It was worrying to learn that a group of Scandinavian breeders has launched a petition asking the Kennel Club to recognise the ‘American Shetland Sheepdog’ as a separate breed to the Shetland Sheepdog. The link that has been published to the original petition seems to now be redundant but the gist of the original intention has already been widely discussed.
At the outset let me stress that I am neither a vet nor a Shetland Sheepdog breeder, but as a judge of the breed who has judged it in many countries around the world I am concerned that perceived differences in type should result in such a drastic and potentially damaging proposal.
Before my British Sheltie friends start preparing the guillotine let me say that I am not of the opinion that all the Shetland Sheepdogs I have seen in the US are wonderful. Many of them are different to what we are used to seeing in the UK, often having slightly alien heads and proportions, but I also believe that many opinions have been formed on the style of grooming and presentation which can exaggerate the dog underneath the coat. However I have also seen several Shelties in the US that are, to my eye, quite beautiful and which could easily hold their own in the UK show rings if they were judged impartially in the context of the British breed Standard and not merely by their passport.
There has been much talk of ‘British type’ but if we look at the breed historically it is relatively young (first being registered in Lerwick in 1908 most records claim with the English Shetland Sheepdog Club being formed in 1914). In 1914 the KC recognised the Shetland Sheepdog as a separate breed and shortly after the first champion emerged – Woodvold – though confusingly some historians claim that a dog named Clifford Pat was the first and Woodvold the second.
Looking at the rather poor quality photographs that exist of Woodvold he looks rather different from the Shetland Sheepdog of today. The original Shelties had been developed from local working collies and Icelandic Spitz dogs that arrived on fishing boats so, in common with so many of our ‘pure’ breeds, the Sheltie’s origins were rather mixed and are to a degree shrouded in mystery. What is both accepted and documented is the fact that the primitive Shelties were bred with small Rough Collies to establish type, so much so that at one point the breed was actually called the Shetland Collie, this being rather short-lived after the Collie people objected strongly.
If you study a variety of breeds that have become popular internationally it is obvious that type varies to a degree, just as it can do in any breed’s homeland. We have seen countless beautiful Shetland Sheepdogs in the UK of excellent type, who move well and who have much steadier temperaments than the breed once displayed, but at the same time we also see many boxy dogs that display Spitz traits and are very lacking when it comes to construction and movement. You can find good and bad wherever you choose to look.
As regards breed Standards, the American Shetland Sheepdog can be between 13 and 16 inches at the shoulder; our own Standard calls for an ideal of 14 inches for a bitch and 14½ inches for a male. Other than that the American version describes the British Shetland Sheepdog in much more detail than our own Standard and is much more specific about individual faults. It would be true to say that, judged against their own American Standard, many winning dogs in the US would be found rather wanting, but the same could be
said for many other breeds, notably the English Springer Spaniel.
One of the strengths of the British dog world has always been its breeders, people who dedicate their life to their chosen breed and developing a strong line. The most successful breeders are those who do not see their geese as swans, who recognise faults in their own stock and are prepared to look elsewhere for new blood which they can use to their advantage. We do not have breed wardens in this country; breeders still have great freedom of choice and I believe it is an insult to their intelligence to suggest that breeders do not know what is best for their own breeding programmes.
Here in the UK we have seen many breeds changed for the better by the infusion of a little judiciously-used American blood. Just look at Lhasa Apsos, Beagles and Standard Poodles for example to see how the importation of key American dogs has helped when these dogs have been used on bitches that have generations of intense breed type behind them. The result has been offspring that have movement, presence and quality – yet still they maintain correct type – and they themselves then take their breed to the next level.
Coincidentally I was judging a huge entry of Shetland Sheepdogs in Finland recently and ended up making a 13 months blue merle male BOB who I considered to be outstanding. His dam was BOS and she apparently was bred from a bitch imported from Canada. However with minimal research I discovered in the BOB winner’s pedigree some of the most famous names in British Sheltie history. In my opinion he was a fine example of what can be produced when breeders are open-minded and breed intelligently, using the best of what is available internationally.
There has been mention of health problems being one of the reasons for this petition … surely if health problems do exist, cutting the gene pool in half would be totally counter-productive?
Judges should be capable of assessing the dogs in front of them in the context of the breed Standard that is in force in the country where ‘they are judging based on the dogs’ physical merits without worrying about what their ancestry happens to be.
I am sure that this petition, if it does ever reach Clarges Street, will be dealt with intelligently and that the Shetland Sheepdog will survive as one breed around the world.
However, in the unlikely event that this hare-brained proposal should succeed and the breed was split in two, wouldn’t there be a delicious irony if ‘American Shelties’ became popular in the UK – maybe becoming the new Australian Shepherd – and started to make their presence felt in the pastoral group ring, possibly more so than the British version? People really should be careful what they wish for!