What makes the Icelandic Sheepdog special is a question we often hear as they become more widely known.
Icelandic Sheepdogs are the national breed of Iceland.
These just-under-medium size spitz dogs came to Iceland with the first settlers as early as 874.
Spitz type dogs were the typical farm and herding dog found in Norway, and archeological remains of their distant ancestors have been found dating back to the Bronze Age. The Iceland dogs remained an uniquely pure population as only small numbers of other breeds of dog were ever imported into Iceland, and starting in 1909 it was forbidden to bring foreign animals into Iceland.
Their closest canine relatives, in a modern breed form, are probably the Norwegian Buhund. DNA research has detected a genetic relationship to the Karelian Bear Dog.
They are a very friendly dog, happy to meet people, and easily make friends. It seems that because the breed was developed by farmers, and lived in their homes, they had to be trustworthy and affectionate. They are great alarm dogs, and they will let you know when there’s a knock at the door, but don’t expect them to threaten or chase away strangers.
They are described in the breed standard as having little hunting instinct. That’s not surprising as there were no large animals to hunt in Iceland. However, many Icelandic Sheepdog owners report that their dogs will hunt small rodents under the snow and some even catch fish in streams. In days past it was a good thing if a dog could get some meals on its own. On farms, Icelandic Sheepdogs protect young animals like lambs and foals by being alert to birds of prey and driving them away. These are also qualities that are useful on farms in the US and Canada. They sound the alarm against intruders and will keep their flocks within bounds even without fences, a type of herding work known as tending.
The Icelandic Sheepdog has some unique physical characteristics. Like other spitz breeds, it has triangular ears that stand upright, and a tail that curls over the back. The coat has a dense undercoat that sheds at least twice a year, and a longer topcoat of somewhat coarse guard-hairs. The coat is very protective and waterproof, and fierce weather will not bother the dogs. The ears are very mobile and the dogs fold them backwards to show submission or playfulness, and can even fold them tightly against their head to keep out wind and rain.
One special characteristic are the dewclaws on the rear legs. Icelandic Sheepdogs have dewclaws on their front legs like many other dogs do, and they also have a single or double rear dewclaw on each rear leg. It is a distinctive trait and the dewclaws provide extra traction on steep or slippery terrain.
Coat length ranges from fairly short to very long, dense and full coats. The texture shouldn’t be soft or silky, or the coat would mat and get wet more easily. The breed is said to be self-cleaning because with the correct type coat, the dog can get very wet and dirty and when the coat dries, the mud and dirt will just fall off. This kind of coat doesn’t need to be washed with shampoo, in fact bathing too often will damage the coat and make it harder to maintain.
The breed has historically been important to the sheep farmers. Sheep farming was important to the survival of Icelandic settlers and to building the economy of Iceland in the medieval and early modern period. In Iceland, the sheep spent the summer in the mountain pastures, and were rounded up in the fall to spend the winter on the home farms. Then again in the spring they were moved back to the pastures.
This was a group effort with men on horseback riding along the valleys and sending the dogs into the mountains. The dogs needed to be able to move stubborn sheep who weren’t all that nervous about dogs. The dogs also needed to bark so that the men on horseback could hear where they were.
This seasonal movement of sheep was a hard job, and lasted about two to three weeks, a couple of times a year. The Icelandic horses are also kept in herds, and due to their special temperament, they are not as flighty around dogs as other domestic horses. Therefore, the dogs are also used to move herds of horses and to get horses into the stables for saddling. They also accompany trail rides.
The dogs would accompany farmers in winter on their travels, and would ride on horseback with the farmer when he was crossing a river. The dogs were said to be smart enough to find individual sheep in a flock by name, they would know when a sheep was lost and could find that sheep even buried in snow. Some dogs had a unique talent for collecting eggs of wild birds, and bringing them to their owners unbroken. The dogs were considered indispensable by farmers. At times, the price of an Icelandic sheepdog was equivalent to a cow or a couple of sheep, or even a horse.
In the 18th and 19th century, farmers were criticized for keeping too many dogs. One major public health issue in Iceland was a species of tapeworm that caused disease in sheep and also intestinal infections in humans. The dogs were an intermediate host for this tapeworm. This culminated in a tax on dogs that subsequently cut the population by more than half, from an estimated 24,000 dogs in 1869 to about 10,000 dogs in the 1880s. In 1924, the ownership of dogs in Reykjavík itself was banned.
By the 20th century the survival of the Icelandic Sheepdog was in doubt. By the 1950s it was very rare to see pure Icelandic Sheepdogs except in very remote areas.
Some dogs were exported to California. In Iceland the chief veterinarian and an Icelandic woman named Sigríður Pétursdóttir located as many pure examples of the breed as they could and began an organized breeding program.
Dogs continued to be exported from Iceland to the US even though in those decades the breed wasn’t recognized by the American Kennel Club. Some dogs had been acquired by American families who had been living in Iceland, others came when Canadians and Americans visited Iceland to choose horses to import, and brought back dogs as well. Also, some Icelandic people who emigrated to North America simply wanted to bring their kind of dog along with them. In Canada one Icelandic woman, the late Stefania Dignum of Yeoman Farms in Ontario, not only bred Icelandic Sheepdogs in Canada but also brought the first Icelandic sheep to North America.
The breed, thankfully, is no longer in danger of extinction. Generally, about 100 puppies a year are born in Iceland. In the US in 2008 there were 23 litters registered by the American Kennel Club, for a total of 102 puppies. In Canada there have been a few litters born and registered each year since the breed was recognized.