These are the chronicles of two Shetland Sheepdogs and their adventures in rally-o, obedience, flyball, agility, tracking and therapy dog work.
Also including information on raw feeding, canine epilepsy, positive training, and lots and lots of Sheltie hair!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Sheltie, in other words

Sometimes in life you meet someone that has a wonderful mastery of words. I have been fortunate enough to run into a lady that, not only has a knack for words, but is very knowledgeable when it comes to dog breeds. Lucy Ohannessian was kind enough to allow me to post her description of the Shetland Sheepdog. If you are considering adding a new dog to the family and the Sheltie is on the list of possibilities, this is a "must read"! It can also be very insightful and entertaining for current Sheltie owners.

As a breed matcher, I generally split breeds into four categories. "'A' List" breeds have a strong rate of appeal AND the potential for success if the desire is there to have them...they are adaptable, emotionally stable and are not complex. "'B' list breeds have a similar flexibility but require some directed aspects from their owner that if not fulfilled will lead to discontent. "Niche" breeds are less flexible, less "one sizers," and have a specificity that will connect with some and not with others. Finally, 'high management" breeds are dogs whose fallout from underattentive owners is significant....they require a strong amount of dedication if the owner is to have ultimately been ethical in having taken the breed on. A Lab is a A list, a Husky is a B list, a Chow is a niche, and a Giant Schnauzer is a high management.

The Sheltie is generally regarded as an A list but in fact is better classified as a B list or even high management breed. Their desirability and the rate at which others respond to it are huge. This is a truly gorgeous animal of great beauty, he is exceptionally companionable, he is highly intelligent and one of the most readily trainable of all breeds. He also is far from well qualified to match everyone who might find his premise appealing.

As noted, much early effort must be expended in puppy raising to ensure a confident dog who has avoided shyness. Typical of some herding breeds, he can be sharp, and this is important to remember. The more intense herding breeds are meant for lightning fast reactions that often pairs with emotionality (which helps to ensure intensity). Sharpness isn't meanness, but rather links to reactivity and can be seen in many breed types and be seen precious little in others. Shelties also can have high rates of touch reactivity, and this, too, is a 'to function' link in that herding breeds need to be sensitive to the subject of physical contact given that they are working livestock closely. Compare this to a hound, who has very little need to dart away from unexpected contact or, even closer to home, a German Shepherd, who works stock differently than a collie breed might. This whole nervousness, lightning fast reactions of emotional content and touch reactivity.....can lend a Sheltie improperly socialized and developed to be snappy. It surely is a problem rescue can see much of (much as it is with Am Cockers, who are too soft to process pressure well, which is against the springing mindset for which they are bred).

Another, divided, problem with Shelties has a Collie link in that they are highly prone to separation anxiety. Collies (and by Collies, I mean "the" Collie breed) are famed for a very strong sense of connection to their people. All herding breeds have a natural handler is integral to the work they do....but some view the handler as a channel through which to work (Border Collies) whereas others view the handler more intimately as someone they are aching to please. The latter dogs, given this very strong bond, understandably feel out of sorts to be separated from the master they so adore. Collies, perhaps the most famed within this classification, notoriously pine and fret to be left on their own. Indeed, there are several stories of great treks across the country Collies have made on the own to find the way back to their beloved master, on homing instinct and aching hearts alone. In this herding dog's world, their master is their everything. Shelties have this sensibility as well, perhaps not as exaggerated (it still brings a very pet positive quality in that Shelties looooove their people), but they have it to an extent and onto this is layered, unlike the Collie, a rather high engine dog....between being a busy and responsible dog generally with a need to work AND having social dependency, SA tendencies can skyrocket when the dog is not fairly accomodated, structured and managed.

Finally, Shelties bark a LOT and can be rather intense about it. Barking and herding dogs go hand in is one of the tools of their trade to pronounce their intention and push it forward. When a herding breed teams action with emotion, just on pure genetics, you will often see them barking. This can be quite entertaining at times....many of us have seen Corgis or Shelties barking throughout an agility course, where this tendency is quite darling. However, I see many cases where this is indulged in an inappropriate dynamic, and then it is neither darling nor a good thing, for the dog is getting riled, and due to the greater rates of intensity and emotionality, this can lead to problems. Thereby, barrier frustration (dogs in fenced yards) can be common in the breed as well. Don't mistake that for bravado....a Sheltie is not a terrier and in his case is reacting fearfully and is under extreme stress. Terriers love stress (rat down a hole), Shelties do not....they like mental challenge. Excitable barking is very type specific and comes with the territory....a Sheltie barking within the throes of joy is a touching and enlivening thing to experience.....but a Sheltie barking from defensiveness is fearful and not in control of his world, and thereby the stress of the latter ought not continue unabated for the dog's longterm inner sense of comfort.

And yet still, this breed cannot be considered complex in that he is so intensely trainable and a most willing pupil with superior handler bond. It's one thing to have a scrappy Wire Fox because he'd not going to listen to you anyway, but with a Sheltie, there is absolutely no excuse. The world truly is your oyster with this promising breed. They are impossibly bright and willing, and very driven to please. To me, the dividing lines will always be if the individual can respect the need for intense socialization, upbeat yet sensitive handling, AND that they are MOST drawn to the Sheltie for being a trainable dog. Training builds confidence, challenges the mind, offers structure....all of which are crucial components to a well adjusted Sheltie. If I, conversely, have someone before me who wants a Sheltie because they are pretty and pert dog of a handy size, I will try to talk them off this breed. A Sheltie needs two things to thrive....a dedicated handler (one respectful of his sensitivity) and a life. If those needs are met, that pretty, pert and nifty dog can be enjoyed to his highest advantage.


Sara said...

That was great! Thanks for sharing. Those words sure ring true with all of my shelties, past and present.

Dawn said...

Sure sounds like my Katie-girl...all sheltie, all the time!

Romeo Sangiovese said...

so so true! After every sentence I think "yes that's him!". Thank you for sharing!
I'd like to put this up on my blog. Can I reproduce this and credit Lucy or put a link to this post?

emily said...

Making there way into blogs everywhere...Tiller posts :)

She sure does a great job!

Ricky the Sheltie said...

Thanks so much for sharing this! It sure is me through and through!

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