Norwegian Elkhound

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Norwegian Elkhound

You might be forgiven for wondering how the national dog of Norway came to be named after a North American animal, the elk, but in fact the breed’s name is a corrupted form of the word “Elghund”, meaning “moose dog”. Although this ancient breed made its name in the world of Nordic big game hunting, nowadays, it is more often found as a sweet, gentle pet that dotes on children. Playful and energetic, the Elkhound is a lovable clown with a big personality, but it is also fiercely intelligent and strong-willed. It an often-mischievous character, and can be difficult to train, especially if food rewards are not in plentiful supply!

The Elkhound’s loud voice, which it is fond of using, is an important trait in this dog when hunting, but can prove to be a bit of a headache in a residential setting. On the other hand, it does mean that these are usually excellent watch dogs, and they are sufficiently wary around strangers to ensure an intruder will never be welcomed with a wagging tail. The wolf-like appearance is enhanced by the typical Spitz-type coat, which does not require a lot of grooming, but owners should be prepared to cope with the reasonably heavy hair loss from it. The breed is renowned for its stamina, and needs plenty of exercise and an outdoor space to patrol. Like many pedigrees, the Elkhound suffers a number of inherited health problems, but it nonetheless has a decent life expectancy of 13 to 15 years.

About & History

Unfortunately, nobody is entirely certain of the early history of the Norwegian Elkhound. Being a Spitz, it is derived from dogs that were domesticated five to seven thousand years ago in Europe, but DNA evidence suggests that the Elkhound, along with other members of the Nordic Spitz family, such as the Finnish Lapphund, was influenced by out-breeding with wolves in the more recent past. Certainly, the Vikings had Elkhound-like dogs that were used for hunting, as well as to protect livestock and property, and it is likely the breed has changed relatively little in the intervening millennium. However, it remained little-known outside its homeland until it was “discovered” at a Norwegian Hunters Association dog show in 1877, whereafter it became more sought after both at home and abroad. It was recognised by the UK Kennel Club as early as 1901.

Although it is now most often kept as a pet, the Elkhound is also used to hunt, as was its original function. Most often employed against moose, bear, and wolves, the breed is not required to kill, but rather to track and contain the prey. Two types of Elkhound are used in Norway: the Bandhund and Loshund. The latter roams ahead of the hunter, and on finding its quarry, keeps the larger animal at bay by leaping around it, barking loudly until the hunter appears to take the shot. The Bandhund, on the other hand, is kept on a long leash, and works more silently to lead its master in pursuit of a scent.

Appearance

Norwegian Elkhound Large Photo

In many ways, the Elkhound has the appearance of a typical Spitz – squarely built, with a compact body, a bristling, curled tail, and a thick, bushy coat. Its head is remarkably wolf-like, framed by the dense ruff of hair around the neck, and wedge-shaped, with an equal length of skull and muzzle. It has dark eyes, and small, triangular ears set high on the head that are held erect, and are extremely mobile. Its neck and back are stocky and muscular, and beneath the almost impenetrable coat may be felt a prominent, arching loin. The Elkhound has remarkable stamina when working, reflected in its broad, deep, and well-sprung chest, and its abdomen is flat, with barely any perceptible tuck.

The need to traverse rough, frozen ground required the breed to have strong limbs, and the thighs in particular are impressively muscular, while the lower limbs have very strong bone structure and compact paws. The tail’s curl should be in line with the spine, rather than to either side of it. The Elkhound is covered in a dense double coat of medium length grey hair, with black tipping on the hairs giving it a characteristic smoky look. In terms of size, there is relatively little difference between the genders, with males being 50 to 54 cm in height, and weighing 21 to 23 kg, and females measuring 48 to 51 cm and weighing 20 to 22 kg.

Character & Temperament

Intelligent, playful, and sometimes boisterous, the Norwegian Elkhound is a lovable rogue. It belongs at the heart of the family, where it thrives on constant attention and near-constant physical contact, being the sort to rest its head on its owner’s lap or foot whenever the opportunity arises.

It is a watchful breed, and sometimes suspicious of strangers, and will raise the alarm whenever it senses anything out of the ordinary. These instincts are especially noticeable around children, whom the Elkhound loves and will protect fearlessly. Although it generally mixes well with dogs, other pets may trigger its long-ingrained hunting instincts, and might not be safe in its company.

Trainability

Far from being a dunce, the Elkhound is a remarkably intelligent dog, but it manages to make hard work of training nonetheless. It is in its nature to want to be a colleague, rather than subordinate, and it rarely does anything just to please its owners.

This is a highly food-orientated breed, meaning treats are essential during training sessions – but obesity is a common problem in Elkhounds, so one should always go for the low-calorie options! With the appropriate incentivisation, these can be excellent competition dogs, and the breed consistently features highly in flyball and agility trials.

Health

The breed is prone to a number of significant health problems, many of them affecting the eyes. Thankfully, the Kennel Club and British Veterinary Association have established a rigorous screening programme to detect many of these conditions in carrier animals, and breeders should be able to produce certificates of health for both parents of any pups being sold as reassurance to prospective buyers.

  • Cataract – May develop in Elkhounds as young as one year of age; progresses slowly, thought to be inherited.
  • Entropion – Congenital deformity of the eyelids, which turn inwards, allowing hair to scratch and irritate the eye’s surface.
  • Fanconi syndrome – Inherited kidney problem leading to loss of nutrients including glucose and protein in the urine. Affected dogs fail to thrive, and drink and urinate excessively. Eventually leads to early kidney failure and premature death.
  • Glaucoma – Serious condition in which the pressure within the eye increases, leading to pain and sight loss. First seen in middle age.
  • Hip dysplasia – Malformation of the hip joint, which becomes obvious as lameness in active adolescent dogs. Largely caused by genetic factors, but obesity and excessive exercise in puppyhood can also contribute.
  • Hypothyroidism – Hormone deficiency caused by autoimmune destruction of thyroid tissue in middle age, leading to weight gain and lethargy, often with significant hair loss on either side of the torso.
  • Progressive retinal atrophy – Genetically programmed death of the nerve cells of the eye in adulthood, causing sight loss. In addition to ophthalmological examination, breeding dogs should be DNA tested to detect carrier status.
  • Retinal dysplasia – Another disorder affecting the retina of the eye, but in this case, it is present from birth, and may be detected on veterinary examination of puppies.

Exercise and Activity Levels

As well as being energetic, bouncy dogs, Elkhounds have tremendous stamina, and really benefit from prolonged periods of exercise. Except in very warm weather, they make great companions for runners and hikers, but should be given an hour of lead walking each day at a minimum. They also like to spend time outdoors, and should be able to access a garden. Failing to satisfy this athletic breed’s need to exercise is a recipe for destructive behaviour and incessant barking – couch potatoes be warned!

Grooming

When it comes to grooming, the good news is that the dense coat is resistant to dirt, and rarely gets smelly, so baths are seldom necessary. However, it does shed – a lot – and hair falls out in large clumps twice a year, usually in spring and autumn, when daily, or even twice-daily, brushing will be needed to prevent the house being carpeted in a blanket of dog hair. For the rest of the year, brushing every second day should suffice to prevent the coat from matting.

Famous Norwegian Elkhounds

Herbert Hoover, America’s President during the time of the Great Depression, famously owned a Norwegian Elkhound named Weejie.

Cross-Breeds

There are a few notable cross-breeds produced from Norwegian Elkhound parents:

  • Elk-a-Bee – Cross between a Norwegian Elkhound and a Beagle
  • Elkee – Cross between a Norwegian Elkhound and a Keeshond
  • Miniature Pinschelkhound – Cross between a Norwegian Elkhound and a Miniature Pinscher

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