One of the Sheltie’s responsibilities as a farm dog in the early days of the breed included working the farmer’s livestock. The AKC herding program consists of a noncompetitive herding instinct test as well as competitive herding trials. The instinct test assesses the dog’s interest in the livestock and its ability to move and control the animals. Herding trials measure and develop the skills required of herding breeds.
To find a herding test or trial in your area, search the AKC’s events database. You can also contact an ASSA member club for more information. Some specialty clubs hold herding tests and trials, and there also may be local club members who are involved in the sport.
The Shetland Sheepdog originated with small all-purpose farm dogs of Scandinavian herding dog and Scottish working collie background used by the crofters on the Shetland Islands; later there were some crosses with show Collies when the breed was being developed for show purposes. On the islands, sheep generally were left to run virtually wild in the open country for most of the year and the area around the croft was fenced to keep the farm animals out. As time went on, in some areas Scottish breeds of sheep and herding practices were introduced. The work of the early Sheltie included keeping livestock away from cultivated areas, rounding up animals - sheep, cattle, ponies, poultry - as needed, and serving as watch dog and family companion. The modern Sheltie has been bred primarily as a show dog and companion, but some Shelties have continued to be used as working stock dogs (although more so in mainland Britain and in the United States than on the Shetland Islands). While in recent times few Shetland Sheepdogs have been bred specifically for herding ability, strong and useful herding instinct and trainability are still found throughout the breed. It is important that breeders include among the goals of their breeding programs the intelligence, willingness and inner drive that enable the Sheltie to fulfill its abilities as a useful working dog. This working ability and the temperament characteristics which accompany it gives the Sheltie its typical demeanor and attitude. More than any other single trait it keeps the breed what it was meant to be.
As one might expect from the Sheltie's background as an all-purpose farm dog, Shelties showing herding instinct have revealed a variety of working tendencies. Nonetheless, some tendencies are more common than others. Records on over 1,000 dogs tested at herding instinct tests sanctioned by the American Shetland Sheepdog Association provide the following results: A gathering style was shown by 84%, with the dog moving around the stock and the handler; 9% showed no clear style. Under "Approach," 32% tended to move wide around the stock, while 68% tended to move close. Quite a bit of barking was shown by 25% of the dogs, with 40% force barking (tending to bark only in situations where the stock showed some resistance), and 35% were quiet workers. Two percent showed "strong eye" (an intent gaze toward the stock with pausing approach and lowered body stance), 40% showed medium eye (intent concentration but freer, upright manner of moving), and 58% showed loose eye (meaning the dog does have good concentration on the stock, but is free-moving and takes in a wider view of the overall scene.) Experience with Shelties has shown that the breed tends to predominantly fetch or gather. While Shelties with true natural driving style may be seen, they will be rare. The appearance of driving may be created by a dog that is out of condition and not quick enough to go around the stock, or is insecure, immature or for some other reason is reluctant to go too far from the owner's side.
Good stock and positive, encouraging handling give such dogs the best opportunity to reveal their instinct. Dogs with no clear style preference will usually display one once they have had adequate experience with suitable livestock. Most Shelties initially run close, but experience, training and confidence can aid them in learning to run wider as needed. As a small dog, their power is augmented by proximity to the stock, quick movement and some degree of barking. Barking may occur from excitement or from the less-experienced dog's attempt to control the stock. Shelties with more experience usually work quietly, using a force-bark in appropriate situations. The highly motivated keen Sheltie is very visually oriented and will pay intense attention to the stock, but will rarely crouch. Because of their small size and looser eye, most Shelties have an upstanding style and may prefer to sit or pause on their feet rather than down when a stop is required. The background of the Shetland Sheepdog being that of an all-purpose, practical farm dog, a variety of approaches is acceptable. Shelties should be encouraged to work in the manner that comes naturally to the individual.
Testing the Shetland Sheepdog
The official standard of the Shetland Sheepdog describes the Sheltie as "intensely loyal, affectionate and responsive to his owner. However, he may be reserved toward strangers but not to the point of showing fear or cringing..." The tester should expect to involve the owner extensively in the test situation, and should take a few moments to get acquainted with the dog before starting the test. The tester should attempt to find out as much as possible about the background or temperament of the dog which might influence the dog's response to the test situation. The Sheltie is a sensitive, responsive dog and care should be exercised in handling the dog at a test, as even the most powerful-appearing Sheltie can be stressed or turned off if corrected too strongly. Shelties may also be affected negatively by the presence of another dog in the ring. Use of a back-up dog in the ring should be avoided or used only in special circumstances with great care. Stock should be calm and free-moving and the overall atmosphere should be encouraging and positive. Many Shelties will begin working eagerly at the first opportunity, while others may need more stimulation from quickly-moving stock or the owner's active involvement in moving the stock. Because of the breed's small size, there is little likelihood that a Sheltie will pose a direct threat to sheep or cattle, but poultry may need to be protected from overly zealous herders.
A behavior which may be seen at tests, especially with an inexperienced dog, is holding the stock against the fence. This usually arises out of the dog's need to group and control the stock, but the dog may lack the experience to understand that the stock should be controlled in relation to the handler's position, or may lack the power to take stubborn stock off of the fence. The tester needs to take care to keep the livestock from sticking on fences, so that the beginning dog has a better herding experience and can gradually learn how to handle the situation. Shelties have also been observed to pin down poultry with their feet, heel larger stock by nipping low on the leg, pushing sheep from the rear with their feet, or jump up and bump the shoulder of a sheep to turn it.
The Shetland Sheepdog is a versatile, intelligent herder with a strong desire to please.
The AKC has an excellent guide to getting started in herding. The herding pages at the AKC website are a comprehensive source for herding information. You can also obtain a free copy of the AKC publication, Herding Regulations, by emailing the AKC.