The Icelandic Sheepdog is not only a member of an ancient race of dogs, the Spitz type, but it has a truly archaic past as well. It is thought that ancestors of the Icelandic Sheepdog arrived in Iceland after having accompanied the Vikings when they set sail from Norway and the surrounding Scandinavian countries somewhere between 874 and 930 A.D. As with many herding or droving breeds, the Icelandic sheepdog has Velcro like properties and will do its best to stick closely to its owners side shadowing their every move. Unusually powerful, courageous and energetic for a smaller breed, the Icelandic Sheepdog is truly a large dog in the body of a small dog. The Icelandic Sheepdog breed has also been known by the names Iceland Spitz, Iceland Dog, Friaar Dog, Íslenskur fjárhundur, Islandsk Farehond, Canis islandicus and “the dog of the Vikings”. More recently, the name Icelandic Sheepdog has been abbreviated to ISD. The Icelandic Sheepdog is of a similar breed type as the Laphund and the Norwegian Buhund, ancestors of the Shetland Sheepdog and Welsh Corgi. Recent DNA analysis conducted on the Icelandic Sheepdog reveals that the breed is related genetically to the Korelian Bear Dog, a Finnish breed originating in Russia.
History shows that the Icelandic Sheepdog is descended from one of the most ancient and earliest of domesticated dog breeds. Although very little documentation exists from the time when Iceland first became inhabited, 1000 year old folklores and legends tell of a noble and loyal canine companion, the Icelandic Sheepdog. The Icelandic Sheepdog is the only dog native to the island of Iceland. It is one of the world’s oldest dog breeds, and due to the isolation of the cold Nordic landscape of its home country, the Icelandic Sheepdog developed separately from other breeds that migrated to the island. Through centuries of development and natural selection, the Icelandic Sheepdog adjusted and became well suited to the harsh climate and difficult terrain of Iceland. The breed also adapted well to the methods of early Icelandic farmers, making the Icelandic Sheepdog an important and much needed partner and companion to the early livestock farmer. The hard-working nature of the breed, and its devotion and loyalty to its human companions was much revered by the Icelandic people. So highly valued and esteemed was this breed, that archeologist have unearthed many graves containing the bones of these treasured dogs, showing that the respect of a burial was even suitable for these canine members of ancient society.
The extreme climate and weather present in the country of Iceland throughout the centuries created many difficulties for the Icelandic people. In the 10th century, the oppressive environmental conditions caused widespread famine in the country, such was the severity that the extreme measure of killing dogs for food to sustain human life was employed. The dogs with the strongest character, intelligence, and health were spared the sad fate of becoming dinner, and those that remained after the post famine went on to produce a strong, healthy, and resilient race of native Icelandic dogs; easily able to withstand the challenging climate and terrain of their homeland.
The fact that there were no large prey animals in ancient Iceland, meant that the Icelandic Sheepdog was not used for hunting, and therefore developed into an unusually pleasant and friendly sheep-herding companion. The breed was not generally used to drive the flock, but was employed more to keep members of the flock from straying. The Icelandic Sheepdog would know each individual sheep in its flock, recognizing them by scent due to the breed’s highly developed sense of smell.
During the summer, the sheep would be set loose across the Icelandic hillsides to graze. When fall came, the Icelandic Sheepdog would set to work collecting and rounding up all the sheep from their master’s flock. Often, the Icelandic Sheepdog would have to travel long distances and traverse challenging terrain in order to return all the members of the flock to their home for the winter. It is said that an Icelandic Sheepdog is so good at its job, that it can locate sheep even when buried under several feet of snow. A successful working breed, the Icelandic Sheepdog was also used to herd larger animals such as horses. So important was the work performed by these dogs that several were kept on each farm. They were used to herd the animals, and in some cases move the animals to and from their summer grazing locations, making them a necessity to any Icelandic farmer, both in ancient times and even still today.
During the Middle Ages sheep were kept by many farmers, and Sheepdogs were often exported. Great Britain would import many dogs of this working class into their country. There the Icelandic Sheepdog quickly became a favorite of the nobility, and documentation of the breed began to appear. A navigator/geographer by the name of Marteinn Beheim was traveling in the year 1492; he mentions the Icelandic Sheepdog when he jests that the Icelandic Sheepdog was so valuable in its native country, that Icelanders would charge a great price for these dogs, but would give away children that they were unable to feed.
Documentation of the Icelandic Sheepdog continued to occur in the following centuries. Swedish author Olaus Magnus wrote in 1555, that the breed was popular among the aristocracy of Sweden, particularly with the priests and women. And again in 1570, the Icelandic Sheepdog is mentioned as a favorite among the upper classes of Britain by humanist/physician John Claus. So popular was the Icelandic Sheepdog at this time that the breed is even mentioned in the William Shakespeare play “Henry VIII”, which written around 1600. The capacity to which the Icelandic Sheepdog was imported into Britain is noted in 1650, by English satirist Thomas Brown, when he writes that the breed was widely imported into the country as pets, but remained highly coveted by English sheep farmers because of their hard-working and dedicated temperament.
By this time, the Icelandic Sheepdog was well known throughout Europe. The French naturalist Count de Buffon, in 1755, created an account of the known dog breeds originating in Iceland. There were thirty breeds documented, including the much loved Icelandic Sheepdog. Between the years of 1752 and 1757, naturalists Eggert Olafsson and Bjarni Palsson were traveling in Europe, they kept detailed travel journals and in these there is documentation and accounts of a distinct breed of Icelandic dog used to herd and move sheep and horses across the Icelandic countryside. The aristocracy of 18th century Europe was known for documenting their pets, and a painting produced in 1763, featured an Icelandic Sheepdog that had been whelped in Poland.
Although highly prized and greatly revered in its native Iceland as well as throughout Europe, like many ancient and noble dog breeds, the Icelandic Sheepdog would face its own trials and difficulties in its history and its attempt at survival. In the 19th century, the Icelandic Sheepdog breed would face near extinction. In Iceland, tapeworm became an epidemic among the sheep population. The Icelandic Sheepdog was in direct contact with the sheep regularly and therefore, the transmission of tapeworm to the canine population became widespread and rapid. Many Icelandic Sheepdogs would become infected. So bad was the epidemic that even humans living among these animals would become infected. This infestation was severe and devastating to the Icelandic farmers and their flocks. Additionally, distemper occurred to epidemic proportions in the late 1800’s. This affected roughly three-quarters of the entire Icelandic canine population; sadly, many dogs died as a result of these two diseases.
In reaction to the devastation that occurred within the population of native Icelandic dog breeds, the government of that country enacted laws and regulations in an attempt to prevent further widespread disease and devastation of its treasured canine companions. A hefty tax was levied on anyone owning a dog in Iceland; exempt were just several sheepdogs per farm for working purposes. Because the tax was such a burden, the number of dogs being bred in Iceland dropped dramatically. In 1869, the estimated dog population in Iceland had been 24,000; by 1883 the population had dropped to about 10,000.
Due to the dwindling of the Icelandic dog population (which included its highly prized Sheepdog breed), during the late 19th century foreign dogs were imported and introduced into the native population. Author of “The True Icelandic Spitz”, Christian Schierbeck, performed extensive travels throughout the country in an attempt to locate true members of the native breed. In his research, Schierbeck managed to find only 20 pure specimens with the breed’s original characteristics. From this, Schierbeck deduced that a true Icelandic Sheepdog of pure blood could only be found in the remote farm regions of Iceland. Because of the near extinction of the breed, a pure blood Icelandic Sheepdog became so rare and so valued that the price for such a dog was equal to the price of a horse and two sheep at this time. The scarcity of the breed resulted in the Icelandic government enacting a law in 1901, banning the exportation of its native Sheepdogs.
Later, in the 1930’s, a traveler named Mark Watson was making his way through Iceland. During his travels, he came upon several Icelandic Sheepdogs living in the countryside. He continued to travel in Iceland for the following decades, and by the 1950’s, his travels made evident that few Icelandic Sheepdogs were to be found. One area of the country; however, displayed a dog population in which 90% of the members showed the distinct and unique characteristics of the original Icelandic Sheepdog breed. These dogs were living in the remote Icelandic region known as Breiodalur. The breed was slowly becoming extinct, and Watson recognized this fact. With the assistance of the Chief Veterinary Officer of Iceland, Pall A. Paisson, he was able to export several male and female Icelandic Sheepdogs to California.
Upon the Icelandic Sheepdogs arrival in the United States, the group was plagued with distemper and some members did not survive. Those dogs that did survive; however, would be bred and create an American line of Icelandic Sheepdogs, temporarily keeping the breed intact and in existence. Watson’s kennel in California was less than a success and he eventually moved back to his home country of England, where he continued to breed Icelandic Sheepdogs. Unfortunately, his gene pool was small and greatly limited. This lack of diversity among his dogs contributed d to his failed breeding program. No English Icelandic Sheepdogs maintain his line’s genes, however some evidence of the dogs from his kennel do appear in the genetics of the Icelandic Sheepdog population as a whole.
In the 1950’s, there were approximately 35 Icelandic Sheepdogs left in Iceland and Watson’s interest in the salvation of the breed would encourage the interests of other dog enthusiasts. One such individual was Sigriour Petursdottir. So encouraged by Watson’s dedication to the breed was this native Icelander, that she made it a goal to save the Icelandic Sheepdog from an almost certain extinction. Petursdottir began to travel and study the breeding of dogs. She learned of methods to reduce inbreeding and create a stronger dog population. Working with just 22 of the remaining Icelandic Sheepdogs, she followed the procedures she had studied abroad, and a gradual increase in the number of Icelandic Sheepdogs began to occur. Petursdottir’s goal was to export dogs into other countries so that in the event of another Icelandic canine pandemic, descendants from the exported dogs could be brought back to Iceland and reestablish the native breed if necessary.
To ensure the long-term survival of the Icelandic Sheepdog breed, Petursdottir attempted to reduce the negative effects of inbreeding by using differing breeding pairs as often as possible. In her breeding program, rarely would two dogs produce more than one litter together. This would ensure that the Icelandic Sheepdogs being bred under her supervision would produce enough diversity within their gene pool to sustain the longevity of the breed. The Icelandic Sheepdog was widely exported, and due to this fact there are increasing numbers of Icelandic Sheepdog populations throughout the world. This population boom made for a bright future for this lovable breed.
In 1969, the Icelandic Kennel Club was formed in an effort to protect and promote the native dogs of Iceland. The Icelandic Sheepdog Breed Club was formed in 1979, and has since been given the task of upholding the standard for and developing the Icelandic Sheepdog breed. Today, the registered number of Icelandic Sheepdogs is about 4000. Many of these dogs remain close to their homeland. Icelandic Sheepdog breed clubs can be found in many countries including: Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Holland, and Germany. The Icelandic Sheepdog Association of America (ISAA) is the breed club for the Icelandic Sheepdog in the USA.
Although the Icelandic Sheepdog has existed for more than 1000 years, and its original breed standard dates back to 1887, the breed did not receive recognition from the American Kennel Club (AKC) until 2008, when it was placed in the Miscellaneous Class; finally gaining full breed recognition in 2010. The Icelandic Sheepdog breed is currently listed in 82nd place, out of 167 breeds in the AKC’s most popular dog breeds list for 2010.
A Nordic breed, the Icelandic Sheepdog is a member of one of the most ancient of dog breed types, the Spitz. Being a member of the Spitz family, the Icelandic Sheepdog displays the traditional wolf like appearance of the Spitz dogs; including prick ears and a curly tail, among other physical characteristics. The Icelandic Sheepdog is small to medium in size, standing roughly 18 inches at the withers for males, and just over 16 inches for females. The shape of the Icelandic Sheepdog’s strong and agile body is rectangular; longer in the body than it is tall. The average weight is 20 to 35 lbs. A notable difference in the appearance of the two sexes of the Icelandic Sheepdog is present. The male will appear more muscular and more solidly built, while the female will be more petite and appear more feminine.
The head of the Icelandic Sheepdog is solid and well built with the muzzle being just shorter than the skull, giving the breed the appearance of a triangular shaped head when viewed from the top or the sides. A slightly domes skull gives way to a distinct stop, but one that is not overly high or too steep in decent. The skin of the face is close fitting and tight. The muzzle consists of a strong and precise nasal bridge that tapers into a black, dark brown, or chocolate colored nose, depending on the coat color of the dog. Flat cheeks and tight fitting black lips are seen in the Icelandic Sheepdog breed (lip color may vary slightly; however, depending on the dog’s coat color). The teeth display a scissors bite and complete dentition.
The ears of the Icelandic Sheepdog are medium in size and of the typical prick-style that is common among the Spitz family of dog breeds. Erect and extremely mobile, the ears are triangular in shape, similar to the head, with rounded tips. The ears are very reactive to any sounds the dog detects, and easily show the dog’s mood. The Icelandic Sheepdog is a self-assured and lively little fellow. The dog’s expression is inquisitive, intelligent, and kind. The breed’s dark eyes accentuate its keen look. Dark brown in color, the eyes are almond shaped and the rims are black, giving the Icelandic Sheepdog an intense and beautiful expression.
The neck of the Icelandic Sheepdog is strong and of a moderate length. It carries the head high, and proudly, and is slightly arched, leading into well-built, sloping shoulders. The sturdy front legs are straight and corresponding. The topline is level and brawny. The back is muscular and powerful, supporting a chest that is well-sprung and profound; the depth of the chest being equivalent to the length of the foreleg. The belly is ever so faintly tucked up into a wide and powerful loin.
The hindquarter is similar to the forequarter in that the legs are parallel and strong. They give way to feet that are well-developed with strong pads and oval toes that are adequately arched and held close together. Dew claws are common in the Icelandic Sheepdog breed and may be doubled on either the front or hind feet. The tail of the Icelandic Sheepdog is set high on the back and is typical of the Spitz family; a wolf-like characteristic that suggests its ancient breeding shows the dog’s tail is thick and full, curled tightly over the back.
The Icelandic Sheepdog breed displays two types of coats, one being short and the other being long. Both types are double coats with thick hair and a weatherproof characteristic. Double coats consist of a thick and soft undercoat with a longer outer-coat of guard hairs. This double thickness to their hair protects the dog from the harsh Nordic climate in which the breed was developed. Both the short and long haired versions display coarse guard hairs with shorter hair being present on the face, head, ears, and front of the dog’s legs. Profusely covered in hair are the back of the thighs, the neck, and chest. The tail is bushy and covered with long, dense hair.
The color of the Icelandic Sheepdog’s coat can vary. One color should be predominant with markings and additional coloring permitted. The principal colors of the Icelandic Sheepdog’s coat are black, grey, chocolate brown and varying shades of tan that can range from cream to a reddish color. White markings are always seen accompanying the main color of the coat, and these markings can have varying patterns. Commonly, these white spots can be seen on the face, collar, and chest, as well as be displayed as socks on the dog’s feet. A black mask and black tips on the guard hairs can often be seen in dogs of a lighter coat. Tri-colored dogs are sometimes found among the Icelandic Sheepdog breed, this is when the coat is black with both white and tan markings. Pied coats are also permitted; this is where any variation of colors occurs on a white background. A predominantly white coat is not preferred for an Icelandic Sheepdog, however. For show purposes, no trimming should be done to the coat as the dog should be displayed in its natural state.
A hardy breed, the Icelandic Sheepdog is loyal and playful. The breed is intelligent and active and will require moderate activity and plenty of human companionship. The Icelandic Sheepdog’s gentle and happy nature make it an ideal family pet. The Icelandic Sheepdog is a doting companion, fiercely loyal and intensely devoted to its family. Because of the breed’s friendly and social personality, the Icelandic Sheepdog will require much human contact and attention. They do not care for being left alone or left outside unsupervised. An Icelandic Sheepdog that does not enjoy ample human companionship may develop anxiety. As a result of the breeds gentle disposition harshness should also be avoided when providing correction for the Icelandic Sheepdog.
Training should be firm yet kind, and should begin early on in puppyhood. The Icelandic Sheepdog is a smart breed; however it takes a bit longer to mature emotionally than some other dog breeds. Mental development can continue for the Icelandic Sheepdog well into the second year of the dog’s life. Proper training and adequate socialization will be important for the successful development of the Icelandic Sheepdog. The breed is social and outgoing, with a fairly understated hunting instinct; therefore when properly adjusted the adult Icelandic Sheepdog will be a cheerful, patient, and loving companion to children, as well as a pleasant and considerate housemate to other pets. The Icelandic Sheepdog will often bond closely to all members of the family, including these other pets.
The breed is gracious toward strangers as well, and will often greet them enthusiastically and as a friend. When threatened, the Icelandic Sheepdog will often take the high road and simply walk away as opposed to getting into an aggressive conflict. Generally, the Icelandic Sheepdog wants to make friends with all humans and other animals. As such Icelandic Sheepdogs tend to make poor guard dogs. Puppies that are not well-adjusted may on occasion show aggression towards other dogs of the same sex, however proper socialization will prevent any such occurrence.
The breed was developed early in its history to be hard-working herding dogs in the harsh Nordic climate of Iceland, making the breed a tough little dog with a big heart and a strong desire to be a productive member of the household. As such, the breed has been used to herd livestock, as well as successfully as a watchdog due to their tendency to be keen and alert while working. The Icelandic Sheepdog’s attitude towards its work is one of enthusiasm and confidence. This breed needs to feel like it has a job to do in order to maintain its mental health and stimulation. The Icelandic Sheepdog is easy to train and eager to learn.
Although only small to medium in size, the Icelandic Sheepdog requires room to run and plenty of exercise in order to maintain proper health and a pleasant temperament. The breed does best when kept in a country/farm setting where there is plenty of space for the dog to play, as well as other animals for the dog to interact with. An active family or a very active and available individual who are willing to include the dog in family activities will make the best owners for an Icelandic Sheepdog. Most Icelandic Sheepdogs enjoy water and aquatic activities. Boating and swimming make great family activities to include an Icelandic Sheepdog in. The breed loves water so much, that some may even attempt to play in their water bowl.
The breed is used to working closely with human companions and will therefore keep in contact vocally with its family when outdoors. This breed would never be described as a loner or a dog that works independently of its human companions. Because of their close bond to humans and their commitment to hard work, the Icelandic Sheepdog succeeds at therapy and canine assistance work.
As the Icelandic Sheepdog was bred to herd livestock, the breed has developed a strong use of its voice. Barking is in the Icelandic Sheepdog’s nature, and it will use its voice often and for many varying reasons. Due to this fact, the Icelandic Sheepdog may not be the most suitable pet for those with neighbors living close by. The breed can also be talented escape artists as they are intelligent and curious. Fences often have no success in containing an Icelandic Sheepdog on a mission. They are climbers and diggers who will go to great length to get to where their humans are. The breed can easily develop separation anxiety, and it is recommended that a puppy have a pet companion to keep it entertained while the family is away. The breed should always be walked on a leash as it has a tendency to want to “herd” things that it perceives are trying to escape. This can include cars, which the Icelandic Sheepdog has been known to chase in some instances.
In general, the Icelandic Sheepdog is a sweet and loving companion, happy to make new friends and eager to spend time with its family. The breed is willing to work hard when necessary, and lavish adoring affection on its family when it is home. The Icelandic Sheepdog is an ideal companion and housemate to a family or individual looking for an active and doting canine friend.
Grooming requirements for the Icelandic Sheepdog breed are fairly minimal in comparison to other dog breeds that sport a thick double coat. Weekly brushing should suffice to keep the short or long coat free of tangles, mats, and debris. The breed does experience a blow of its coat twice a year. This is where the thick undercoat is completely shed. During these times of extreme shedding, regular brushing will be required to manage the excessive trail of hair that will be left wherever the dog goes. Bathing is not needed regularly with this breed as the coat is relatively easy to keep clean and healthy with regular brushing.
As with all dog breeds, attention and care should be given to the dog’s eyes, ears, nose, teeth, and nails on a regular basis. Nails should be trimmed, especially the dewclaws to prevent injury or health concerns in these areas. Cleaning and inspecting the eyes, ears, and teeth can also help detect and prevent any health concerns that may arise in these areas as well.
The Icelandic Sheepdog is a relatively healthy purebred dog. The Icelandic Sheepdog breed enjoys a long life expectancy of between 12 to 15 years on average and experiences very few major health concerns. There have been some health issues identified in the breed; the most commonly seen appears to be Hip Dysplasia.
Other less commonly seen health concerns for the Icelandic Sheepdog breed include: