A Guide to Miniature Shelties (aka Toy Shelties)
Miniature Shelties, also known as Toy Shelties, are Shelties that measure less than 13 inches (33cm) at the withers.
Toy Shelties are smaller than the official AKC-defined standard for Shetland Sheepdogs of 13-16 inches (33-41cm). However, in every other respect, professional Miniature Sheltie breeders strive for the same characteristics and appearance, working with the same genetic testing and selection procedures as standard Sheltie breeders.
Mini Shelties aren't currently an officially recognized dog breed, which helps drive the controversy between breeders of Shelties and Toy Shelties. The latter wants to see the AKC define a separate breed category, as has been done for Standard, Miniature, and Toy Poodles.
Today we'll look at the Miniature Sheltie traits, the breed history, and where to find an ethical Toy Sheltie breeder.
Beware of The Puppy Mill Trade
An critical tangent here, relevant whenever you're buying a puppy - Miniature or otherwise.
Beware very aware of the puppy mill trade. Puppy mills advertise all kinds of pure-breeds and cross-breeds online, but you're more likely to run into them when you search for toy and designer dog breeds like Toy Shelties, Teacup Shelties, and Sheltie mixes (such as "Poshies" and "Sheltiepoos").
Puppy mills are not professional dog breeders as we know them. They're profit-driven and inhumane for many reasons:
- Dogs are kept in small, unsanitary cages without exercise time
- Dogs are breeding machines, euthanized when they're done
- They're all about the money, not the love of animals
- They oversupply the pet trade despite millions of abandoned dogs
- They breed "runts" to create toy breeds regardless of health status
- They forego genetic testing and propagate inherited diseases
- They charge premium prices to profit from this suffering
Puppy mills never refer to themselves as puppy mills. They know it's wrong. Sometimes they call themselves "puppy farms". That's your first clue. They always advertise remotely (their best friend is the internet, not the dog) so they can give you a false impression of how they operate.
This is what's really behind that adorable puppy listing:
Puppy mills can say whatever they want online. They post fake photos, fake certificates, and lie about doing genetic testing. They can be very convincing. They're eager to ship puppies cross-country, so you can't check in on their kennels or meet the puppy's parents, which is something professional breeders always offer.
Visiting the kennels is key because you can:
- Verify the puppy was raised in healthy conditions
- Verify their health and temperament before you commit
- Meet the puppy's parents and check their health status
- See what your puppy will look like fully grown
- Verify if the puppy was purebred or cross-bred
In the US, there are an estimated 4,000 illegal puppy mills, producing 500,000 puppies every year. In buying a puppy mill dog, you're not "saving" a puppy; you're supporting a cruel dog trade. If you come across what you suspect is a puppy mill, please report it and help the authorities shut them down.
Miniature Sheltie Breeders
To be clear, in no way am I suggesting that all Miniature Shelties come from puppy farms. But puppy farms do exist, and they do a roaring trade in miniature breeds.
In the US, there are professional Toy Sheltie breeders that use genetic testing to produce healthy lines. And they're not doing it to stock the pet trade. They enter their dogs into competitions (Mini Shelties do great in agility) and are seeking an official breed standard with the AKC so Toy Shelties can one day be distinguished as a separate breed.
Such breeders actually refer to these guys as Toy Shelties, Toy-Sized Shelties, or Undersized Shelties, perhaps to overcome the confusion that people have around the word "miniature". (The uninitiated often refer to Shelties as Miniature Collies. You also have slightly larger American Shelties and slightly smaller English Shelties adding to the layman's confusion.)
You'll have to do your own homework to distinguish amateur or backyard breeders from the real deal. This is true of all breeders. Seek a breeder that knows their stuff and clearly cares about maintaining a healthy breeding stock. I've listed a number of Toy Sheltie breeders in the US with their contact details at the end of this article.
Miniature Sheltie Breed Traits
In terms of temperament and behavior, Mini Shelties are just like Shelties. They have the same working dog history, which makes them sensitive, intelligent and highly trainable. They also have a strong herding instinct, which makes them want to chase things that move - bikes, kids, cats, you name it. This is good to know when you take on any kind of Sheltie as a pet.
The diminutive size of Toy Shelties does lend itself to some special features. They need fewer calories, so they're slightly cheaper to feed. They're also a little easier to carry and handle, and produce a little less fluff. (Although if shedding is a concern, you really shouldn't take on any kind of Sheltie!)
A History of Miniature Shelties
The history of Shelties is a little foggy at times. Researchers have to rely on historical records, and the further back in time you go, the rarer those become. In time, genetic analysis will shed more light on this issue.
The following is a summary of the history of Miniature Shelties from the Toy Sheltie Club of America website.
The Shetland Sheepdog as a breed goes back 180 years, to 1840. They likely originated as small herding and companion dogs for the shepherds of the Shetland Islands in Scotland. Some were more Pomeranian in type and some were larger; there was not yet any formal practice around breeding to a standard type.
There are two theories about how they got to the Shetlands. One is via Scandinavian fisherman who brought their herding dogs over and crossed them with King Charles Spaniels. The other other rests on them being crossed with a breed from Greenland called the Yakki.
(Ed: With advancements in genomic analysis, we can cross-compare the genomes of modern breeds to find out what happened. However, as of December 2020, there are no scientific studies dedicated to tracing the genetic ancestry of Shelties.)
The new Shetland Island dogs evolved to be smaller than their ancestors, due to the hardship of life, possible inbreeding, and a small population size creating a limited gene pool. Gwynne-Jones (1958) suggested they were so small, they would be classed as Toy Shelties today.
The Shetland climate was bleak, the terrain rocky, and the early Shelties adapted to this by taking on traits of miniature Collies. One thing that set them apart, however, were large ears, set close together on the top of the head. According to Loggie (1910): the body was long and low, producing a weight of just 6-10lbs (2.7-4.5kg).
The breed was virtually non-existent on the mainland until 1906, when the first Shelties were shown at Cruft's Dog Show in Scotland. The breed became a sensation. The Shetland Collie Club was founded on the Shetland Islands and an official breed standard was drafted. Shetland Collies were described as Rough Collies in miniature, and by now had evolved to a larger height of around 12 inches (30cm) and a weight of 10-14lbs (4.5-6.4kg).
The same year, over on the mainland, the Scotland Shetland Kennel Club created its own breed standard, which cited a height of 12 inches (30cm). (First it was a maximum; later it was an ideal.)
By 1914, the English Shetland Sheepdog Club was formed, seeking to define its own standard based on the island type. It noted the conflict between the ideal height for show Shelties (around 12 inches) vs companion Shelties (less than 12 inches).
(Ed: Today, a similar conflict exists between Sheltie and Toy Sheltie fanciers, hence the latter's calls from a separate breed standard).
The modern Sheltie standard, according to the American Kennel Club, is a height of 13-16 inches (33-41cm). Those who breed Toy Shelties today seek to recreate the Sheltie's origins by aiming for an ideal height of 12 inches (30cm) - although their Miniature Sheltie Breed Standard includes anything less than 13 inches (33cm).
Sheltie or Miniature Sheltie?
I can understand why Sheltie breeders don't want to dilute the gene pool with undersize Shelties. They need to maintain a specific breed standard, after all (here's why). I can also understand why Miniature Sheltie breeders want to revert to the historical breed size, separating them out with an official Toy Sheltie standard.
However, I'm not a breeder. I'm just a companion Sheltie lover trying to lay out the story as objectively as I can. I've talked to both kinds of breeders at length and in their worlds it's a very sensitive sticking point.
The take-home message—if you're buying either a Sheltie or a Miniature Sheltie puppy or know someone who might—is to stay well away from puppy mills, puppy farms, and backyard breeders. Besides the inhumane breeding conditions, there are just too many abandoned dogs out there (see your nearest Sheltie Rescue) to justify breeding exclusively for the pet trade. And too many inborn health defects to justify improper breeding without an expert eye and genetic testing.
Size-wise, when it comes to Shelties as pets, it's down to your preference. Bear in mind that standard Sheltie breeders occasionally have litters with undersized Shelties, which they will rehome as pets because they're too small for their breeding stock. And female Shelties are usually smaller and daintier than their male counterparts.
So whether you prefer the stature of the American Sheltie (13-16 inches / 33-41cm), the English Sheltie (13-15.5 inches / 33-39cm), or the unofficial Miniature Sheltie (less than 13 inches / 33cm), make sure you chose an ethical breeder - and enjoy your new companion for life.
Toy Sheltie Breeder Listings
Here's a list of breeders referred by the Toy Sheltie Club of America. Those with an asterisk are recognized Breeders of Merit who fully comply with the required genetic testing. If you want to buy a Miniature Sheltie puppy, start here, and visit the kennels first-hand for your own peace of mind.
|Breeder||Fox Point Farm*|
|Breeder||Holbrook Toy Shelties*|
|Breeder||Diamond Hill Shelties|
|Breeder||Mountain High Kennels|
RELATED: Toy Sheltie Club of America Website
RELATED: 11 Photos of Our English Shelties