The purpose of this article is to explain what to look for, or how to identify the basic desirable characteristics consistent with the breed of a Shetland Sheepdog. The idea is that the more you know what a Sheltie should look like, the better you’ll be able to determine the quality of the dog, whether a puppy or adult, that you’re thinking about adopting. Of course, no one knows exactly what a young pup will look like as an adult. That’s why it’s always best to ask to see both parents as a way to determine what your puppy might look like.
Please note: This article discusses breed characteristics for the purpose of adopting a Sheltie as a loving member of your family and not intended as an in depth analysis of breed standards for showing your Shetland Sheepdog. For more detailed information about breed standards for show, please visit: The American Kennel Club’s official breed standard page.
Lastly, please remember – What a Shetland Sheepdog looks like (size, shape or color), has no bearing on the personality, temperament, or ability of your new Sheltie to lavish you with unconditional love. Those determinations can also be made by asking to see the parents of a Sheltie pup.
In 1930 the Scottish and English Shetland Sheepdog Clubs got together and agreed that the Sheltie should resemble a Rough Collie in miniature.
But, even though the Shetland sheepdog has the general appearance of a miniature Rough Collie, unlike other miniature dog breeds, the Sheltie was not bred exclusively from small Rough Collies. Instead, it features a history of mixed backgrounds of various dog breeds from all across Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, as well as Europe. It is due to that background that Shelties today can vary greatly from one another.
Today you can find Shetland Sheepdogs that have broad skulls and heavy ears of the early farm mix Collie or Border Collies, along with their coloring. Other Shelties may show the tiny, fox faces and prick ears of their early Shetland Island ancestors. You will find small and dainty Shelties, weighing in at as little as twelve pounds and standing twelve inches tall, to others that are long, tall and heavily boned, tipping the scales at forty pounds and standing eighteen inches tall. Multiple colors, sizes and shapes all make up the Shetland Sheepdog. A Sheltie is a Sheltie, and there is no AKC designation of a “miniature” or “toy” Shetland Sheepdog.
In general though, Shelties are small, alert, rough-coated, long haired working dogs, belonging to the “Herding” group. They’re sound, agile, and sturdy. The Sheltie’s outline should be symmetrical and no part should appear out of proportion to the whole. Male Shelties should appear “masculine”, while the female should appear “feminine.”
American Shelties should stand between 13 and 16 inches from the ground – measured at the shoulder. You can measure the height of your Sheltie by drawing a line perpendicular to the ground from the top of the shoulder blades while the dog is standing naturally. The typical weight of the sheltie should be between 12 and 25 pounds, depending on the size.
Shelties should have a deep chest, extending down to the point of the elbow. The back should be muscular. The backline from the withers to the croup (top of shoulders to rump) should be straight and level. The legs must be straight (no curvature or bowing) and muscular with strong bone. Thighs should be broad and muscular as well. The neck is muscular, arched, and should carry the head proudly. Sheltie feet should be compact and oval with the toes well arched and fitting tightly together. The pads should be deep and tough, with the nails hard and strong.
When viewed from above, the Sheltie’s head has a unique shape described as a “long, blunt wedge tapering slightly from ears to nose.”
The top of the skull should be flat with no prominence at the nuchal crest. (The nuchal crest sits behind the back of the skull and kind of runs horizontally.) In addition, the Sheltie’s cheeks should be flat and merge smoothly into a well-rounded muzzle. The skull and muzzle should be of equal lengths with a balance point at the inner corner of the eye. The skull or muzzle should not be excessively long or thin.
When viewing the Sheltie in profile, the top line of the skull should be parallel to the top line of the muzzle. Jaws should be clean and powerful with a deep, well-developed underjaw rounded at the chin.
The nose of the Sheltie must be completely black.
The mouth has tight lips with the upper and lower lips meeting and fitting smoothly together all the way around. Teeth need to be level and evenly spaced in a scissors (incisor teeth in the upper jaw are in contact with, but slightly overlap those in bottom jaw) bite. Teeth should not be visible when mouth is closed.
Typically, Shelties have dark-colored, medium-sized eyes with dark, almond-shaped rims. Only Blue Merle Shelties may have blue eyes or merle (odd colored) eyes. Eyes are set somewhat obliquely (meaning having a slanting or sloping direction) in the skull.
Sheltie ears are small and flexible and placed high on the head. The tips should break slightly forward and should be “three-fourths erect”. The ears should not be set too low, wide-set, tip too low or flop (called “hound ears”), or stand straight up with no bend (called “prick ears” or “bat ears”). When in rest, the Sheltie’s ears should fold lengthwise and be thrown back.
The hair on the tail is feathered and should also be particularly profuse. The tail itself, should be long and straight with the last vertebra reaching to the hock joint. The tail at rest is straight down or in a slight upward curve. When the Sheltie is alert, the tail is normally lifted, but it should not be curved forward over the back.
Shetland Sheepdogs have a double coat, which means that they have two layers of fur that make up their coat. The outer coat consists of long, straight, harsh hairs that lie on top of the undercoat, which is furry and dense. The outer coat is water-repellent while the undercoat provides relief from extreme temperatures. In the animal kingdom, it’s generally the male of the species, and not the female, that sports the more flamboyant appearance. Well it’s no different for Shetland Sheepdogs, for it’s typically the male Sheltie that shows more abundant hair all over the body, especially forming a mane around the neck and chest with profuse feathering on the legs and underside. All Shelties though, should have an ample, long and thick double coat.
For a discussion of the various Sheltie coat colors, please visit –
The Shetland Sheepdog’s Coat of Many Colors.
Shetland Sheepdogs are described as having an “alert, gentle, intelligent, and questioning expression.” Expression is formed by the contours of the head as well as the shape of the eyes and set of the ears. Shelties should not display fear around strangers. Instead, the Sheltie’s expression should display “watchfulness and reserve”. If you’re really lucky, maybe they’ll cock their heads for you, in that precious Shetland Sheepdog way.