History of the Shetland Sheepdog

A brief history of the origins of the Shetland Sheepdog

History of the Shetland Sheepdog


By Lorraine Jones

The Shetland Sheepdog originates from the islands that lie northwest of the British Isles, between Scotland and Norway, approximately 50 miles north of Scotland and a bit south of the Arctic Circle. As can well be imagined, the climate is harsh and the terrain, rugged. The limited space of these islands has resulted in this area giving the world a number of small breeds of animals, including the Shetland Ponies and the rare Shetland Sheep.

The Shetland Sheepdog used to be called the "Toonie", a name taken from "tun", the Norwegian word for farm. The winters on the Shetland Isles are long, the vegetation sparse, and the growing season is short. The "crofters", small farmers, needed a small, hardy dog to herd the flocks, to keep the flocks safe, and also to keep the gardens safe from the flocks.

The Shetland Sheepdog and the larger herding Collie probably have a common ancestor, a herding dog bred in the British Highlands, perhaps similar to today's Border Collie. The dogs that remained on the Scottish mainland eventually developed into the majestic Rough Collie; those that were taken to the Shetland Isles were down-sized to meet the needs of the island, people and their undersized livestock.

In the early 1800's, the Sheltie was brought from his home islands to the mainland, where he gained a reputation as a fine herding dog. The descriptions of the Sheltie were that of a miniature Collie. Of course, there were those that found the Sheltie's looks "unrefined", and unfortunately, a series of crossbreeding was done by some breeders to "improve" the breed. Some were crossed with the Rough Collies to fix the Collie head, ears and coat. The bigger dogs also introduced longer legs and larger bodies to the Sheltie gene pool. Spaniels were also crossed into the breed with mixed results; the spaniels calmed the Sheltie's disposition, but also introduced some undesirable physical traits, such as, domed heads, spaniel ears and curly coats.

The English Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1909, the name given was the Shetland Collie, and in 1914, the Shetland Collie became known as the Shetland Sheepdog, a completely separate breed.

Early history of the Shetland Sheepdog in Victoria

In May 1936 the first two shelties to grace Australian soil arrived in Victoria, a sable dog, Claudas of Cameliard and a tricolour bitch Riverhill Regal. They were imported by Mrs Esler of Oakland Kennels. Unfortunately, according to the sketchy records available, possibly only one litter was bred from this pair and the breed gradually disappeared.

It was 1954 before the breed was re-introduced to Australia, this time quite a few were imported into New South Wales and in 1959 into Victoria.

Shelties have been bred in the State of Victoria for some 42 years and on looking at the progress made by the breed in not only type but also popularity, one experiences a feeling of pride and gratitude to our early breeders who had the courage and confidence in Shelties, to bring out our early imports from the U.K. so that we could establish our own identity and not just be an extension of other Australian States.

The first shelties seen in numbers in Victoria were at the 1959 Melbourne Royal Show were there were 9 individuals entered, all of which were bred in either New South Wales or New Zealand and only 3 of them were owned in Victoria. They created quite a bit of interest and from there we progressed to our 3 "Original" Breeders - Mrs Rita Esler of Oakland Kennels (Min.Poms) Mrs Ena Whestern of Melwest Kennels (Collies) and Miss Bethia Mathieson (later Tennyson) of Bethalice Kennels (Cocker Spaniels) Mrs Esler and Mrs Whestern eventually imported 5 shelties each over the years from England. Bethalice Kennels purchased Sheltie Gold Surprise from Frank Taylor of NSW and later purchased Dundarach Sunny Boy from Mr & Mrs Palmer of NSW as foundation stock - both gained their titles in Victoria. The bitch Ch Sheltie Gold Surprise was a most prolific brood bitch, producing 73 puppies from 9 litters and that is one of the main reasons she made such a significant contribution and provided the foundation stock for many of our later breeders as can be seen by the family charts (family 8 part 2).

Of our original Stud Dogs 3 were the pioneers of our breed - Eng & Aust Ch Starlight Of Callart (Imp) Aust Ch Rodaneih Rock Mundi (Imp) and Aust Ch Dundarach Sunny Boy (N.S.W) and their's was not an easy task as we had so few bitches in this State at that time and only 3 litters were whelped in our first year.(1960) More litters are now born in a day than were once a full years whelping.

Many more imports from England came into our State after those two originals, two important males who also had a big impact on the breed being Ch Blazon of Callart (Imp) and Eng & Aust Ch Riverhill Rampion (Imp) By now the breed was firmly established and growing stronger in numbers and popularity all the time, in not only the Show Ring but also in the Obedience Arena. Two years running a sheltie took out Highest Score in Trial at a Melbourne Royal Melwest Mr Coppertop U.D. in 1989 and Symphony's Pacemaker U.D. Imp USA in 1990 and shelties are still strong in all facets of Obedience and Agility. Perhaps this high standard of intelligence and burning desire to please their owners, can be traced back to their early evolution in the bleak and harsh conditions of the Shetland Islands where the early breeders cared little for their appearance, but placed great importance in breeding a hardy small extremely intelligent dog that could and would do their job in all weathers. Shelties tended the sheep during the day, but as the sheep were locked away in barns each night, the sheltie then entered the shepherds home and spent the evening with humans and this may account for the desire still well entrenched in the breed, to spend time with their "family".

Sheep grazing on the Shetland Isle