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Assistance Dog Breeds: About Shetland Sheepdogs (Shelties)

Assistance Dog Breeds: About Shetland Sheepdogs (Shelties)

The Shetland sheepdog, more familiarly known as the sheltie, bears a striking resemblance to the rough collie, though it’s noticeably smaller. In fact, shelties and modern collies are almost certainly derived from the same Scottish herding dog forebears.

As with other types bred for herding, shelties have lots of traits that make some individuals well suited to assistance work. However, like other herding dogs, Shetland sheepdogs tend to be somewhat protective. Because this can cause distraction, stress, or even aggression in public, it’s important that individual shelties used for service be able to overcome this breed characteristic.

There is of course no single right answer as to which breed makes the best service dog. Some breeds are more fit for certain types of work—shelties for example are favored as hearing dogs for the deaf and hearing-impaired—and your individual preferences and circumstances matter too.

Here’s an overview of the Shetland sheepdog breed to offer some insights into whether it might be a good match for your needs. 

Why Shetland Sheepdogs (Shelties) Make Good Assistance Dogs 

Shelties are some of the most intelligent dogs out there, and they love to apply their smarts to learning tasks, carrying them out, and following orders. They’re highly capable and have the stamina and work ethic to see things through.

Their herder’s attentiveness and natural instinct for steering those in their charge make these dogs excellent guides for people with limited ability to navigate themselves. They also form a strong bond with one person, their “master” (to use the common term, though assistance dogs are our partners), and remain focused on and devoted to this person.

Along with this devotion comes an uncanny ability to read the moods and thoughts of their loved ones. Shetland sheepdog service dogs are terrific at sensing how their partners feel and what they need, and they’re responsive to what their intuition tells them.

Shetland Sheepdog (Sheltie) Physical Characteristics 

This is a small breed, averaging a little over 1 foot tall and about 18 pounds, so shelties aren’t destined for assistance work like providing physical support and carrying large objects around. Still, they’re strong, fast, and agile. They have a short, dense undercoat and coarse, straight, long hair, plus abundant manes and bushy tails. Coats can be blue merle, sable, black, or gold marked white and tan.

Shetland Sheepdog (Sheltie) Temperament 

Shelties are smart, intuitive, loyal, obedient dogs, and they’re fast learners. They are active, energetic, and eager for mental stimulation, and they are known to bark quite a bit. This is worth noting if you live in an apartment building or otherwise need to be concerned with noise levels.

Accompanying their devotion to family is a tendency toward timidity and wariness around strangers. Individuals trained as service dogs must be able to overcome this so they can be diligent about their responsibilities in public and remain well behaved in an array of social situations.

Shetland Sheepdog (Sheltie) Care and Health 

These dogs do best where they can get plenty of exercise every day in a natural setting. When it significantly limits a sheltie’s ability to romp through the grass, hills, or trees, apartment and city living are not advisable; of course, it’s also important to consider this when deciding whether the breed is a good match for you and your disability.

Shetland sheepdogs are also higher maintenance from a grooming standpoint than more common assistance dog breeds, such as Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, or German shepherds. Their thick double coats should be brushed daily or every other day to prevent matting, and they are heavy shedders during the spring and fall.

When well cared for, shelties have a lifespan of around 14 years. They are prone to overheating, which is of particular concern if they must work outdoors for extended periods during the summer or in a hot climate. The breed is predisposed to eye problems, thyroid problems, and an inflammatory skin condition called dermatomyositis. 

Recommended Reading 

While a few breeds make up most of the service dogs used, any breed can be trained for this purpose. There’s a lot to mull over when choosing a breed to partner with. To start, get some guidance on choosing an assistance dog breed and review the breeds most commonly trained as service dogs.


Assistance Dogs International: Dog Breeds & Behavior

International Association of Assistance Dog Partners: Finding a Suitable Candidate for Assistance Dog Work

American Kennel Club: The Shetland Sheepdog

Dogster: Shetland Sheepdog

Animal Planet: Shetland Sheepdog Guide

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