Early Viking explorers discovered what is now called Iceland and brought their families and livestock including
unique horses, cattle, sheep, goats, fowl and Nordic Spitz type dogs with them when they arrived from Norway
and other Scandinavian countries around 1100 years ago. Later explorers from parts of the British Isles joined
them. Because of the extreme climate and conditions, there have been numerous population booms and busts
over the centuries producing a tough and resilient breed of dogs ideally suited to the local geography. The early
Icelanders demanded the highest character, ease of care, and health in their sheepdogs and with time the
population of dogs gradually changed into the unusually friendly, for a Nordic breed, and intelligent sheepdogs
used by Icelandic farmers over the centuries to herd their sheep. They are known today as Íslenski
fjárhundurinn or Icelandic Sheepdogs
The Icelandic Sheepdog is a working dog in Iceland and now in parts of North America still used to watch sheep
that graze in open fields much of the year. There are no large native prey animals in Iceland, so there has been
no need for an aggressive dog. In Iceland ravens and hawks sometimes bother lambs during the birthing season
in the spring, so Icelandic Sheepdogs even today can react to larger birds. The Icelandic Sheepdog is even
tempered and can be trusted with all animals provided a proper introduction is made by their humans first.
The Icelandic Sheepdog loves people and prefers to be with people all the time, to follow us around
everywhere and to sleep at our feet. It can learn to be alone for several hours every day, but it is happier
when it can be in close contact with people.
The Icelandic Sheepdog is very watchful and barks at strangers, but it never bites. All guests are welcomed
with kindness and joy. Some dogs like to bark at running animals. That's part of their herding nature.
The dogs are very clever and trainable. They learn quickly and remember very well. They excel in training
programs like obedience, agility, therapy, hearing assist, rally, fly-ball and so forth. They simply love working
and playing with people and have a never-ending interest in pleasing. They have a good nose and have been used
in search and rescue for people and animals.
The Icelandic Sheepdog loves exercise but is not as demanding as bigger working dogs. They are calm and
easygoing inside the home even on those days when you don't have time to take them for a walk.
The breed is extremely healthy and strong both physically and mentally. Most of them need to visit the vet for
routine care and vaccinations only once a year. There are relatively few harmful inherited conditions that can
be found in Icelandic Sheepdogs. Of course all breeds of dogs have some inherited harmful conditions. In our
dogs these include cataracts, extra eyelashes, hip dysplasia, etc. [Please see our health page for further
descriptions.] The Icelandic Sheepdog keeps its vitality into an advanced age and 15 years is not an uncommon
There are two coat types in Icelandic Sheepdogs, a longhaired one and a shorter haired version. They are
called long and medium. Both fur length types generally shed twice a year. All dogs have a thick, warm
undercoat, an adaptation for the harsh conditions in Iceland. Many of our dogs are shades of yellow, tan or red
with some white and black. Black, chocolate, and gray dogs are also found but are less common. Ideally, all
coats should contain at least 3 colors. Colors are listed in order of most common to least common. Black, white
and tan dogs and chocolate, white and tan dogs are called tricolor dogs.
In the 1960s there were fewer than 35 Icelandic Sheepdogs left in Iceland, the result of lack of interest in
the ancient breed and several catastrophic population crashes caused by distemper epidemics brought into
Iceland by newer breeds of dogs. Mark Watson, a British man with a love for Iceland, aroused interest in the
breed and started efforts to save them. At one time he moved to Nicosia in northern California and
established a kennel to breed Icelandics. Things did not go well and he eventually returned to his native
England with some of his dogs to continue his work. His gene pool was too small and the lack of diversity
contributed to the failure of his breedings. Apparently none any of the descendants of his dogs in Great Britain
have survived there today.
However, some of his dogs’ genes are still in our current population. We can find their names in our pedigrees.
Her interest aroused by Mr. Watson, Sigríður Pétursdóttir, a native Icelander, made it her goal to save
Icelandics. She traveled to Great Britain where she studied animal husbandry and learned methods to reduce
inbreeding, encourage diversity and methods to save as many of the genes as possible. Working with around 22
dogs of the 35 left and following protocols learned abroad, she managed to gradually increase the number of
Icelandics. Her goal was not only to save the breed, but to disperse the dogs so that in the event of future
population crashes, the Icelanders would be able to re-import descendants from the dispersed dogs. The total
world population of Icelandics is estimated to be around 4,000 dogs.
She collected and gave official names to those few remaining dogs. Some dogs remained with her; others
remained on their farms but were carefully monitored by her. She established her kennel, Ólafsvöllum or
Ólafsveillir. All of our dogs today whether in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Holland,
Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, the US, etc. are descended from this same small starting nucleus of
Ólafsvöllum dogs, Watson dogs and dogs from those other farms.
Pétursdóttir’s initial breeding procedure was to use the few fertile dogs in a way that would ensure never
repeating the same cross if possible. The idea was to keep as many of the genes present back in the 1960s and
1970s around for future breeders to use. If a dog was used with the same mate each time and their
descendants were eventually found to be have bad genetic traits, then all the possible descendants of those
two dogs and the genes, both bad and good, would be lost forever.
Using different mating pairs for every cross ensured that even if one breeding turned out in the future to
have been a bad match, the good genes from both parents would still survive because they each would have
been used with other mates as well. Many breeders are continuing with this practice today fortunately. Until
the time comes when our total population will be large enough and diverse enough to ensure the long term
survival of the breed, it is wise to continue this method of saving as many genes for future use as possible.
A few breeders have now decided to breed more closely related individual dogs in order to concentrate on
producing a breed standard type dog. As long as some breeders continue to rotate mates keeping as much
diversity and as many gene combinations as possible around, the future for our dogs has never looked better.
Rather large populations of Icelandics now exist in several countries; using exports and imports to diversify
the various gene pools promises to enrich all of our populations. Most of us realize that we need to carefully
look at all of the traits in our individual dogs in order to maintain, to keep the genetic diversity necessary for
the long term survival of the breed. As long as we do not all breed with the same goal in mind; as long as we
employ various breeding techniques; the future of our breed looks good.
Sigríður Pétursdóttir and Mark Watson are both honored and given credit for recognizing that after more than
1000 years Icelandic Sheepdogs were on the very brink of extinction. In the 1960s they set a course that
saved this wonderful breed.
J.L. Hansen, March 2007
Iceland is an island republic in the North Atlantic, 250 miles east of Greenland, and 600 miles west of
Norway. Owing to the influence of the Gulf Stream, Iceland has a relatively mild climate, the coast areas
being somewhat similar to that of northern Scotland, only slightly colder.
Iceland is very mountainous and volcanic, having an area of 39,758 square miles -- or one fifth greater than the
total area of Ireland, of which only about 20 percent is suitable for sheep, and less than 3 percent is under
cultivation, it can be seen by these figures that a large percentage of the country is uninhabitable.
Iceland has a population of about 156,000 of whom 119,500 live in towns and villages (of over 300 inhabitants)
and 36,500 live on farms, many of which are very isolated.
It is stated by two authors only, Eggett Olsfsen in 1744 and Joseph Banks in 1772, that there were three
types of dogs in Iceland. The famous naturalist, Count de Buffon, who mentioned the Iceland Dog several
times in volume V of the first French edition of his "Histoire Naturelle" which was published in 1755, does not
state that there were more than one type of dog in Iceland. If Eggett Olafsen and Joseph Banks were
correct, it is possible that the so-called Hunting Dogs and Dwarf Dogs, which it is stated resemble the
ordinary Danish Dog, became extinct, or almost extinct during the terrible catastrophes of the last half of the
18th Century. There were eruptions and earthquakes with an aftermath of famine and disease which reduced
the population very greatly, and there are records showing that many thousands of horses died. It is possible
that only a Fiaarhundur (Sheepdog) was able to survive.
From the many references to the Iceland Dog in my research, there are only six which state that the ears are
not entirely erect. Three of these references are taken from books written in the 18th century. the other
three from publications in 1829, 1833 and 1866. The publications of 1829 and 1833 were written by the same
author, and the one dated 1866 appears to be copied from an earlier account.
There are several references to the dog in the Icelandic Sagas (900 to 1300 A.D.) and undoubtedly dogs (and
sheep) were brought to the country by the first settlers from Norway in 874 A.D. The Iceland Dog resembles
the Norwegian Buhund (Farm Dog) in many ways. Besides being used for sheep-herding, the Iceland Dog has
been used for rounding up the ponies and warning the farmers of the approach of strangers.
As there is only one true type of dog in Iceland, would it not be easier to call him simply the Iceland Dog, and
at the same time let it be understood that he comes under the heading of a "working dog"? Many more of the
authors refer to the Iceland Dog rather than to the Icelandic Sheepdog -- occasionally the Danes mentioned
the Islandske Spidshunde (Icelandic Spitz).
During the last ten months I have made an extensive search for data about this breed. I think that the best
study from the historical point of view is the chapter of Dogs from "Lysing Islands" published in Reykjavik in
1920 and the best account of the physical aspects of the dog is from the chapter on "The True Iceland Spitz"
from "Vere Hunde" (Our Dogs) written by Christian Schierbeck, M.D. of Reykjavik and published in Copenhagen
in December 1900.
The true Iceland Dog is rare and I found only one valley (the Breiddalur), a very remote one in the east of
Iceland, where the true type is in great preponderance -- I should say about 90 percent. Occasionally in other
parts of the east or north of Iceland one sees a good specimen. There may be other remote valleys, similar to
the one mentioned above, which I have not found.
There is no Kennel Club in Iceland and the people have only breed dogs for utility purposes. The pureness of
the breed has been maintained in certain parts of Iceland owing to the following:
1. That dogs have never been imported legally or illegally, into Iceland on anything but a small scale, and
mostly to the southwest and west coasts;
2. That since 1909 it has been against the law to import dogs without a special license;
3. That the valleys are very cut off from each other and many of the farms are extremely isolated.
During two summers in Iceland, I made extensive search and very carefully selected four dogs and four
bitches, which I brought to the United States. I have already had three litters which have turned out well and
by careful breeding I hope to be able to standardize the breed completely. They are a very attractive breed
of the Spitz group; most intelligent and exceptionally friendly.
The Iceland Dog has been practically undiscovered by dog fanciers owing to the remoteness of the country up
to recent times and the fact that foreigners, up to the Second World War, rarely went to Iceland with the
exception of an occasionally salmon fisherman, ornithologist or geologist. Even now few tourists visit Iceland.
During the last years of the 19th Century some Iceland Dogs were taken to Denmark and the breed was
recognized by the Danish Kennel Club and shown at Dog Shows under their auspices between 1900 and 1914.
The breed was first recognized by the English Kennel Club in 1905 and specimens of the breed were shown in
England in the "Any Other Variety" class in 1923 and 1925.
I am most grateful to the Icelanders who, during the summers of 1955 and 1956 helped in my search for the
pure Iceland Dog.
|Icelandic Sheepdog History