History of the Icelandic Sheepdog

This information is partly taken from: Honden Manieren nummer 5 2014.

It is said that the Icelandic Sheepdog descended from the dogs the Nordic Vikings brought with them from Scandinavia when they colonised Iceland around 874. Iceland regained it’s independence only as late as 1918. Till that time it belonged to the Nordic kingdom and from 1380 onwards to the Danish Kingdom. Through the middle-ages people in Iceland traded goods like wool, fish and sulphur. Ships from Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Irish and Scottish origin traded with Iceland and took dogs with them who contributed to the Icelandic sheepdog population. The dogs were used to herd sheep or pony’s, accompanied merchants and peasants, guarded the courtyard, helped at farms or were just a loved pet. From several comments in sources one can conclude that the Icelandic sheepdog likes to be with more dogs.
Throughout the ages there were dogs taken from Iceland to other countries. Small Icelandic dogs where particularly popular as a companion for the English and Danish nobility and bourgeoisie. These dogs where described as little dogs with standing ears with a long thick coat. The Englishman John Keys described the Icelandic dog as a hearthrug in his book about dogs in 1574. You couldn’t distinguish the dog’s head because of his long, curly and rough coat. (Iseland dogges curled & rough al ouer, wich by reason of the lenght of their heare make showe neither of face nor of body.) In the book “Natuurlyke Historie” written by the dutchman Martinus Houttuyn in 1761, the Icelandic sheepdog is described as a dog with long shiny hair, particularly on his forelimbs and tail. He also writes that the dog stands really high on his foot.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) is a Frenchman who tells that the Icelandic sheepdog has no ears which stand up straight; the Icelandic sheepdog is the only dog from the North which doesn’t have this. Instead of that he has tipped-ears. (le seul qui n’ait pas les oreilles entièrement droites; elles sont un peu pliées par leur extrémité.) On the image which belongs to this text, we see an Icelandic sheepdog with a pointed snout, tipped-ears, a tick dark coat with white marks and a tick tail which curls a little. This image of the Icelandic sheepdog was to further conquer the 19th century cynology.

The Icelandic sheepdog population is decimated several times throughout history. An Example can be found in 1783 when the volcano Laki erupted in Iceland and thousands of people dead. Besides the people, 80% of all animals in Iceland died because of this disaster. In the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century there were a lot of dog diseases responsible for the dead of a lot of dogs in Iceland. People suffer a big shortage in herding dogs for their flowering sheep breeding and decided to import collies. At the end of the 19th century the government set a dog tax which held the consequence that there were a lot less dogs. This dog tax was set to battle a disease called echinococcosis. This disease was of great danger for the population’s health. The disease is caused by worms which can be transmitted through dogs on humans.

Foreign cynologists
Mainly foreign cynologists like Deen Christian Schierbeck and later the Englishman Mark Watson, were interested in the “authentic Icelandic sheepdog”. Because of their interest in the Icelandic sheepdog the Icelanders also became interested in what was their “national” dog. In the 1960s people began to cooperate to preserve the Icelandic dog from extinction. People assembled more than twenty dogs from different places to start a breeding program. At this time there were only seventeen pure Icelandic sheepdogs left. Pall A. Palsson and Sigridur Petursdottir started collaboration and a breeding program with the purebred Icelandic sheepdog. This is how they were able to maintain the breed.

Meanwhile the Icelandic sheepdog is seen as a part of the Icelandic cultural heritage. Inbreeding had the consequence that even before 1966 the genome of 16 from the 26 dogs which stood at the basis of the breed was lost. As a consequence the genetic diversity, so important for the health of the breed is no longer found. Fortunately people try hard to maintain the small population (5000 dogs worldwide) and further expand the breed with dogs from remote areas in Iceland, to further broaden the breeding stock. (Research of Oliehoek 2009).

For this reason different contacts are formed between the Dutch and Icelandic people to create more diversity in the Dutch population. Several dogs are imported from Iceland which came from small familygroups which are rarely used to breed. One of these dogs is Töfra Hvutti Valtyr (Valli), Elska’s grandfather.

we as kennel Sældarlífs hope to cooperate to broaden the gentic diversity in the Dutch Icelandic Sheepdog population. Besides breeding for good health and certain racial characteristics, we will select a stud which has the smallest inbreed-coefficient.