Sheltie Planet

Paws For Thought: What's The History of The Sheltie Breed?

By Becky Turner

Today we're tracing the evolution of the Shetland Sheepdog breed. From their origins as Scandinavian herding dogs to more recent Collie crosses in Scotland.

We all know that Shetland Sheepdogs come from the Shetland Islands of Scotland. But the complete Sheltie history is lesser known and makes for an intriguing story...


Early Shelties were known as Toonies

Shelties Started Out From Scandinavian Herding Dogs

The Sheltie history begins with Scandinavian herding dogs, most likely a Spitz dog breed similar to the modern Icelandic Sheepdog. Their thick double coats made them well equipped to deal with harsh winters, and they were excellent working dog candidates for the islands of Scotland.

Once imported into the Shetland Islands in the 1700s, the Scandinavian Spitz breed was extensively crossed with mainland working collies. These included the Border Collie and Rough Collie, along with other breeds like the now extinct Greenland Yakki, the King Charles Spaniel and the Pomeranian.

The Sheltie Relatives

Relatives of the Sheltie

The Miniature Collie

Has your Sheltie ever been called a "mini Lassie"? Why do Shetland Sheepdogs look so much like miniature Rouch Collies?

As you'll see in a moment, this evolving breed of sheepdog was heavily crossed with Rough Collies. But first, there was significant miniaturization - for two reasons:

Smaller Cattle

The Shetland Islands are famous for their miniature animals, including the Shetland Pony which stands at around one meter tall. Shetland Sheep are also smaller and lighter than their mainland counterparts.

This is because the islands are small, food was scarce, and the animals naturally downsized over the generations. As a result, Shetland farmers bred smaller Shetland Sheepdogs to watch their wee cattle. And so came the evolution of the "Toonie".

Shetland Ponies

Shetland Ponies


In the 1800s, the people of the Shetland Islands found that they could make money by selling the cute, fluffy Toonie breed to rich travelers.

They crossed their working Toonies with Pomeranians and possibly even Papillions and Corgis to achieve even smaller dogs that would appeal as pets. Early Shelties were likely crossed with Pomeranians, Papillons and Corgis

Early Shelties were likely crossed with Pomeranians, Papillons and Corgis

The Modern Sheltie Breed

A Sheltie History

Chestnut Rainbow, born 1922, ancestor of almost all modern American Shelties

By 1900, the breeders of the Shetland Islands began to realize that the original working dog breed was disappearing.

So they retraced their steps and reintroduced Collie crosses, sometimes even with show Collies.

These new lines became known as Shetland Collies and a Sheltie breed standard was accepted by the Kennel Club.

Then things got political.

Collie breeders began shunning the new Shetland Collies as "little mongrels" and calling for greater distinction between the two breeds.

A Modern Shetland Sheepdog

The modern-day Shetland Sheepdog

The Kennel Club quickly changed the breed name to Shetland Sheepdogs, even though the modern Sheltie breed is so evidently highly influenced by Rough Collie crosses.

Nonetheless, this process went on to define the modern day standard which describes the Sheltie breed's ideal dimensions, colors, gait and temperament.

About The Author

Becky Turner is a writer and zoologist-in-training. Learn more about Becky here. If you'd like to support her work, check out her ebook, The Sheltie Anthology, a complete guide to everything Sheltie.