Shetland sheepdogs, or “Shelties”, have long been a recognised part of Shetland’s heritage.
The link between them and Shetland’s history is perhaps most evident in another nickname for the breed – the “toonie” dog.
“Toon” may mean Lerwick to most Shetlanders nowadays, but it is a word which in the local dialect once more commonly referred to an area of arable land on a croft. In other words a “toonie” dog is a croft dog.
Some people have suggested that a clarification is necessary, following an article in Landwise earlier this month which claimed the dogs really had nothing to do with Shetland at all.
Shelties come in a variety of colours – such as sable and white, tri-colour and blue merle – and can vary in size, but most commonly they resemble a miniature rough collie.
They proved valuable croft dogs for a number of reasons. They are incredibly intelligent and can learn to follow the commands of their masters very quickly.
The Shetland sheepdog ancestor was originally used to chase foraging sheep back into the hills. They had to work over rough ground in the harsh northern climate and so the breed developed a warm protective coat and an agile, athletic build. That made them an indispensable asset to many crofters.
Over time the uses for which the Shetland sheepdog has been applied have changed, their intelligence allowing them to be put to a variety of applications.
These days they are used as companions, show dogs and more recently in Shetland there are three used as Pets as Therapy dogs. The names of the three are Bell, Dakota and Hyalti.
Shelties prove to be exceptionally effective Pets as Therapy dogs because their ability to understand commands largely eliminates the possibility for them to be a danger to vulnerable people, while their affectionate nature means that they make unconditional friends quickly.
One local sheepdog owner, who did not wish to be named, applies her Shelties to such a purpose. She has owned Shelties for over 20 years and can’t see herself ever owning any other breed.
She said: “Once you have them that’s it, you never go back. You like other dogs but you’ll never own other dogs.”
Commenting on what made the Sheltie such a special breed she said: “They’re lovely dogs, good companions, very loyal and they’re good with bairns.”
A lover of the breed with a knowledge to match, she noted that the dog had been making something of a resurgence lately.
“Not long ago the numbers seemed to drop locally but now I think there’s more than we’ve ever had.”
Popularity may have dwindled locally in the past but that has not been a problem outside of the isles. There are clubs dedicated to the breed in England and on the Scottish mainland.
The breed travelled around the world, making it to North America where one Sheltie, named Lerwick Rex, gained recognition when it became the first breed champion in 1914.