The History of the Shetland Sheepdog

The Shetland Islands in the Northern Atlantic are a series of small islands off the northeast coast of Scotland. It is a land of harsh and desolate beauty.  The islands are windswept, rocky and sparse in vegetation. The people who inhabit the islands are also rough and rugged as are most of the animals that live there.  All Shetland Island animals were small, and the sheep in particular were extremely wild and agile, so agility, speed, biddability and the ability to work on a minimum of food would have been prized above size or ability to intimidate lazy stock.

Scandinavian Origins?

Chestnut Rainbow, born 1922, ancestor of most modern American Shelties

The actual mix of what went into developing this breed is shrouded in mystery and still debated today. It is thought that the original Shetland herding dogs were a combination of dogs from fishing fleets, some Icelandic and Greenland Yakki type combined with existing island type Rough Collie and Border Collie.

By the end of the 19th century, some of the Islanders realized that the original breed was vanishing.  There were two different breeding goals going on.  Some residents had found that they could make money by selling small, fluffy mix bred dogs to rich travelers. They crossed their early Shelties with Pomeranians, Papillions, Corgis and possibly Scottish Terriers, to achieve even smaller dogs.

At the same time, crosses with Collies, possibly including show Collies, began to be made by another group of islanders in an effort to recover the original type. This effort was what helped establish what would become the modern Shetland sheepdog we see today.

The Modern Sheltie

Trevor, a modern type Sheltie.

When the breed was originally introduced, breeders called them “Shetland Collies”.  This caused controversy among Rough Collie breeders at the time, so the breed’s name was formally changed to Shetland Sheepdog in the early 1900’s.

1909 was the year that marked the first registration of the Sheltie by the English Kennel Club. The first Sheltie to be registered by the American Kennel Club was in 1911.

The original Spitz-type working sheepdog of Shetland is now extinct, having been replaced for herding there by the Border Collie. The Shetland Sheepdog in its modern form has never been used as a working dog on Shetland, and ironically it is uncommon to find them there!

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