February 7, 2002
THE SHETLAND SHEEPDOG - Page 1
The Shetland Islands, 130 miles north of Scotland, are renowned for raging storms and ceaseless winds. Survival on these islands appears to have been based upon reducing surface area. The shaggy Shetland pony and the heavy coated Sheltie are the result of a climate in which trees packed their bags and moved south.
Sheltie historians theorize that this breed was created through a combination of spitz type dogs from Iceland and Greenland, Border Collies, and perhaps a King Charles Spaniel who wandered off a ship and deeply regretted it. However, no one is quite certain since it was much too cold for anyone to come out of the house and see who was doing what to whom. However, during one three-day summer, residents were pleased to find a smallish dog with a huge coat that resembled a collie in miniature rounding up all the farm animals.
In general, the residents of Shetland were less concerned about pedigree than with this dog's remarkable ability to make their lives tolerable. It is reported that these dogs were able to take sheep out to the field and bring them back to shelter without human help. They were also able to herd ponies. You can imagine how quickly the Shetlanders embraced this breed. Picture this scenario.
It's February. A farmer crawls out from under his quilts. He shoves the Sheltie out of the door into gale force winds with the following instructions: "Take the sheep out to the north field, but put the ram into the pen next to the barn. Then put the ponies in their stalls. And don't forget to shut the gates." Such stories about the skill of Shelties make Babe the Pig seem like a slacker.
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THE SHETLAND SHEEPDOG - Page 2
It is interesting to consider what skills the Sheltie might have acquired if they had been born in a different climate. Would the tropical Sheltie have been able to blow up the air mattress and mix a margarita? Would the Parisian Sheltie have delivered a foamy latte to bedside?
In reality, the Shelties' work ethic has translated well to life outside of Shetland. They have long been one of the top four breeds in obedience competition. In the newish sport of agility, they are standouts. Shelties have twice earned the most agility titles of any breed in a single year. Two of the international agility team members in 1998 were Shelties. Clearly, this breed is happiest when involved in some chore. The Sheltie needs little discipline to work hard, merely the whispered threat of returning to the islands and the howling winds.
However, it must be noted that some Shelties are losing their edge. In an article about sheep herding on the American Shetland Sheepdog Association website, the author reports that, when introduced for the first time, eighty-four percent of Shelties attempt to move the woolies in some direction. However, the author also reports that nine percent of the Shelties show, "…no clear style." In my mind, this means that these dogs recognized the sheep as other social beings and, having a strong code of etiquette, had no interest in trying to shove them around.
In Shetland, these dogs would probably have become the fur lining for booties. Interestingly, the author does not account for the remaining seven percent. I am quick to conclude that this group of Shelties, when they got a sniff of lanolin, thought they were back in Shetland and refused to get out of the car. It is reported by Sheltie owners that, despite these variations in responding to sheep, one hundred percent of all Shelties believe that the vacuum cleaner must be brought to a standstill and barked into submission. If that fails, the machine must be nipped to death. In addition, Sheltie owners also report finding their children and children they have never seen before collected and held in the corner of the living room.
THE SHETLAND SHEEPDOG - Page 3
Shelties are bred in a wider range of colors and patterns than almost any breed except collies and the Arctic breeds. They come in wonderful combinations of sable, white, and black. The Sheltie is one of the handful of breeds in which blue merle appears, a color that closely approximates the hair color of elderly women. The merles may also have glacier blue eyes that some owners love and others find disturbing. Once or twice a year, the Sheltie coat does some heavy shedding, and owners report Texas-size tumbleweeds of hair drifting across hard wood or tile.
While the Sheltie has adapted well to life in warmer climates, there is a rift between Sheltie breeders of which potential owners should be aware. This split of philosophies is typical of many of the herding or working breeds in which a working line and a conformation line have developed based on different characteristics. The Hatfields, owners of performance Shelties used in herding and agility, snipe that conformation breeds value a pretty face over the ability to do a hard day's work. The McCoys, owners of conformation dogs that vie for championships, express concern that performance dogs are hyperactive and would look like over-amped ruffian cousins in the show ring. There is no simple solution since outstanding show prospects are unlikely to end up in the hands of performance trainers where they could prove that they do know the difference between the two ends of the sheep. If you decide to purchase a Sheltie, you may need to decide where to toss your hat. Or you may get lucky and find one of the occasional kennels that manage to breed dogs that succeed in both worlds.
Lest you think that the Sheltie is perfect, here is another aspect of the breed that must be considered. The following adjectives pop up occasionally in literature about this breed: shy, timid, and nervous. One author states that, "Dogs that are hysterical should not be used for breeding." (Riddle, 1991). Oh, duh. If you talk to your friends about Shelties, some will inevitably express a common perception that some of these pups are spooky. The author cited here certainly substantiates that this is more than vicious rumor. This personality trait may be the result of decades of isolated winters on the Shetland Island where the stimuli were limited to five things: sheep, snow, wind, farmer and food. Modern breeders are, of course, doing their best to minimize these traits. However, in selecting a Sheltie, it would not be wise to pick an individual that cringes, is overly reserved, or requires a sprinkle of Prozac on its kibble.
Sheltie owners are as dedicated a group of dog folks as you will ever meet. They will be thrilled to tell you that in addition to being a handsome devil, this dog is loyal, affectionate, and always on the top ten lists of most intelligent dogs. Besides that, they will confide, a good Sheltie can always be sent to the corner market for a gallon of milk in a snowstorm.
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