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Sally Anne Thompson, Animal Photography
Tetsu Yamazaki, Animal Photography
Bright eyed and bushy tailed, with a face that always seems to be smiling, the Shetland Sheepdog, has long been a family favorite. Not a Miniature Collie but his own distinctive breed, the Sheltie is loyal, funny, and smart. He is also a barker.
The Shetland Sheepdog has Collie in his ancestry and once went by the name Miniature Collie. He has also gone by the names Lilliputian Collie, Toonie Dog, and Fairy Dog.
The Sheltie is an active, fun-loving dog who’s a little too big to be small but small enough to be cute. His gentle disposition, athleticism, and keen intelligence make him a dog who lives to please and loves to show off. Trick-training is a breeze with this breed.
Although his barking may make him difficult to tolerate in noisy city environs, he’s well-suited to a suburban lifestyle and (overall health permitting) is a wonderful walking, running, or hiking companion who can go for miles. Expect attention when out with a Sheltie; his cuteness always attracts a crowd and admiring comments.
Along with the Border Collie, this diminutive speed demon is tops at the canine sport of agility. Less competitively, he loves to learn tricks that require a degree of agility, such as jumping over a bar or through a hoop. Retrieving games are not in the breed’s contract, but some Shelties become tennis ball freaks and will fetch them for hours. Don’t toss the ball into water, however: Most Shelties seem to think they are made of sugar.
Though the “Lassie” markings are most common and popular, Shelties come in other varieties with varying degrees of white ruff and paws, including dogs with mottled gray-black coats (blue merles) or solid black coats. Blue merle dogs may have blue eyes and may be deaf in one or both ears.
Everything is a little bit smaller on the Shetland Islands, to suit the rugged but small area. That included the miniature sheepdogs who helped the crofters tend their diminutive livestock and barked a warning of strangers.
The origin of the little dogs is unknown. Theories suggest that the Sheltie might be a blend of Nordic breeds, including the Pomeranian, the larger Collie, and maybe even a King Charles Spaniel. Through the years, he has gone by several names: Lilliputian Collie, Toonie Dog, Fairy Dog, and Miniature Collie.
Visitors to the remote islands were often entranced by the fluffy little dogs and took them home as souvenirs. Islanders began breeding them for income, and dog fanciers became interested in them as well. Some people bred them with Collies for a more consistent size and look. It’s even suspected that other, unknown, breeds were mixed in, which may be the source of the blue merle with tan pattern. To this day, Shelties vary widely in size, even within the same litter, because of the variety of dogs in their relatively recent background.
The Scottish Shetland Sheepdog Club was formed in 1909, after the name Shetland Collie was rejected because it offended Collie breeders. The American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1911, and The American Shetland Sheepdog Association was formed in 1929. The Sheltie is among the top 20 breeds registered by the AKC, ranking 19th.
Intensely loyal and affectionate with his family, the Sheltie has the typical herding breed reserve and even suspicion toward strangers. The Sheltie loves his people — and he’s very good with “his kids” — but he’s not all that fond of strangers. Shetland Sheepdog fanciers call him aloof and suggest the trait was intentional, to keep the small farm dogs from being stolen. Coupled with yapping, this trait can be very annoying to live with. So can the “Sheltie spin,” in which the dog will get revved up — typically at the sight of another dog — and bark furiously at the end of his leash while spinning like a top.
His vocal warnings at the sight of strangers or, really, anything unusual, can go into overdrive. Unless someone is there to keep his barking under control, he can be entirely unsuitable as an apartment dweller, despite his small size.
The Sheltie’s reserved nature can slide into shyness, timidity, or nervousness, all of which are inappropriate for the breed. He should not be stubborn, snappy, or ill-tempered. To have a Sheltie as he’s meant to be, it’s essential to make sure he gets plenty of socialization, coupled with firm, consistent training with respect to his barking.
Like many a herding breed, the Sheltie has a tendency to nip at moving objects, which can mean children. Correct this every time you see it; a Sheltie should never get the idea that his nipping behavior is acceptable. On the plus side, Shelties generally get along with other dogs, typically seem to enjoy cats, and are fine with other household pets.
Shelties learn best with treats and praise, so teaching them good behaviors to substitute for the bad ones is the way to go. Fortunately, Shelties are really, really smart. That gives you a head start in training them.
Begin training your puppy the day you bring him home. Even at 8 weeks old, he is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. Never wait until he is 6 months old to begin training or you will have a more headstrong dog to deal with. If possible, get him into puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks old, and socialize, socialize, socialize. However, be aware that many puppy training classes require certain vaccines (like kennel cough) to be up to date, and many veterinarians recommend limited exposure to other dogs and public places until puppy vaccines (including rabies, distemper and parvovirus) have been completed. In lieu of formal training, you can begin training your puppy at home and socializing him among family and friends until puppy vaccines are completed.
Talk to the breeder, describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog, and ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see their puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know something about your lifestyle and personality. Whatever you want from a Sheltie, look for one whose parents have nice personalities and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.
All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines.
The Shetland Sheepdog can develop certain health problems. Here’s a brief rundown on a few of the conditions you should know about.
Pay particular attention to your puppy’s eyes. Shelties suffer from a large number of genetic eye problems, including Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA), corneal dystrophy, progressive retinal atrophy, and optic nerve hypoplasia. The breeder should have Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) clearance on your puppy’s parents’ eyes done within the previous year, and you should talk to your veterinarian about how often your Sheltie's eyes should be evaluated for problems.
Other issues with the breed include congenital deafness, hip dysplasia, congenital elbow luxation, hypothyriodism, and patent ductus arteriosus (a congenital heart defect). Shelties can also be affected by vonWillebrand’s disease, a blood clotting disorder that can leave them at risk of bleeding to death from a minor injury or during surgery, and Shelties can also have a genetic mutation (involving the MDR1 allele) that makes them sensitive to a number of common veterinary drugs.
Shelties can also be affected by a number of health conditions for which there are no screening tests. These include skin allergies, epilepsy, and a breed-specific skin disease called Dermatomyositis (DM) or Sheltie Skin Syndrome. DM usually strikes dogs around 4 to 6 months old, with hair loss on the head, face, front legs, and tail. It can be diagnosed with a tissue biopsy. Dogs with the most severe form of the disease, which also affects the muscles, can be difficult to treat. The genetics of this disease are complicated in a way that makes it difficult to screen, but research is underway at Texas A&M University to develop a DNA test for DM.
Not all of these conditions are detectable in a growing puppy, and it can be hard to predict whether an animal will be free of these maladies, which is why you must find a reputable breeder who is committed to breeding the healthiest animals possible. They should be able to produce independent certification that the parents of the dog (and grandparents, etc.) have been screened for genetic defects and deemed healthy for breeding. That’s where health registries come in.
The American Shetland Sheepdog Association participates in the Canine Health Information Center, a health database. Before individual Shelties can be CHIC-certified, breeders must submit hip evaluations from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), eye test results from the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF), an OFA evaluation for von Willebrand’s Disease, and OFA test results for MDR1. University of Pennsylvania (PennHIP) certification of hips is also accepted. Annual eye clearances are recommended until the dog is 5 years old and then every two years until the dog is 9 years old. Optional CHIC test results that can be submitted are OFA certification of thyroid health, an Optigen test for CEA, a cardiac exam by a board-certified veterinary cardiologist, an OFA elbow evaluation, and a temperament test by the American Temperament Test Society, with the results submitted to OFA.
Breeders must agree to have all test results, positive or negative, published in the CHIC database. A dog need not receive good or even passing scores on the evaluations to obtain a CHIC number, so CHIC registration alone is not proof of soundness or absence of disease, but all test results are posted on the CHIC website and can be accessed by anyone who wants to check the health of a puppy’s parents.
If the breeder tells you she doesn’t need to do those tests because she’s never had problems in her lines, her dogs have been vet checked, or any of the other excuses bad breeders have for skimping on the genetic testing of their dogs, walk away immediately.
Careful breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic disease and breed only the healthiest and best-looking specimens, but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and a puppy develops one of these diseases despite good breeding practices. Advances in veterinary medicine mean that in most cases the dogs can still live good lives. If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder about the ages of the dogs in her lines and what they died of.
Remember that after you’ve taken a new puppy into your home, you have the power to protect him from one of the more common health problems: obesity. Keeping a Sheltie at an appropriate weight is one of the easiest ways to extend his life. Make the most of diet and exercise to help ensure a healthier dog for life.
Regular and thorough brushing and combing is a must for this double-coat breed, because the undercoat can mat into a layer of uncomfortable felt while the long outer coat still looks normal. Ask your Sheltie’s breeder to show you how to brush him so you get all the way down to the skin.
Professional grooming at six-week intervals will prevent the worst shedding and matting, and make it possible to keep up the grooming in the interim. Shelties shed a lot, typically more in spring and fall. Your new best friends will be an undercoat rake, a pin brush, and a slicker brush.
Shelties are good at keeping themselves clean, especially if you do your part by brushing regularly. Give your Sheltie a bath once every month or two. He shouldn’t need one more often than that.
The rest is basic care. Trim his nails as needed, usually every week or two. Brush the teeth with a vet-approved pet toothpaste for good overall health and fresh breath.
Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.
Finding a good breeder is a great way to find the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy and will, without question, have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as possible. She is more interested in placing pups in the right homes than making big bucks.
Good breeders will welcome your questions about temperament, health clearances, and what the dogs are like to live with, and come right back at you with questions of their own about what you’re looking for in a dog and what kind of life you can provide for him. A good breeder can tell you about the history of the breed, explain why one puppy is considered pet quality while another is not, and discuss what health problems affect the breed and the steps she takes take to avoid those problems.
Start your search for a good Sheltie breeder on the website of the American Shetland Sheepdog Association, which maintains a referral list for breeders; choose one who has agreed to be bound by the club’s code of ethics, which prohibits its members from selling puppies to pet stores and requires them to take lifetime responsibility for any puppies they sell if their owners are unable to care for them.
Make sure your breeder complies with the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) requirements for the Shetland Sheepdog. All breeders should be able to show you written documentationfrom VetGen showing the parents’ von Willebrand’s status, along with Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) certification that the parents are not carrying the MDR1 gene defect and that their hips are free of dysplasia, a crippling malformation of the hip socket that leads to arthritis and can require surgery to repair. University of Pennsylvania (PennHip) hip certification is also acceptable.
Avoid breeders who seem interested only in how quickly they can unload a puppy on you and whether your credit card will go through. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from a website that offers to ship your dog to you immediately can be a risky venture, as it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected. Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.
Lots of reputable breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags include puppies always being available, multiple litters on the premises, having your choice of any puppy, and the ability to pay online with a credit card. Quickie online purchases are convenient, but they are almost never associated with reputable breeders.
Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies.
The cost of a Sheltie puppy varies depending on the breeder’s locale, whether he is male or female, what titles his parents have, and whether he is best suited for the show ring or a pet home. The puppy you buy should have been raised in a clean home environment, from parents with health clearances and conformation (show) and, ideally, working titles to prove that they are good specimens of the breed. Puppies should be temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life.
And before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult Shetland Sheepdog might better suit your needs and lifestyle. Puppies are loads of fun, but they require a lot of time and effort before they grow up to become the dog of your dreams. An adult Sheltie may already have some training and will probably be less active, destructive, and demanding than a puppy.
With an adult, you know more about what you’re getting in terms of personality and health and you can find adults through breeders or shelters. If you are interested in acquiring an older dog through breeders, ask them about purchasing a retired show dog or if they know of an adult dog who needs a new home. If you want to adopt a dog, read the advice below on how to do that.
There are many great options available if you want to adopt a dog from an animal shelter or breed rescue organization. Here is how to get started.
1. Use the Web
Sites like Petfinder.com and Adopt-a-Pet.com can have you searching for a Shetland Sheepdog in your area in no time flat. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the Shelties available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter.org can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.
Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.
2. Reach Out to Local Experts
Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for a Sheltie. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.
3. Talk to Breed Rescue
Most people who love Shetland Sheepdogs love all Shetland Sheepdogs. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The American Shetland Sheepdog Association can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other Shetland Sheepdog rescues in your area.
The great thing about breed rescue groups is that they tend to be very upfront about any health conditions the dogs may have and are a valuable resource for advice. They also often offer fostering opportunities so, with training, you could bring a Sheltie home for a trial to see what the experience is like.
4. Key Questions to Ask
You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a pup. These include:
What is his energy level?
How is he around other animals?
How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors, and children?
What is his personality like?
What is his age?
Is he housetrained?
Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?
Are there any known health issues?
Wherever you acquire your Sheltie, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter, or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. Petfinder offers an Adopters Bill of Rightsthat helps you understand what you can consider normal and appropriate when you get a dog from a shelter. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Puppy or adult, take your Sheltie to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
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