once again, not be a breed unto itself – A breed of its own making or merit. Also, the two countries differed in the desired or acceptable height of Shetland Sheepdogs. England revised their height requirement to reflect an ideal of 14 1/2 inches for males, and 14 inches for females, while the United States revised their requirements to specify a 13 to 16 inch size limit for either sex. The Shetland Sheepdog from the two countries are now distinctly different.
Today, the Shetland Islands economy is dominated by oil and fishing. Oil-bearing sediments in the surrounding seas have brought relative prosperity to the Shetlands. Sheep herding, however, is no longer a major industry on the islands. As a result, there are very few Shelties in the Shetland Islands. Some claim that the modern Sheltie breed has never even worked a single day in the Shetland Islands!