Icelandic Sheepdog

Peter Richards
Peter Richards (BVSc, MRCVS, University of Bristol)
 
Photo of adult Icelandic Sheepdog

Icelandic Sheepdogs are the descendants of dogs brought over with Nordic settlers. They adapted to their role so well that demand for these tough working dogs spread from their native Iceland to other countries in Europe. The breed almost became extinct after disease and social factors devastated their population. However, they were brought back from the brink by a dedicated breeding program. Their role in Icelandic society was to collect sheep flocks from their summer pastures and bring them in over the rugged terrain to the farm for winter. The working environment and harsh Icelandic climate produced an athletic dog with a warm, thick coat that sheds twice a year.

The Icelandic Sheepdog is known as a friendly and playful breed. They are happiest when they can spend as much time with their owners as possible with plenty of exercise. They are a very people-orientated breed and don't like to be left alone for long periods of time. As well as their cheerful disposition, Icelandic Sheepdogs are known as great barkers. They will bark at nearly everything just to make sure you’re paying as much attention to what’s happening as they are.

About & History

It’s likely that the Icelandic Sheepdog’s ancestors arrived with the first settlers from Nordic countries. Both genetic analysis and archaeological evidence from Danish and Swedish graves place the origin of the Icelandic Sheepdog in Scandinavia. The Icelandic Sagas say that the first Nordic explorer to reach Iceland was Naddoddr – a Norwegian who arrived in the 9th century. Although Naddoddr didn’t stay for long, his discovery of a new island prompted Norsemen to travel to this new land due to political upheaval and a shortage of arable land in Scandinavia. They travelled with their faithful companions, the ancestors of the Icelandic Sheepdog.

Not much is known about their early history. One of the main economic activities in Iceland was shepherding, so the Icelandic Sheepdog must have been developed to aid the new settlers in their work. Life in Iceland was tough. Although there is no explicit mention of Icelandic Sheepdogs in the Icelandic Sagas, they do tell of hardships that would have affected them. In 990 there was a great famine in which people were forced to eat their dogs to stay alive. Despite these challenges, either through new immigrants or enough native survivors, a canine population in Iceland was maintained.

The first mention of an Icelandic Sheepdog comes in 1555 from a Swedish monk, Olaus Magnus, who comments how a light-coloured dog with a thick coat was a popular pet from upper class ladies and priests. This popularity was not limited to Iceland. Two English authors, John Caius and Sir Thomas Browne, mention Icelandic Sheepdogs in their writings. Caius tells us in 1570 that the Icelandic Sheepdog was highly popular among the English aristocracy while Browne noted: “To England there are sometimes exported from Iceland a type of dog resembling a fox. Shepherds in England are eager to acquire them!”

Over the centuries, the Icelandic Sheepdog adapted to its environment. They were used mainly to herd sheep. Sheep flocks would not have had to contend with many large predators as in Continental Europe. The role of the Icelandic Sheepdog was to bring the flock to the shepherd and find lost sheep rather than to protect it. At the end of summer, they roamed the Icelandic hills over which the sheep had dispersed to find the flock and bring them back for winter. They also doubled as hunting dogs who retrieved puffins from their burrows and watchdogs to warn about the approach of strangers.

The Icelandic Sheepdog’s population began to suffer in the 19th century. Two factors have been identified in this decline. One was an outbreak of canine distemper, which may have wiped out about 75% of the population. Another factor was a tax on dogs introduced in 1869. The law was introduced to limit the spread of tapeworm between dogs, sheep and people. Each farm had an allocation of tax-free dogs but extra animals were heavily taxed. As a result, by the mid 20th century, very few Icelandic Sheepdogs remained. With the breed in danger of extinction, several individuals in Iceland and abroad worked in conjunction with the Icelandic Ministry of Agriculture to establish a breeding program and preserve the breed.

Appearance

Icelandic Sheepdog Large Photo

The Icelandic Sheepdog is a Spitz-like breed. They are small to medium sized with males standing at 45cm at the shoulder while females are slightly smaller at 40cm tall. An adult dog weighs between 9 and 14kg with males tending to be heavier. Their facial structure is similar to that of other Spitz-like dogs. They have long, tapering muzzles and erect triangular ears giving them a foxy appearance. They have muscular, rectangular shaped bodies with a slight abdominal tuck. Their tails are curled tightly over the back. This breed has dewclaws on both the front and hind legs. Some individuals have an anatomical quirk, double dewclaws on the hind legs.

There are two types of coat: short and long-haired. Both are dense, waterproof, double-coats that protect them against the harsh Icelandic climate. In both types, the undercoat is soft and thick. The difference appears in the overcoat which is coarse and either short or long. The coat comes in a wide variety of colours and markings including combinations of:

  • Brown
  • Red
  • Tan
  • Cream
  • Grey
  • Black

While one colour predominates there are usually white markings present on the face, neck, chest, lower limbs and tail.

Character & Temperament

Icelandic Sheepdogs known for being friendly dogs. They have no qualms about giving strangers and enthusiastic greeting. A well-socialised Icelandic Sheepdog will be everyone’s friend, ready to play with children and other dogs. Since they functioned as watchdogs in Iceland, all new friends are greeted by barking just in case their owner hasn’t noticed there’s someone at the door. The barking might be extended to anything from the neighbour’s cats to a bird flying past the window. Whilst an Icelandic Sheepdog’s natural tendency for noise can be overridden with early training, it’s difficult and there is no guarantee of success.

Icelandic Sheepdogs are an energetic and agile breed. They love working outdoors with their owners. They are an intelligent breed with an inquisitive nature. They’re very happy when exploring new places and are not known to be nervous when presented with unfamiliar surroundings or people.

Trainability

Photo of Icelandic Sheepdog puppy

Icelandic Sheepdogs are easily trained. They’re willing to learn, love to please and are intelligent – all the characteristics required for trainability. There’s no need to stop at the basics with this breed. They need plenty of mental and physical stimulation so will take to more advanced training such as agility and obedience training. Icelandic Sheepdogs respond best to positive reinforcement, so plenty of praise and treats will help them pick up new commands quickly. Heavy handed training will lead to resentment towards the owner.

Training is an important aspect of an Icelandic Sheepdog’s early life. Although they’re known to be sociable and friendly, these traits come to the fore after adequate socialisation as a puppy. As with any breed, socialisation involves introducing them to as many different dogs, people and places early on to get the accustomed to unfamiliar surroundings.

Health

Icelandic Sheepdogs are generally very healthy. They have an average lifespan of 12 to 15 years. While they’re not known for health problems, it’s always best to ask a breeder about the health of the parents and grandparents and any screening programs they’re involved with. Only one condition has been identified as important in Icelandic Sheepdogs:

  • Cataracts – Cataracts are opacities that form in the lens of the eye. They can start off small, but tend to grow in size over time. As they become bigger and more opaque, less light can enter the eye for vision and so sight is often reduced. Eventually they can lead to blindness. There are many causes of cataracts from early nutritional deficits to diabetes. Cataracts in Icelandic Sheepdogs are associated more with old age. There is a heritable component, so puppies from affected parents are more likely to be affected themselves. Luckily, surgical treatment for cataracts is now more widely available.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Icelandic Sheepdogs are athletic and energetic dogs that require plenty of exercise. They fit best with an outdoor lifestyle and will engage enthusiastically in outdoor pursuits, such as hiking and jogging. Play is an important part of exercise for Icelandic Sheepdogs, be that with their owner or other dogs. They are particularly suited to dog sports, such as agility, flyball and obedience trials, as their eagerness to learn helps them pick up new tasks quickly.

Grooming

As with any double-coated breed, shedding is a core part of grooming. Icelandic Sheepdogs will shed twice a year. During this time, they require regularly brushing to remove excess hair. They shed heavily during this time so even with brushing, you can expect hair to accumulate wherever the dog goes.

Famous Icelandic Sheepdogs

Although no Icelandic Sheepdogs are mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas, they were mentioned in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Henry V. During a heated exchange between two soldiers in a London tavern, one insults the other with the line “Pish for thee, Iceland Dog! Thou prick-ear’d cur of Iceland”.

Cross-Breeds

There are no modern cross-breeds that use Icelandic Sheepdogs.

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