Swedish Lapphund

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Swedish Lapphund
Bjørn Roger Larsen / Flickr.com

Chances are, you’ve never met a Swedish Lapphund, for although it is the national dog of Sweden, only around a thousand of these unusual dogs are thought to exist in the world, with most of those residing in their native country. This is a Spitz breed that was originally used as a hunting dog, adapted with its owners’ changing lifestyles to become a reindeer herder, and finally settled into its modern role as a companion dog, having been usurped from its employment by modern technology. It is strikingly fox-like in its appearance, notwithstanding its dark colouration, and it has the thick coat and bushy, curled tail common to all the Spitz breeds.

The Lapphund is an energetic, intelligent, and enthusiastic dog, with a strong work ethic, meaning it needs to be kept busy. Without regular exercise and plenty of mental stimulation, it will show typical signs of boredom, most notably constant barking or howling – something the neighbours are sure not to appreciate. It is also highly trainable, and considering how rare the breed is, it is remarkable that some individuals are used as search and rescue workers. Pet Lapphunds will benefit from access to competitive agility or obedience training. The small population size limits our ability to understand any inherited defects in the breed, but it is thought to be a healthy one, and has an average life expectancy of 12 to 13 years.

About & History

The very first dog to be registered with the Swedish Kennel club – in 1893 – was a Swedish Lapphund, but the breed was well established in Scandinavia long before that. Like other Nordic Spitzes, including the far more numerous Finnish Lapphund and Norwegian Elkhound, it can be traced back, using genetic studies, to a dog-wolf hybrid that developed in isolation to many of the other domesticated breeds. It is believed that the region’s Sami people used it as a hunting dog, and even modern Lapphunds show quite strong hunting instincts, with those who know the breed well attesting to its ability to hunt a range of game, from hares to bears! At some point during the eighteenth century, the Sami began to rely more on reindeer farming for their livelihoods, and the breed showed itself to be an able pastoral dog, helping to herd and guard the livestock. This ability as a watch dog also persists, and the Lapphund’s tendency to bark a lot may be seen as either a blessing or a curse, depending on the situation!

Despite its early entry into the pedigree register at the end of the nineteenth century, the Swedish Lapphund went into a severe decline in the early decades of the twentieth century, and it was on the verge of extinction by the 1930s, when a breeding programme was instituted. This was seriously interrupted by the Second World War, and it was not taken up again in earnest until the 1960s. Although it was reasonably successful in regenerating the Swedish Lapphund population, the breed may be experiencing yet another decline at present, with registration numbers of the Scandinavian Kennel Clubs showing a sharp fall-off over the most recent decade. Unfortunately, the Lapphund’s future remains uncertain.

Appearance

Swedish Lapphund Large Photo
Patrick Strandberg / Flickr.com puppy missing

The Swedish Lapphund is medium to small in size, with the typical rectangular build of a Spitz. Its profuse, stand-off coat, wedge-shaped head, and triangular prick ears all conspire to create a certain resemblance to a fox, which is enhanced by its energetic, alert attitude. Its large brown eyes are set well apart, are very expressive, and have darkly pigmented lids. Though it can be difficult to discern under the thick coat, the Lapphund has a well-built but compact physique, with a long, level back and a broad, deep chest. Its tail is set high on the croup, and although it can be extended to the level of the hock when relaxed, it is habitually carried in a curl over the back.

The breed has a light, sprightly gait that hints at its athleticism and ability to spring through considerable depths of snow, and its densely haired, relatively large paws can effectively act as snow shoes. The shoulder, stifle, and hock joints are well angulated, thus contributing to the Lapphund’s lightness on its feet. The double-thickness coat forms a pronounced ruff, or mane, around the neck; the outer layer stands straight out and is harsher than the dense, frizzy undercoat. It is black in colour (although some bronzing is often seen), with small white markings on the chest, paws, and tail permitted by the breed standard. Males should measure between 45 and 51 cm in height with females being 40 to 46 cm, and their respective weight ranges are 19.5–21 and 18–20 kg.

Character & Temperament

Typical Swedish Lapphunds are clever, gentle, and biddable dogs. In their native Sweden, they undergo an assessment of their temperament – known as mentalbeskrivning – which has allowed breeders to select dogs with the most desirable behavioural traits, while avoiding more negative ones, and this seems to have been quite a successful approach.

The Lapphund is generally tolerant and sociable with other dogs, and may accept cats if the two are raised together. Likewise, it is fond of children, but it is vital that this working breed is afforded plenty of exercise, as it can otherwise become excessively boisterous, especially when playing. The Lapphund has no tendency to be aggressive, but is aloof with strangers, and will respond to their approach with loud, enthusiastic barking.

Trainability

Controlling this tendency to bark is perhaps the greatest challenge in training a Swedish Lapphund, for it is otherwise a dog that learns quickly and responds well to praise and positive reinforcement. Teaching a “silent” command is a really useful technique to curtail any nuisance barking, but it requires patience and rigorous consistency in training.

The other approach to managing this vocalisation is thorough socialisation, introducing the Lapphund to as many new people as possible during its formative months as a pup. While this will never completely eliminate this noisy instinctive behaviour, it is likely to make it a less frequent and persistent annoyance.

Health

Perhaps because we have so few Swedish Lapphunds available to generate data, specific health problems have rarely been reported. However, of those listed below, diabetes mellitus and progressive retinal atrophy are the ones most commonly seen.

  • Diabetes mellitus – Deficiency of the hormone insulin, which is responsible for regulating glucose metabolism. This insulin shortage prevents sugar leaving the blood and entering the cells where it is needed. While this may be detected by checking blood and urine glucose levels, the condition first manifests clinically as weight loss, increased appetite, and excessive thirst. Secondary bladder infections are common, and diabetic dogs may become depressed and nauseous as the problem progresses. Treated with daily or twice-daily insulin injections.
  • Glycogenosis – A rare condition in which large starch molecules accumulate in tissues of the body, leading to a wide range of manifestations, from muscle weakness to organ enlargement and dysfunction.
  • Progressive retinal atrophy – An inherited cause of sight loss in many breeds, and known to be an issue in the Swedish Lapphund. As genetic tests have been developed in the relatively recent past, it is hoped that screening programmes will reduce the incidence of this common problem.
  • Spinal muscular atrophy – An unusual, and mercifully rare, genetic condition that may be first seen in pups younger than two months old. Characterised by profound muscle loss, and usually fatal.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Except in very warm weather, in which this Nordic breed is prone to overheating, the Swedish Lapphund should be given between one-and-a-half and two hours’ exercise every day. This can take many forms, but should ideally be both mentally and physically stimulating; negotiating an obstacle course, exploring new routes, or pulling a small cart, for example. Many Lapphunds have excelled in competitive activities like agility trials, and, where available, this represents an ideal form of exercise for this clever and athletic breed.

Grooming

Spectacularly dense though it is, the Swedish Lapphund’s coat is actually quite easy to care for. It sheds an average amount, and so should be brushed once or twice weekly to remove loose hair, but it is quite weather and dirt resistant, and should rarely need washing. Nor should it be clipped, as this damages the hair shafts, allowing water to permeate and disrupt them. As for any dog, daily tooth brushing and occasional nail clipping are essential, and should be introduced as part of the grooming routine when the dog is young.

Famous Swedish Lapphunds

The breed’s only enduring claim to fame is its status as the official national dog of Sweden.

Cross-Breeds

Due to its rarity, the Swedish Lapphund is not currently used for intentional cross-breeding.

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