The Shetland Sheepdog: A Comprehensive Guide

Neither beauty nor brains are in short supply for the incredible Shetland Sheepdog. More than just a “miniature Lassie,” these versatile, clever, and elegant dogs are worth getting to know.

Dec 20, 2023By Chelsea Pinkham
meet the shetland sheepdog

On the smaller side of the Herding group, Shelties are behaviorally complex. These dogs are known to be reserved around strangers, yet with proper training, can excel with confidence in the sports world. Shetland Sheepdogs are gentle dogs with a highly sensitive nature. This soft, kind temperament is paralleled by their whimsical and dainty appearance.

Athletes, companions, and beauty queens, Shetland Sheepdogs are truly versatile dogs. But is a Shetland Sheepdog right for your family? Let’s dive into this wonderful breed and find out!

Shelties Are Small Herding Breed

diverse shelties
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Standing at just 13 to 16 inches at the shoulder, the Shetland Sheepdog is one of the smaller of the herding breeds. What they lack in size, they make up for in wits and striking looks. Shetland Sheepdogs are an excellent option for those looking for a herding breed dog in a small package; they are easier for travel, bathing, and lifting than their larger relatives.

Just like its close relative, the Rough Collie, the Shetland Sheepdog comes in blue merle, sable, and black, with white markings throughout the coat. Their long, flowing double coats are truly show-stopping. These elegant dogs bear an incredibly long snout, giving them the appearance that is so characteristic of Collie breeds.

sheltie colors
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Another telltale characteristic of these beautiful canines is their “prick” ears with a small fold at the tip.

Shelties need to be brushed daily to keep their coats in top shape, and shaving double-coated breeds isn’t recommended. Regular coat maintenance is a must!

Breed History

akc sheltie herds sheep
Image credit: American Kennel Club

Around the time that the Shetland Sheepdog was developed in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, food was scarce. This windswept and wild landscape is not ideal for growing crops, and resources have historically had to be carefully managed. Miles from the nearest stretch of the mainland, life on the islands was very difficult.

A good sheep-herding dog was indispensable to farmers, but keeping a large breed dog nourished was no easy feat. The obedient, people-pleasing Rough Collie was a phenomenal working breed; its only flaw amongst impoverished farmers was its large size and appetite. Working dogs must be well-nourished to remain enthusiastic about their strenuous jobs.

merle and tricolor shelties
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So for the same reason that the Shetland Pony was bred for small size, the same gradual process of selective breeding began for the Shetland Sheepdog. The resulting quick-witted Sheltie kept the Rough Collie’s attentive nature, agility, and adaptability while losing the excess calorie needs. The dogs were effectively “downsized”!

The Shetland Sheepdog retained its ancestral instincts and proved highly capable of herding a variety of farmed animals, including birds, sheep, and even ponies. Great things often come in small packages!

Because the Shetland Islands are fifty miles from the nearest mainland shore, the Sheltie was isolated from the rest of Europe for many years. The breed spent much of its early history unknown to the rest of the world; a treasure yet to be discovered.

attentive sable shetland sheepdog
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Today, the Sheltie is not only a competent herder but an athlete of choice for many dog sports enthusiasts. Shelties are sure to dominate their class in agility trials and are one of the most common breeds to place at national and international competition levels. They remain highly successful in herding, too. These incredible canines remain fairly popular in Europe and the United States. In fact, Shetland Sheepdogs currently rank 27 out of 200 breeds for American Kennel Club annual registrations.

Behavior and Temperament

shetland sheepdog agility
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The Shetland Sheepdog bears all the behavioral characteristics of a typical herding breed dog: active, quick-witted, intelligent, and eager to please. Equipped with strong problem-solving skills, these dogs are ideal, willing candidates for high-level, competitive obedience training.

Biddability is a trait that is strong in all herding breeds. In the training world, a dog’s biddability is their innate desire to learn and work with humans, simply out of intrinsic motivation. Shetland Sheepdogs are no exception. These clever, loyal dogs tend to be highly engaged with their handlers. If a handler makes learning fun and provides the right motivation, learning will become a passion for most Shelties. With a knowledgeable and gentle trainer, engaging in breed-specific tasks will come naturally.

sheltie playing tug
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Herding breeds aren’t for everyone, but for those interested in immersing in this breed group, a Sheltie can serve as an excellent first introduction. Far too often, herding breeds are destined for failure with caregivers who don’t know how to exercise their instincts healthily; if not provided with enough mental stimulation, they will often take it upon themselves to “herd” members of the household. It can also lead to other common behavioral problems in dogs.

Breeds developed to herd cattle, like Australian Cattle Dogs and Australian Shepherds, often communicate with their teeth by snapping at extremities. Being bred to herd birds and sheep, the Shetland Sheepdog is a bit softer in their instincts. These dogs are less likely to develop unwanted herding behaviors in the form of biting and snapping.

attentive merle sheltie
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If you’re interested in eventually owning one of these more intense herding breeds, a Shetland Sheepdog is a bit of a safer bet, given that you understand their characteristics and needs.

One unique aspect of Sheltie behavior is the breed’s tendency to be reserved towards strangers. While fiercely loyal to known family members, some Shelties struggle with learning that new humans are safe to interact with. Perhaps this characteristic comes from their development on remote islands, working only with farming families on isolated stretches of land.

Helping Your Sheltie Thrive

playful shelties
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Shelties’ tendency to be reserved toward strangers means that these dogs require active, positive socialization from a very young age. What is positive socialization? Positive socialization means the pairing of socialization with positive reinforcement in the form of high-value rewards. It means allowing the puppy or dog to take things at their own pace, and not forcing interactions that make them uncomfortable.

This method works to expand a dog’s comfort zone, rather than pushing them out of it. Taking your Sheltie puppy to a Christmas party and passing them around to strangers is more likely to traumatize them than help them. Take things slowly, offer high-value food rewards, and listen to your Sheltie’s body language. Reward them for choosing to approach new people or objects, and even just for seeing people from a distance.

Shelties Benefit From Positive Reinforcement-Based Training

frisbee sheltie
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Consulting a certified, reinforcement-based, force-free trainer will do nothing but good for your new Sheltie pup.

Herding breeds are not independent dogs, and Shelties are no exception. These clever canines need guidance and structure to thrive. A reinforcement-based dog trainer can help you create structure in your dog’s life before their behavior gets out of hand. Training should be fun for both dog and handler and can serve as a joyful bonding experience.

It should be noted that dog training is an unregulated industry, and great caution should be exercised when selecting a training service. Finding a trainer certified by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers is a strong starting point. It’s never too late to start training your dog, so whether you’ve rescued an adult Sheltie or purchased a new puppy, training is a good idea!

Shelties Benefit From Exercise and Activity

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Dog sports are growing in popularity fast. Of course, every dog is an individual; but breed-specific characteristics mean certain breeds are more likely to excel at certain sports. The clever and people-pleasing Shetland Sheepdog tends to enjoy sports that involve plenty of engagement and excitement. Herding, agility, obedience, rally, and frisbee are great starting points!

There is no such thing as too much engagement and enrichment for these bright dogs. Food puzzles, snuffle mats, toys, and interactive games will all benefit Shelties considerably.

Special Care Considerations

sable sheltie puppy cute
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In addition to having special behavioral needs, the Shetland Sheepdog has grooming needs that can’t be ignored. That beautiful, flowing coat does not come without maintenance and daily care. Double-coated dogs should never be shaved, as this disrupts the natural insulation their coat provides. Shetland Sheepdogs should be brushed daily to ensure optimal coat health.

Brushes and other grooming supplies should be introduced slowly through counterconditioning, a method that pairs positive rewards with a neutral stimulus. In more simple words, take things slowly and reward your dog profusely for tolerating the presence of the brush. A Sheltie who is afraid of the brush is going to experience stress every day.

Shetland Sheepdogs do shed, and that is an inevitable cost of owning one of these majestic animals. During shedding season, a Sheltie owner’s house is likely to be covered in dog hair. If you’re considering adding one of these dogs to your family, be sure to purchase a lint roller!

Is the Shetland Sheepdog Right for You?

excited sheltie puppy
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If you’re ready to provide active, positive socialization, plenty of engagement, regular grooming, and extensive training, a Shetland Sheepdog could be a fantastic fit for your family. A well-cared-for Sheltie can live 12-14 years or more, providing over a decade of companionship.

Prospective caregivers should consider adopting a Sheltie and what goes into bringing a new dog home. If the decision is made to buy a Sheltie, great care should be to find an ethical breeder. This will ensure that active socialization and proper care have taken place since the very day your new puppy has entered the world.

Both athletes and companions, the Shetland Sheepdog is a truly spectacular breed. Their compact size has no impact on their diverse capabilities, and their undying loyalty towards their caregivers has maintained their popularity across generations.

Chelsea Pinkham
By Chelsea Pinkham

Chelsea is an animal advocate, rescuer, and aspiring rewards-based dog trainer. She is a Fear Free Certified Pet Professional with over a decade of animal experience. Chelsea has worked at animal shelters, sanctuaries and with many private dog training clients. She immerses herself in canine behavior education as she pursues her CPDT-KA dog training certification. In her spare time, she trains dozens of fun tricks for her and her partner’s rescued adventure cat, Iggy!