If you'd like to learn more about the Shetland Sheepdog, you're in the right place. This is an informal breed "FAQ" in my own words. I've included links to more resources in each category. If there is something you'd like to know about the breed that I haven't covered yet, contact me and let me know!
Size is a hot topic in this breed. In a nutshell, the breed standard requires them to be between 13" and 16" in height. (Unlike many breeds, we have a disqualification for height in shelties. They MUST be in this range, and yes, the judges measure!)
In reality, I have personally seen shelties from 8" to 19" tall. There can be significant size variations even in the same litter - our first litter included four puppies who matured between 13-14", and one who matured at 18 3/4"!
Size genes are not simple. If I had a dollar for every person who suggested that I breed a small dog to a big dog to get medium sized puppies, I would be rich. In the aforementioned litter, the sire (Spark) was 15 3/4" and the dam (Vespa) was about 15". Armchair geneticists, please explain why none of the puppies matched the parents' heights. Not so simple, is it?
Breeders who know their lines and study pedigrees will be better able to predict what size puppies they are apt to get in their litters. But even a total novice can approximate what size their puppy is apt to be by using the Nobel Size Chart.
Reputable breeders measure their puppies every 1-2 weeks and compare their measurements to this chart. It is a strong guideline, but not set in stone. (We are tracking our own litters' measurements carefully to see if our lines have particular discrepancies.) If you know you want a small sheltie, do not purchase a dog that is 11" tall at 8 weeks old!
Unfortunately, this is a practice that is all too common. Breeders sell unsuspecting performance enthusiasts a puppy that they know is not going to be "in size" for the breed ring. The performance exhibitor explains that they'd like a dog, say, under 17" for USDAA... and the breeder sells them the puppy that is an inch over the chart at 8 weeks old. The dog grows into a mini Collie, and the exhibitor is baffled.
If height matters to you at all (and if you do agility, it should), ask your breeder for height measurements for the puppies you are considering.
A sheltie's weight is commensurate with its height. Dogs at the lower end of the accepted height (13-14.5") are generally between 12-17 pounds. Dogs at the higher end (15-16") are around 18-25 pounds.
Weight will vary with the dog's natural amount of "bone," or substance. Our dogs tend to be lighter in bone, with slightly more refined features, so our dogs' weights are at the lighter end of the spectrum above. Dogs outside the accepted height range will vary significantly. I know healthy, fit shelties between 8 pounds and 35 pounds.
Shelties generally love food, and obesity is a significant concern. It is not uncommon for sheltie rescue to receive 50-60 pound shelties - dogs that are being "loved to death." Shelties are generally very easy keepers, and most of them require significantly less dog food than what the bag suggests!
You should always be able to feel your sheltie's ribs and hip bones without having to press through a layer of fat to reach them.
There is a reason shelties are so popular in dog sports! They are generally smart, biddable dogs. They have a tendency to be extremely food motivated and will work very hard to earn a cookie. They like being around people and are interested in participating in what we are doing.
That said, there is a colossal difference between family lines. Some lines of shelties tend to be nervous, hyper-sensitive, and shy. Some lines of shelties tend to be over-the-top, bold, and loud. We aim for the middle.
There are pros and cons to each "extreme," and it's important to work with a breeder who not only can identify these traits in their puppies, but can help you identify which traits you are skilled at working with. If you, as a handler, are quiet, tentative, or fluster easily, you will have a personality conflict with a bouncy, barky, busy sheltie. If you come on strong, have little patience, or give up easily, you will be miserable with a dog on the sensitive, quiet end of the spectrum.
Coat Care & Shedding
Yes, shelties shed. How "bad" it gets depends on many different factors.
Males carry a longer coat than bitches, but generally only "blow coat" once per year. Females carry a shorter, denser coat but generally "blow coat" every 6-9 months, immediately after they come into season.
Shelties must be brushed regularly. Because most of our dogs are intact (not spayed/neutered) and fed a very high quality diet, they generally only need to be brushed every 10 days. This applied to Strata, too - until he was neutered. Neutering changed his coat texture considerably, making it softer and more apt to tangle. He needs to be brushed out every 5-7 days to prevent mats now.
Spaying and neutering absolutely changes a dog's coat texture, and the change is significant in shelties. The undercoat generally becomes more profuse and wooly, which requires more upkeep.
Diet is the other major factor in coat quality. A high-quality diet full of animal proteins and animal fat will contribute to a healthy coat. A low-quality diet full of artificial colors, preservatives, and plant proteins will not produce the same result. Some shelties do better with a grain-free diet and other do better with grain-based. Our personal dogs eat a mix of The Honest Kitchen and homemade raw food, which includes salmon oil and coconut oil as supplements.
Shelties have a well-deserved reputation for being barkers. However, "barkiness" absolutely runs in lines and can be affected by training (or lack thereof).
What you see ringside at an agility trial is not necessarily a reflection of what the dog is like to live with. Many agility competitors encourage barking in an effort to "build drive." (Personally, I think this is hogwash. Many excellent agility shelties are quiet, and many loud shelties are mediocre agility dogs.)
Our personal dogs vary in their tendency to bark. Strata is very quiet. He will occasionally start barking if he is ringside at an agility trial, knows he is about to go in the ring, and the dog in front of him goes through a tunnel. He can be silenced with a word. (I actually encourage this, because it's adorable. He'll woof at the dog once or twice and then look at me as if to ask, "Is this still okay?")
Spark and Match are both, in my opinion, "quiet for a sheltie." Spark barks if he is a little too high during agility, or if my cues are late. He will join in if one of the girls starts barking. Match does not vocalize during work except for the extremely rare "yip!" when she is really revved up. (It is as adorable as it sounds.) She will also yip in frustration if a door is closed in front of her when she would rather go through it, or if she determines Dan is too slow while preparing dog food.
Anthem is pretty typical for a sheltie. She barks when she is excited. She barks when something moves fast. She barks occasionally while running agility, usually if Dan's cues are late. She barks if she hears other dogs having a good time without her.
Like most dogs, all four of them may bark if they hear or see something unusual outside or if a visitor arrives. However, my dogs DO NOT bark non-stop for minutes or hours on end once they are set off. That, I feel, is partially genetic and partially through training.
By and large, shelties tend to be relatively healthy. We are fortunate that most of the genetic diseases common in shelties have DNA tests, and/or do not severely affect the day-to-day lives of dogs who are afflicted with them.
The American Shetland Sheepdog Association funds health-related research and informs breeders of the latest research on health disorders in shelties.
The primary areas of concern in shelties are eye disorders (progressive retinal atrophy - PRA and collie eye anomaly - CEA), hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, von Willebrands (vWD, a blood clotting disorder), multi-drug sensitivity (MDR1, a weakness to certain groups of drugs including the popular dewormer ivermectin), dermatomyositis (skin lesions), and dentition issues (missing teeth, lance canines, overbites/underbites).
In order for a sheltie to earn a CHIC number from the Canine Health Information Center, the following tests must be done: hip radiograph examination from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals or PennHIP, eye examination from a board-certified ophthalmologist, and a minimum of two electives: dermatomyositis, von Willebrand's, elbow radiograph examination from OFA, multi-drug sensitivity (MDR1), OFA thyroid testing, and/or collie eye anomaly. All of our breeding dogs at Incendio have or will have CHIC numbers prior to being bred.
The bare minimum health testing is an OFA or CERF eye examination performed by a board-certified ophthalmologist and hip radiograph examination from OFA. We will not consider any dog for breeding who does not have these tests.
Some of these conditions are quite rare in shelties. In OFA's database, only 3.8% of Shetland Sheepdogs born from 2011-2015 have any degree of hip dysplasia. Shelties rank 156th of 183 breeds (this is a good thing) for hip dysplasia prevalence, AND have one of the highest counts of tested dogs - over 23,000 shelties have been tested for hip dysplasia since 1974, and only 4.7% of those dogs are dysplastic. Only 3% of Shetland Sheepdogs in the OFA elbow database (1974-2017) have elbow dysplasia. Keep in mind that clinically affected dogs are always more likely to be submitted to OFA than normal dogs.
Less than 1% of shelties that were CERF eye tested from 1991-1999 had clinical signs of collie eye anomaly. (It is important to note that the prevalence is much higher in British shelties, but imports are relatively rare.)
There are now very reliable, simple DNA tests for multi-drug sensitivity (MDR1) and von Willebrand's disorder (vWD). Being a genetic carrier for vWD has no effect on a dog whatsoever; it is only relevant to making breeding decisions. (Responsible breeders will not breed a carrier to another carrier.) By continuing to test breeding stock and making decisions accordingly, we will ultimately be able to eradicate these diseases from the breed.