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Animal Behavior

The President and the Sheltie

Shetland Sheepdogs first came to public notice through President Calvin Coolidge

dog canine puppy sheltland sheepdog collie calamity jane president white house

Calamity Jane at the White House

Did you know that the Shetland Sheepdog who is most responsible for the popularity and visibility of the breed in North America could never be shown in today’s conformation trials? Most people know little about the history of Shelties, and unfortunately much of what they believe of what they believe to be true about the breed is often wrong. (You can learn a lot of wrong things about the breed by consulting articles on the Internet.)

Unlike many miniature breeds that resemble their larger counterparts, the Shetland Sheepdog was not developed by simply selectively breeding Rough Collies for smaller and smaller size. The breed originally developed on the Shetland Islands north of Scotland. These islands have a close geographical proximity to Norway. It is the Vikings that visited the islands during the eighth and ninth centuries who brought with them small Nordic Spitz-type dogs which had an influence on what followed. These dogs interbred with some of the collie-type herding dogs already there. The next influence came early in the 19th century when the Shetland Islands were in bad economic shape, and the small farms (called “crofts”) simply did not have the size or quality of land to sustain a family. Because of this many of the island men went to sea, often on the whaling ships and that worked around South Georgia and Greenland. It became popular for the whalers to keep the now extinct Yakki dog (a herding and guard dog from Greenland) and these came back to the Shetlands and added to the genetic mix.

By the mid-19th century tourism became important to the island economy. One of the things that the Shetland islanders found that they could sell to visitors was their little dogs. Tourists seem to like these little full-coated fluffy dogs and therefore many of the islanders began breeding their native stock to anything small and fluffy, including Pomeranians and King Charles Spaniels (not the cavalier) in order to make them more appealing. However by the end of the century some of the islanders recognized that the original breed was vanishing along with its herding instincts. Therefore they began to introduce crosses with Rough Collies to re-establish the original type, and this practice continued well after the breed was recognized by the British and American kennel clubs. In fact, Gesta was the Rough Collie dam of Woodvold, the first English Champion of the breed, and Chestnut Sweet Lady was the Rough Collie dam of Lerwick Rex the first American champion. These new lines of dogs were known under many different names, the most popular being Shetland Collies or Dwarf Scotch collies.

The first Shelties were registered in 1909 in England under the label of Shetland Collies. Rough Collie breeders, who by that time had considerably refined the appearance of the modern show Collie, were vitriolic in their reaction, calling them “little mongrels” and within a few months of the first registrations they managed to convince the Kennel Club to change the name of the breed to Shetland Sheepdogs. In 1911 when the first of these dogs were registered in America, the initial suggested title was “Scotch Collie” which, although ultimately rejected was the nickname used for the breed by the American public for next two decades.

Because Queen Victoria had had a collie named Noble who would sit next to her on a chair while she had tea, Rough Collies were quite popular in the UK. However collies are big dogs, and the availability of the smaller Shetland Sheepdogs, which looked much like collies, but would fit comfortably in a city home caused many people to become interested in the breed. This was not the case in America. Collies were not very popular as pets early in the 20th century, at least until the election of Calvin Coolidge as president.

Coolidge grew up on a farm and remained an animal lover all of his life. He once said, “Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House.” Coolidge and his wife Grace kept a large number of pets including cats, birds, a raccoon, a donkey, and a wombat to name a few. However they especially loved dogs. The most famous, and their favorite, was a pure white Rough Collie named Rob Roy. Coolidge kept Rob Roy with him when he worked and when he greeted visitors, so the dog became quite familiar to the public through newspaper photographs. When Grace Coolidge had her official portrait painted, she posed in a red silk gown standing beside Rob Roy, and this well-known painting hangs in the red room of the White House today. Later the Coolidges added another white collie named Prudence Prim, who ate breakfast cereal with the president every morning, and on Easter Sunday appeared on the White House lawn wearing a new Easter bonnet, much to the delight of press photographers. Thus white collies came to be identified with the Coolidge presidency.

Unfortunately, Prudence Prim died young. Immediately there were many offers from dog owners eager to supply a successor to the “first lady dog of the land.” Two children living in Orion, Michigan, quickly took action and sent a dog addressed to the president. It was a Shetland sheepdog (described by the press as a Scotch Collie) named Diana of Wildwood. The children chose this dog for the president because it was pure white, and thus appeared to be a proper replacement for their recently lost rough collie. The puppy arrived by airplane, and the first photographs taken of her suggested that she was a black-and-white spotted dog. However, it turns out that the black was airplane grease, and when the president lifted her up in his arms the grease transferred to his shirt and suit. Because of this incident, and the fact that the young Sheltie was always engaging in activities which caused her coat to get soiled, Mrs. Coolidge ultimately renamed her Calamity Jane. Eventually, the president had a permanent dog bathing tub built for the White House, ostensibly for all of the dogs, but in reality mostly for Calamity Jane, who needed to have a bath nearly every day.

Calamity Jane’s association with President Coolidge ultimately led to wide-spread popularity for Shetland Sheepdogs, much the same way that the popularity of Cocker Spaniels increased when President Richard Nixon owned one, and the popularity of Beagles went up when President Lyndon Johnson had several. Similar to what had occurred in England, the smaller version of the collie, which the Sheltie represented to the public, was viewed as a better house pet than the larger Rough Collie, like Rob Roy. Also, because of the difficulty keeping white dogs clean, people were quite happy with the traditional colors for their Shelties.

There are two interesting footnotes to this story. The first is that because of the introduction of bigger breeds of sheep, you will virtually never see a Shetland sheepdog on the Shetland Islands today. They have all been replaced by larger and stronger border collies. The second footnote is that you will never see a white Shetland sheepdog in the conformation ring in any dog show. The AKC standard of the breed specifically states that “Specimens with more than 50 percent white shall be so severely penalized as to effectively eliminate them from competition.” Thus Calamity Jane, who is responsible for the initial wave of popularity for the breed would be treated as a pariah, rather than a celebrity, by today’s Shetland Sheepdog breeders.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

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