A Brief Account of the History of the Icelandic Sheepdog
by Thorsteinn Thorsteinson , translated by Anna Sigrunardottir and Thordur Runolfsson
The Icelandic Sheepdog came to Iceland with settlers and was used to watch and herd sheep, cattle and horses. Breeds of dogs that resemble the Icelandic Sheepdog can be found in neighboring countries, but blood analysis of Icelandic dogs has shown that the Icelandic Sheepdog has its origins in the Nordic countries (Stefán Aðalsteinsson 1998:79; Stefán Aðalsteinsson 2005:9).
In the spring of 1983, blood samples from 56 Icelandic Sheepdogs were analyzed to investigate the origins of the breed. The results confirmed that the Icelandic Sheepdog is related to a Finnish breed, the Karelian Bear Dog. The Karelian Bear Dog originated in Russia and is one of the so-called "Laika dogs," but these dogs have erect ears and a curly tail (Stefán Aðalsteinsson 2005:9; Stefán Aðalsteinsson 2004:26).
These results indicate that the Icelandic Sheepdog came to Iceland from Norway. But the relation to the Karelian Bear Dog indicates that the dog came to Norway from the east, just like the Icelandic cow (Same references).
Very little documentation exists about dogs during the first few centuries Iceland was inhabited. No descriptions exist for sheepdogs in the Icelandic Sagas, but the Sagas contain few accounts of dogs in general. There are, though, descriptions of exceptional dogs -- like the dog Samur, who belonged to the Viking settler Gunnar from Hlidarendi. It is believed that Samur was an Irish Wolfhound. Bones from a large dog that were discovered during excavations in Greenland are thought to be bones of Irish Wolfhounds (Deild Íslenska Fjárhundsins, DÍF, 2005; Gísli Pálsson 1999: 5; Stefán Aðalsteinsson 1998 79).
There was great famine in Iceland around 990 AD. Because of the scarcity of food, it was suggested that most dogs should be killed in order to save human lives. During the middle Ages, sheepdogs were often exported, especially to Great Britain, where the breed was a favorite among the aristocracy. In 1492, the navigator and geographer Marteinn Beheim wrote that Icelanders demanded a great price for their dogs, but would give their children away because they were unable to feed them (Deild Íslenska Fjárhundsins, DÍF, 2005, Gísli Pálsson 1999:5; Icelandic Sheepdog Committee, 2005).
In 1555, the Swedish ecclesiastic and author Olaus Magnus wrote that Icelandic Sheepdogs were popular among priests and ladies of the upper classes. Magnus describes the dogs as light-colored or white with a thick coat. In 1570, the prominent humanist and physician John Caius noted that Icelandic Sheepdogs were a favorite among the British aristocracy. He observed that the dogs had such long and thick coats that their heads could hardly be distinguished from their bodies. In William Shakespeare’s "Henry VIII," written around 1600, an Icelandic Sheepdog is mentioned. Around 1650, English translator and satirist Thomas Brown wrote that Icelandic sheepdogs were imported to Great Britain as family pets but also were coveted by English sheep farmers (Deild Íslenska Fjárhundsins, DÍF, 2005, Gísli Pálsson, 1999:5).
In 1590, Oddur Einarsson, bishop at Skálholt, describes four types of dogs in Iceland, farm or watchdogs, sheepdogs, pet dogs that can do tricks and dogs used for fox hunting. Oddur states that the sheepdogs were agile workers (Stefán Aðalsteinsson, 1981:99).
French naturalist Count de Buffon wrote an account of 30 known dog breeds in the whole world 1755, and the Icelandic sheepdog is included. A painting from 1763 features an Icelandic Sheepdog that was born in Danzig (Gdansk), Poland in 1759 (Gísli Pálsson 1999:5-6).
The naturalists Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson give a detailed account of the dogs of Iceland in their travel journal from 1752 to 1757. They describe three different types of dogs, the first being the sheepdog. They describe the sheepdog as having a thick, long, and sometimes extra-long coat. The sheepdog was used not only for herding sheep -- including bringing the flock to the shepherd -- but also to retrieve puffins from their underground burrows. The other two types described were miniature hunting dogs with a short coat and tail. Hunting dogs existed in Iceland in the 16th and 17th centuries, but are believed to have become extinct in the late 18th century during a famine known as the Mist Hardship (Stefán Aðalsteinsson 1998:79).
In most travel chronicles written about Iceland from this time until the 20th century, there are accounts of Icelandic dogs. The descriptions vary somewhat, but it is clear that a distinct dog breed is being described. The dogs were said to be found in the countryside; they guard the fields, herd sheep, round up ponies and find lost sheep in snow drifts. At that time, the price for a good dog was comparable to the price of a horse. (Deild íslenska fjárhundsins 2005; Gísli Pálsson 1999:6; Watson 1956).
In earlier times, the dogs were so important that several were kept at each farm. Whether they were used to drive sheep to grazing fields in the morning and home at night, or for driving the flock to the mountains in the spring and back in the fall, the dogs were a necessity (Stefán Aðalsteinsson 1981:99).
In 1869, it is estimated that the dog population in Iceland was around 24,000. But by 1883-1887, the population had dropped to 10,000 (Deild íslenska fjárhundsins 2005; Gísli Pálsson 1999:6). The explanation for the decline is an 1869 law, which required that all dogs be highly taxed except for a limited number of sheepdogs allocated to each farm. The law was enacted because dogs were the intermediate hosts of taenia, a large tapeworm that caused intestinal infections in humans and infections in the head of sheep (sheep measles). Though the law resulted in a large drop in the number of dogs in Iceland, the main cause of tapeworm infestations was a general lack of hygiene among the public (Same source; Stefán Aðalsteinsson 1981:86).
During the 19th century and early 20th century, foreign dog breeds were imported as the population of the Icelandic sheepdog had been greatly reduced. Christian Schierbeck, a doctor, traveled a lot in Iceland during this time. Schierbeck maintained that true Icelandic Sheepdogs could only be found on farms in remote areas of the country. During his two years of travel in Iceland, Schierbeck -- who was an owner of an Icelandic sheepdog himself -- managed to locate only 20 dogs with the distinct features of the breed.
Schierbeck held the Icelandic Sheepdog in high regard, stating that the breed has a strong spatial orientation and is especially well-suited to driving herds of sheep from the mountains in the fall. He maintained that the dogs recognized every member of the herd and were a great necessity for every farmer. Schierbeck went on to state that after the Icelandic Sheepdog population was reduced to a quarter of its original size due to different pandemics and distemper, the price of a dog equaled the price of a horse and two sheep. In 1901, Iceland enacted a law banning the import of all dogs (Deild íslenska fjárhundsins 2005; Gísla Pálsson 1999:6 og Watson 2005).
In the latter part of the 19th century, the Danish Army experimented with using Icelandic Sheepdogs in the field. The dogs were trained to carry orders from one army unit to the next. Although the dogs performed their duties successfully, these experiments were discontinued and the dogs were transferred to different owners.
Icelandic Sheepdogs were first exhibited at a dog show at the Tivoli in Copenhagen in 1897. Three dogs took part in the show. In 1898, the Icelandic Sheepdog was recognized as a breed in Denmark. The English Kennel Club entered an Icelandic Sheepdog into its registry in 1905. At the same time, the club published a breed standard that had been translated from Danish. The breed was rarely shown in England, but an Icelandic Sheepdog advanced to “Best in Show” competition at the Crufts Dog Show in 1960 (Same sources; Watson 1956; Palmer 1985:94).
The Iceland enthusiast Mark Watson, known for his tremendous contributions to saving the Icelandic Sheepdog, traveled extensively in Iceland. During his first trips to the country around 1930, he located several Icelandic sheepdogs in the countryside. But during his later trips around 1950, the Icelandic Sheepdog was almost nowhere to be seen except in remote locations such as in Breiðdalur, where 90 percent of the dogs showed the distinct characteristics of the breed. It is clear that during this time the breed was in grave danger of becoming extinct (Deild íslenska fjárhundsins [DÍF], 2005; Gísli Pálsson 1999:7; Icelandic Sheepdog International Comittee 2005; Watson 1956; Stefán Aðalsteinsson 2004: 26).
In order to save the breed from extinction, Watson decided to export a few males and females to California. Páll A. Pálsson, the chief veterinary officer in Iceland, helped Watson export the dogs, but he kept one of the females from the Vestfjords area. Soon after the dogs arrived in California, they were stricken with distemper and some did not survive. Those who did live were bred, and the breed was kept intact. Later, Watson moved back to England with the dogs and continued his breeding program. But over time, English enthusiasts began breeding according to their own desires -- the dogs became shorter, more compact and smaller-boned (see same sources; Palmer 1985:94).
Páll A. Pálsson was among the first people to realize that the Icelandic Sheepdog was facing extinction, and he arranged to breed the female he had kept at the Keldur clinic. Organized breeding was also funded by the Ministry of Agriculture at the town of Hveragerði (Deild íslenska fjárhundsins [DÍF], 2005).
In 1967, Sigríður Pétursdóttir started a substantial breeding program at the farm Ólafsvellir in Skeiðahreppur, in cooperation with Páll A. Pálsson. Sigríður worked with Mark Watson and other breeders in England, who provided her with invaluable assistance and information. Because Sigriður’s first dogs were too closely related to continue breeding, she obtained permission to import two puppies from Mark Watson in England, since the breeding stock in Iceland was very poor at that time.
With these few dogs, Sigríður started her pioneering work in breeding the Icelandic sheepdog (Same source; Gísli Pálsson 1999:8-9). In 1969, the Icelandic Kennel Club (HRFÍ) was established, and one of its goals was to protect and advance the breeding of the Icelandic Sheepdog. Eventually the club became a member of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) and the Nordic Kennel Union (NKU).
Today, the Icelandic Kennel Club is an umbrella organization for owners and amateur breeders of many different breeds, but the Icelandic Sheepdog breed club is still the largest in the organization (Same source:9; Hundaræktarfélag Íslands [HRFÍ], 2005).
The Icelandic breed club, DÍF, was established in 1979. Its mission is the protection and advancement of the breed under the auspices of the Icelandic Kennel Club (HRFÍ). In 1996, the president of HRFÍ, Guðrún R. Guðjohnsen, initiated the foundation of the Icelandic Sheepdog International Cooperation (ISIC) in order to encourage cooperation among countries in preserving the Icelandic Sheepdog. The ISIC member clubs within FCI are Iceland - Deíld Íslenska Fjárhundsins / DÍF, Denmark - Islandsk Fårehundeklub / IF, Sweden - Svenska Isländsk Fårhund Klubben / SIFK, Norway – Norsk Islandshundklub / NIHK, Finland – Islanninkoirat / Islandshundarna, Netherlands – Vereniging de Ijslandse Hond, and Germany – Deutsche Club für Nordishe Hunde/DCNH. The other ISIC member club is the USA - Icelandic Sheepdog Association of America/ISAA, the AKC Parent Club for the breed. An ISIC associated club within FCI is Switzerland – Schweizerischer Klub für Nordische Hunde/SKNH also called Islandhundeclub Schweiz. [ISIC Newsletter, 2010]
The popularity of the Icelandic Sheepdog has increased in recent years. Though the breed is not common, it is not in immediate danger of becoming extinct. (Deild íslenska fjárhundsins 2005, [DÍF]).
Pieter Oliehoek, a Dutch biologist and specialist in genetic diversity (1999:5, 33), studied inbreeding in the general population of the Icelandic Sheepdog from the time standardized breeding began in 1967 until 1999. His results show the imminent threat of a decrease in genetic diversity in the population.
All Icelandic Sheepdogs that exist today are the descendants of 23 unrelated dogs, but three of the original dogs are dominant in the genetic pool. The genes of these three dogs are behind 80 percent of the population, greatly reducing the number of alleles available.
Furthermore, Oliehoek found that it is impossible to rectify the contribution of the descendants in the genetic pedigree. Oliehoek's (1999:33, 39) study showed that inbreeding has minimally affected the Icelandic Sheepdog through time -- for instance, inbreeding has not influenced the number of puppies being born. However, Oliehoek maintains that even though the breed has survived inbreeding, it is imperative to preserve the genetic diversity that exists in the breed. Otherwise, the adaptation of the breed could be compromised and certain genetic disorders could become fixed in the genetic pool. Therefore, Oliehoek stresses the importance of preserving small family groups, since even the smallest families have up to 60 percent of their genetic makeup from three of the original 23 descendants.
In 1991, the Swedish Icelandic Sheepdog breed club organized its first breeding meeting with Per-Erik Sundgren, a Phd in animal breeding and genetics. Per Erik was the Swedish Kennel Club (SKK) advisor in genetics and had a special interest in the preservation of dog breeds, especially small populations with very limited genetic variation. Over the years, he became very involved with the study of the Icelandic Sheepdog and the work of ISIC.
Guðrún R. Guðjohnsen, then president of the Icelandic Kennel Club (Hundaræktarfélag Íslands/HRFÍ), was part of a committee formed by the Minister of Agriculture in Iceland whose mission was to suggest guidelines for future preservation of the Icelandic Sheepdog. In 1995, she convinced the Minister to invite Per-Erik for a meeting with the committee in Iceland. Per-Erik made it clear that to preserve the breed, it is a necessity to look at the world wide population of the Icelandic Sheepdog as a whole. This belief became the genesis of the ISIC, which was instituted the following year.
Per-Erik wrote several articles on genetics that have influenced breeding recommendations in the Icelandic Sheepdog population and created a data program, LatHunden, which is used within the ISIC countries to make genetic calculations. Today, all the member clubs of ISIC have agreed upon International Breeding Recommentation for the Icelandic Sheepdog, based on the recommendation of Dr. Pieter Oliehoek, Dr. Per-Erik Sundgren and other experts.
The characteristics of the Icelandic Sheepdog include his wide smile and confident and lively temperament. The Icelandic Sheepdog is a tireless herding dog who loves to bark when necessary-- a trait that is very useful when bringing in livestock from the fields or moving herds down the mountains. The dog is happy and sweet-tempered, full of curiosity and loves to work. The breed is useful for many different farm chores, but today most Icelandic Sheepdogs are kept as house pets.
Icelandic sheepdogs have been trained to assist with search and rescue, both in Iceland and abroad. The dogs have also been trained as companion dogs for autistic children. But Icelandic Sheepdogs are still used for herding and to search for sheep lost in snowdrifts. During bad weather when visibility is limited, the dog's sense of smell allows him to locate sheep when people are unable to. The dog’s nose is also very useful in collecting eggs, and the Icelandic sheepdog has been trained to locate the eggs of distinct species of birds.
Original Icelandic Text: Þorsteinn Thorsteinson, Spring 2005 Translated by Anna Sigrúnardóttir and Thordur Runólfsson, Spring 2008 Revised in part, May 2010
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