A History of Shelties

We all know that Shetland Sheepdogs come from the Shetland Islands of Scotland. But the theorised Sheltie ancestry, drawn from historical records and a certain amount of educated guesswork, provides us with an intriguing story.

The Sheltie Ancestry

The most likely explanation of the Sheltie's origins is a Scandinavian herding dog, perhaps a Spitz 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.

After being imported into the Shetland Islands in the 1700s, the original 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 ancestry involves a Scandinavian herding breed being crossed with Rough Collies, Border Collies, Pomeranians, and King Charles Spaniels

The leading theory of Shetland Sheepdog ancestry

The Miniature Collie

Has your Sheltie ever been called a "mini Lassie"? Why do Shetland Sheepdogs look so much like miniature Rough Collies and not their other ancestral breeds? As you'll see in a moment, this evolving breed of sheepdog was heavily crossed with Rough Collies. But first, there was significant miniaturization, thought to be 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 and with limited food and habitat, so natural selection saw diminutive variations survive better over the generations. As a result, Shetland farmers are thought to have selected smaller Shelties to watch their wee cattle. And so came the evolution of the "Toonie".

Shetland Ponies

The Shetland Islands are famous for their diminutive animals


In the 1800s, Shetland Island farmers found they could make money selling their cute little Toonie breed to tourists. To increase the appeal, they crossed their working Toonies with Pomeranians again, and possibly even Papillons and Corgis to achieve smaller, fluffier dogs that would make more attractive pets.


Early Shelties were known as Toonies, yet didn't fully resemble the Shelties of today

The Modern Shetland Sheepdog

By 1900, Shetland breeders began to realize that the original working dog breed was disappearing. So they retraced their steps and reintroduced Rough Collie crosses, sometimes even with show Collies. The new lines became known as Shetland Collies and a Sheltie breed standard was accepted by the Kennel Club in 1911. The dog pictured below is Chestnut Rainbow, born around 1922, thought to be the ancestor of almost all modern American Shelties.

Chestnut Rainbow (1922) is the ancestor of most modern American Shelties

Chestnut Rainbow (1922) is the ancestor of most modern American Shelties.

But then things got political. Collie breeders began shunning the new Shetland Collies as "little mongrels" and calling for greater distinction between them and Rough Collies. The Kennel Club changed the breed name to Shetland Sheepdogs, despite the fact that the modern Sheltie breed is so evidently influenced by Rough Collie crosses.

The breed was further refined and in 1952, the modern breed standard was finalized, describing the Shetland Sheepdog’s ideal dimensions, coat colors, gait, and temperament. This is the official definition of a Sheltie that all professional breeders aim to produce today. Take a look at the modern Shetland Sheepdog breed standard for a full technical description.

A Modern Shetland Sheepdog

And that's how the Sheltie came to be. There is at least one competing theory of their ancestry, often adopted by mini Sheltie breeders, which proposes some variations to this historic account. But that's a story for another day.

Becky Casale

Becky Casale is the creator of Sheltie Planet and Science Me. She lives in New Zealand with her partner, their two children, and their Sheltie, Piper.

Shelties: The Complete Pet Owner's Guide