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Shetland Sheepdog History

Courtesy of Sue Ann Bowling website:

Chesnut Lassie

Shetland Sheepdogs as they exist today are a relatively young breed. The original stock probably consisted of Scandinavian herding dogs from the same stock as the Norwegian Buhund or the Icelandic dog. (The Nordic herding dogs are rarely mentioned in the history of the breed, but there is every reason to assume that the original Norse settlers brought along their dogs as well as their small sheep, cows and horses. There is archaeological evidence of such dogs dating from before the transfer of the Shetland Islands to Scotland.)

When larger sheep began to be imported to the Islands from Scotland, it is reasonable to assume that they were accompanied by working collies related to the ancestors of the modern Rough Collie and the Border Collie, and earlier importations of Scottish dogs may have been made by the islanders. Crosses were also made to dogs off the fishing fleets, with the Icelandic dog and the Greenland Yakki dog being particularly mentioned.

No doubt the crofters (essentially small sharecroppers working as fishermen and in many cases not even owning their boats) bred some of their bitches to what they considered the best of the imported herding dogs. At this time the selection was probably mostly for working ability on small numbers of Shetland sheep, Shetland cows, and possibly even ponies. All were small, and the sheep in particular were extremely wild and agile, so agility, speed, biddability and the ability to work on a minimum of food would have been prized above size or ability to intimidate lazy stock (what is now called "power" in Border Collies.) As the owner of three Shetland cross sheep, I can verify they are extremely "light" sheep - they move readily at the sight of a dog. Appearance would have been totally unimportant, and the old idea of shepherds not liking white dogs because they were hard to distinguish from the sheep is totally irrelevant here, as Shetland sheep come in every color possible to sheep. (One of mine, 3/4 Shetland and 1/4 Finn, is colored and marked like a typical black and white Border Collie.)

Two stories often mentioned about the early Shelties should be mentioned here. The first, probably true (or at least sensible) states that the dogs were used not for herding so much as to keep the half-wild sheep out of the gardens and hayricks. Mine certainly try to do the same thing if a moose comes into the yard!

The second, which for a long time did not make much sense to me, is that the dogs were left on islands with sheep carried to the islands by boat to eat whatever vegetation was available. Why? There is nothing else to suggest that Shelties were ever predator control dogs, and in any event the small islands would probably not support predators of any size. Herding would not be needed until it was time to get the sheep back into the boats, and what would the dogs eat? The practice sounds like a way of teaching a dog to become a sheep killer if the dog and sheep were left alone for longer than a protected store of food (for the dog) that would not decay would last.


Could the Shelties have been left on the islands to protect the little groups of sheep against bird attacks? Certainly it is not unusual for Shelties today to be very interested in and protective against birds. My own first Sheltie had more herding instinct than any I have had since. He was also the worst car chaser I ever had - I finally resorted to an electric shock collar to break the habit. (As a general rule I don't believe in shock collars in training, but when it's a case of breaking a habit that could get the dog killed, you use what works.) He extended the practice to airplanes and even helicopters, which at one time used to land next door to me. I once had him along on a visit to my father, who lived under an approach path for an Air Force base. When the wind was right, planes would come over the yard about every five minutes. Derry would crouch under the fence on the approach side of the yard, quivering with eagerness as the plane approached, then chase it madly across the yard as soon as it appeared over the fence. As my father said, he was highly successful in his self-imposed task - not a single airplane landed in the yard while he was there. I always wondered what he would do if he ever caught an airplane, but could it be that he was simply trying to chase them away, perhaps with some dim ancestral memory of flying things that would peck at wounds on sheep?

Back to Sheltie history. Tourism (though perhaps not under that name) became important to the Island economy during the 19th century, and one of the things the Islanders found they could sell to the tourists was their little dogs. Tourists liked little, fluffy mites, and many of the Islanders began breeding to anything small and fluffy. The use of a Prince Charles Spaniel left behind by a visiting yacht is mentioned by Catherine Coleman, and Pomeraneans are also mentioned frequently. (A comment is needed here: Pomeranians at the turn of the century were much larger than today. I have a photograph of a typical Pomeranian from the Dogs article in the 1905 Encyclopedia Britannica, and the dog looks more like a small Samoyed than a modern Pom.) A number of the early dogs looked suspiciously like Papillions. Some were very short-legged and could have had Corgi ancestry. While I have not seen anything in print, I have always wondered if the brindle color, so strongly discriminated against from the first standard ever written, could have been brought in from the Scottish Terrier. If this was the case, the prohibition on brindle could have been aimed at eliminating the descendants of a terrier cross. (The Cardiganshire Welsh Corgi would be another potential source of brindle, but possibly a more acceptable one.)

By the end of the 19th and early in the 20th century, some of the Islanders realized that the original breed was vanishing. Crosses with Collies, possibly including show Collies, began to be made on the Islands at that time in an effort to recover the original type. (Note that the Collie at the end of the 19th century was not the same Collie we see at shows today, but much closer to the old farm Collie in type.) Other supporters argued that improvement in type could legitimately be made only by selection of those specimens showing the best of the old Island type. A third group existed, though not often referred to, that continued to breed for small size and pretty, fluffy pets. Shelties of all three types were exhibited through the first decade of the century and to some extent up to World War I. Collie breeders, who by that time had considerably refined the appearance of the modern show Collie, were vitriolic in their reaction to calling these little mongrels (actually a fairly mild description compared to some) Shetland Collies, and within a few months of the first registrations managed to induce the Kennel Club to change the name of the breed to Shetland Sheepdogs. The dogs which have most influence on our modern Sheltie, however, were the Collie crosses, often bred to the dogs selected for type.

I will not attempt to follow the political history of the breed, noting only that Collie crosses - and the controversy over these crosses - continued for at least the first three decades of the 20th century, with rumored crosses extending into the 30's and much later in the United States as well as Great Britain. At various times the controversy led to breakaway clubs for the breed. The differences betwen Kennel Club and American Kennel Club rules on crosses, and their changes with time, actually led to the loss of some of the breed's finest specimens when they were imported and then could not be registered in the United States. The ultimate winners, however, were those espousing show Collie type.

The first registration with the Kennel Club was Badenock Rose in the March 1909 Kennel Gazette. (In Great Britain, the Stud Book carries show results while the Kennel Gazette carries registrations.) Rose, who does not appear behind modern Shelties, was registered as a Shetland Collie (rough) under "Any other variety British, foreign and colonial." She was bred by her owner, Mr W. Wolfenden, was by Barny ex Rags, and was born Nov. 20, 1907. In all, 28 Shelties were registered in 1909, at least 4 of whom eventually appeared behind modern Champion Shelties: dogs Lerwick Tim and Trim and bitches Inverness Topsy (Family 11) and Inga (Family 13.) The Collie breeders objected at once to the name of the breed, however. There was a gap in registrations from May through September, and when 12 Shelties appeared in the October issue, still as "any other variety," they were registered as Shetland Sheepdogs. Shetland Sheepdogs as a breed rather than a category under "any other variety" first appeared in September 1914.

The first Shetland Sheepdog in the Stud Book (under any other variety or breed and listed next to Saluki Shami, Creston Spaniels and Crossbreeds) was Kilravock Laddie, a son of Inverness Topsy. (This was Stud Book volume T, published in 1914 and covering 1913 events.) Laddie represents the sire line IH (named after his grandsire, Inverness Hoy) and was the sire of Eng Ch Walesby Select, who finished his Championship after World War I and was later imported to the United States. Select is behind modern Shelties through several of his English offspring, but the sire line ended with him.

A total of 46 Shelties appeared in the Stud Book through the 1918 issue (reporting on 1917 shows.) The bloodlines and colors recorded provide some interesting insights on the state of the breed at that time. Half of the dogs were tricolors. The next most numerous color, with 11 registrations (less than a quarter of the total)was sable, with and without white. The remainder included 8 black and whites, 3 black and tans, and one blue, tan and white (this was Peat: not a blue merle, from contemporary accounts, but a uniform blue, like a blue Great Dane or Doberman with white and tan markings.) Lerwick Jarl, an older unregistered dog of outstanding type, was probably the most important sire and grandsire during the early part of the period. His line continued to produce Champions after the War. Jarl appears in photos to be a black and white dog, and many of his descendants were tricolors or black and whites. He is very definitely behind modern Shelties, and his sire line continued to produce winners in Canada almost until the beginning of World War II. Lerwick Jarl, an important sire in the early part of the 20th century. Although Jarl was too early to be shown, and was never even registered with the Kennel Club, his descendants dominate the earliest show winners in England. He may represent the results of the early crosses on the Shetland Islands with small working Collies. The first US Champion, and the only pre-World War I import who has descendants alive today (via offspring sired in Great Britain), Ch Lerwick Rex, was Jarl's full brother.

By 1915, however, a new line began to appear with Glebe Challenger and Suzanne of Mountfort, both sired by a dog registered April 1914 as Wallace, by the unregistered Butcher Boy out of the unregistered Jean. This was the start of the BB (Butcher Boy) line which now dominates British breeding.

Then shows and breeding were halted because of World War I. Dogs born during this period were barred from showing during their lifetimes. The breed was not yet strong enough, in numbers or quality, to shrug off this restriction, and many of the bloodlines prominant before the War were lost. Miss E. P. Humphries, the owner of Wallace and one of the few breeders still registering dogs during the War, took a historic step, though a controversial one at the time, and mated Wallace to Teena, described as an 18" golden sable Collie with a white face blaze and prick ears. War Baby of Mountfort was registered from this mating as whelped April 17, 1918, with his dam shown as Teena (Small Collie.) While War Baby could never be shown, he had an enormous influence on later pedigrees.

Collie crosses, as mentioned earlier, were by no means unknown among Sheltie breeders. Ch Woodvold, the second English Champion of the breed, was widely known to have a Collie, Gesta, as his dam. His official registration, however, shows his dam simply as Gesta (unregistered) owned by his breeders, Keith and Ramsay. I am in the process of scanning the original registrations for other declared Collie crosses, but there are certainly none declared prior to 1915, and I suspect that War Baby may be the first cross officially registered as a cross. Crosses were undoubtedly taking place, and many were widely known among the breeders of the day. But few were officially reported to the Kennel Club. In some the Collie parent was given as an unregistered Sheltie, in others the crossbred remained unregistered and was shown as an unregistered Sheltie in future generations, and in still others a Collie was registered with a Sheltie pedigree. Evidence for some is still cropping up today; others will never be known.

Teena, in any event, went to J. G. Saunders of Helensdale fame. There she was bred to one of Wallace's best Sheltie sons, Rip of Mountfort (out of the unregistered Lerwick Mona, whose breeding is known through the survival of a handwritten pedigree.) The resulting litter, whelped November 1, 1920, is generally stated to have consisted of four bitches. Tiny Teena of Mountfort was registered by Miss Humphries as being out of Teena (Collie). Silverlining was registered by Mr. Saunders as being out of Teena, with no qualification. KoKo and Printfield Bess were never registered. War Baby and the four bitches had such an influence on the modern Sheltie that Teena makes up between 5 and 8 percent of the pedigree of the modern British Sheltie, appearing from tens of thousands to millions of times in the pedigree of a given Sheltie. The percentage in the United States is somewhat lower - around four and a half percent - due possibly to the refusal of the AKC to register some of Teena's close descendants.

(Sonja Perklin and I recently come across some handwritten evidence that a dog, Bayview Jock or Jack, sire of the unregistered Dondy Caesar, may have the same breeding as these four bitches and could possibly have been a littermate. This is from a handwritten pedigree found in the papers of an early Swedish breeder whose first Sheltie, Sw Ch Connis of Redbraes, was sired by a son of Dondy Caesar. Connis is behind some modern European lines today. Another son of Dondy Caesar, Dondy Tinto, sired Linda of Clerwood (ex Golden Lady of Mountfort), dam of Ch Lochinvar of Clerwood. This dog appears well back in the pedigree of Eng/Am/Can Ch Crag of Exford, who appears in modern American ROM pedigrees through Ch Kismet's Conquistador ROM). Rip of Mountfort was mated to his own half-Collie daughter, Printfield Bess, to produce Forward. This dog was a successful sire, his most important son being Helensdale Emerald who sired Eng/Am Ch Rob Roy O'Page's Hill. This line strongly influenced early American pedigrees, but did not last long as a sire line.

War Baby was mated to the Wallace daughter Suzette of Mountfort to produce Rufus of Mountfort, whelped on November 10, 1920. Teena's daughter KoKo had gone to Mr. D. MacGregor, who bred her to Rufus. One of the pups went back to Miss Humphries and was registered as Specks of Mountfort (later an Eng Champion). Miss Humphries, meanwhile, had bred War Baby to the Wallace daughter Christmas Box of Mountfort, getting a bitch registered as Princess of Mountfort. Specks and Princess were mated, producing a puppy ragistered as Peter Pan of Mountfort on February 17, 1925. This puppy was purchased by E. C. Pierce, another breeder working with the Teena crosses, and renamed Eltham Park Eureka. He won his first CC at less than a year of age, and finished with an impressive series of 6 Challenge Certificates the following year. Luckily for the breed, he sired a number of litters in England before being exported to the United States. Luckily, because his export pedigree (and his pedigree in the Stud Book) identified War Baby of Mountfort as a crossbred, and the AKC refused to register Eureka.

A new line, however, was already appearing. Chestnut Rainbow, although himself unregistered, was the son of two registered Shelties, Irvine Ronnie and Chestnut Lassie. On paper, at least, he was the result of a brother-sister mating between two straight Island Shelties, and a double great-great-great great-great-grandson of Lerwick Jarl. He was mated to an unregistered bitch, Chestnut Sweet Lady, who was supposedly a full sister of Rainbow's dam, Chestnut Lassie. In fact, it appears that Chestnut Sweet Lady was a tricolor Collie bitch with a crooked face blaze, tracing to the Mountshannon Collies. The cross was rarely alluded to, and then with great circumspection, in print, but seems to have been well known to the breeders of the day.

Chestnut Lassie, dam of Chestnut Rainbow and alleged full sister to Chestnut Sweet Lady The litter, whelped February 20 1924, produced seven puppies. Two of the males (Chestnut Bud and Chestnut Lucky Boy, the latter behind almost all modern U.S. Champions in direct male line) and one of the bitches (Eng Ch Redbraes Magda) appeared in the same Stud Book issue as Eureka. The other two males (Redbraes Rollo and Nut of Houghton Hill) both founded male dynasties still producing today. The remaining bitches (Chestnut Blossom and Chestnut Garland) are also well-represented in modern pedigrees. The mating was repeated three years later, though this time Chestnut Sweet Lady shows up as Rubislaw Lady Fayre (unregistered), to produce Eng Ch Tilford Tontine, the leading producer of English Champions until Eng Ch Riverhill Rare Gold.

The influence of the Chestnut cross descendants is such that the American Sheltie today is roughly 22% Chestnut Sweet Lady. The percent influence in British Shelties is generally between 15% and 20%, but the lower values are due in part to the fact that unregistered Shelties, some of whom probably carried Chestnut Sweet Lady if their pedigrees were known, continued to be accepted for registration until after World War II in Great Britain.

The modern American Sheltie is descended almost entirely from dogs imported between World Wars I and II, generally close descendants of the Chestnut Sweet Lady cross. The most influential dog in modern US pedigrees, Ch Wee Laird O'Downfield (around 27% of modern pedigrees) and the three most influential bitches (Ch Ashbank Fairy [8%], Natalie of Clerwood [6%] andDownfield Grethe[5%] were all sired by Eng Ch Blaeberry of Clerwood, the result of mating Chestnut Lucky Boy and Chestnut Blossom.

The second most important import in modern American pedigrees,Ch Peabody Pan(10 to 13%) was a great-great grandson of Redbraes Rollo in the direct male line. His pedigree also included Chestnut Lucky Boy, Chestnut Bud, Chestnut Blossom, Eng Ch Redbraes Magda, War Baby of Mountfort, Tiny Teena of Mountfort, Printfield Bess, and KoKo. In Great Britain, the Houghton Hill and Exford lines were heavily linebred on Nut of Houghton Hill. Even today, when almost all British Shelties trace tail male to War Baby of Mountfort, the traces go through matings with Chestnut cross bitches.

It should be mentioned that the Shetland Sheepdog is one of the few breeds for which sire lines and female families have been routinely traced. In Great Britain, publication of new CC winners in the ESSC newsletter, The Nutshell, is routinely accompanied by the line (top line of the pedigree, traced sire to sire or tail male) and family (bottom line of the pedigree, traced dam to dam or tail female) of the dog. Many other countries follow the same practice, tying their own lines and families to the British charts. The lines are designated by letters (usually the initials of the unregistered founder of the line), while the families are numbered from 1 to 25. (A provisional Family 26 appears to exist in Europe.)

The first two ASSA Handbooks included genealogy charts, and I myself set up charts for US Champions, using Bob Miller's computer-generated line and family sheets, for a couple of years in the late 80's. The problem is that there are so many Champions finished in a year in the United States that it is an overwhelming task to set up the charts here, and just about impossible in the standard graphic format. The line and family charts for all of the Register of Merit Shelties, in outline format, are available on line. In the future, I might add the ASSA best of breed winners not already there to the line and family charts.

Information is also available on line on the early American kennels and the imports whose influence survives to this day. For information on the top producing American dogs since the breed became firmly established here in the late 20's and early 30's, have a look at the Register of Merit (ROM) Shelties. Off-site, information is available on the climate of the Shetland Islands, as well as more general information on the Sheltie's original home..

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