THE ICELANDIC SHEEPDOG
by Linda Rorem (this article originally appeared in
The Shepherd's Dogge magazine)


The Icelandic Sheepdog, or Iceland Dog, came to Iceland with Vikings settlers in the ninth century. There are references to the dogs in many of the Icelandic Sagas, dating from 900 to 1300, and further references in 1400's and 1500's.

This lively, inquisitive dog is a quick learner, sociable and willing, with a cheerful spirit. It thrives on close human companionship and also enjoys being with other animals, especially horses. The Iceland Sheepdog has a quick and easy way of moving and great endurance. It is an excellent watchdog but not aggressive. Sheep-working tendencies are strong and there is little inclination to hunt game. The Icelandic Sheepdog is adaptable to family life in the city or the country.

The Icelandic Sheepdog is 14 to 18 inches in height and weighs around 25 to 30 pounds, with the body slightly longer than the height. The tail is lightly curled over back, falling to one side or the other. The thick, double, coat, in longer and shorter varieties, is weather-resistant and easy to care for, The coat is longer on the neck, shoulders, thighs and tail, short and smooth on the head and legs. The Icelandic Sheepdog may be self-colored, in which case there should be a little white on the chest, or there may have white markings on the head, neck, feet and tail. The most common colors are golden sable, red, light sandy yellow (all of which may have black shadings in the coat and/or black markings on the muzzle), and black/white/tan; also accepted in the breed standard are chocolate-brown, cream, and grey.  Double dew-claws on the hinds legs are common. Eyes usually are brown, but blue eyes occasionally occur. Ears are triangular and erect. Nose and lips are black, or may be brown in the case of chocolate-brown or cream dogs.

Some authorities indicate that originally there were several types of Icelandic dogs, ranging from a dog similar to the Norwegian Buhund to one resembling the Greenland Husky, but the most prevalent type of the earlier days is dominant in the modern Iceland Sheepdog and there has only been one type for a long time. The breed has undergone little change through the centuries.

It is likely that the Scandinavian herding spitzes of Icelandic Sheepdog type figured strongly in the ancestry of the herding dogs of Britain, many parts of Britain having been heavily settled by the Vikings. There appear to have been later importations as well. The Icelandic Sheepdog was well known in England in Shakespeare's time, and in 1650 Sir Thomas Brown wrote: "To England there are sometimes exported from Iceland . . . a type of dog resembling a fox . . . . Shepherds in England are eager to acquire them!" (All About the Spitz Breeds, by David Cavill.) The Icelandic Sheepdog is featured in the Natural History of Count de Buffon published in France in 1755, where a drawing shows a black and white dog very similar in type to a Border Collie, with semi-erect ears and a curved but not curled tail; the height at the shoulder given as 14 inches. A photo of a black and white Icelandic Sheepdog which appears in a book of dog breeds printed in 1915 shows a dog of strikingly similar appearance.  Most Icelandic Sheepdogs have had erect ears, but there have been several such references to semi-erect ears in the past.

In late 19th century, working collies from Scotland were imported to Iceland and interbred with the native dogs in an attempt to "improve" the breed and produce a dog with the more refined herding abilities of the British sheepdogs. This effort was largely unsuccessful, because farmers in Iceland did not use and train their dogs in the same way that the British hill dogs are used and trained.

In Iceland, gathering sheep was (and still is) accomplished by men on foot or on horseback going out to round up the sheep, with the Icelandic Sheepdog providing useful assistance by helping to find the sheep, gather and move them, and going after and bringing back any sheep which try to leave the flock. This is similar to the original practice in Shetland, and in some parts of Shetland the sheep are still rounded up this way. For their herding work, the dogs weren't given particular training, the farmers simply relying on the dogs' natural abilities. The dogs were also used to guard the sheep, keep watch over the farmstead at night, and drive off stray animals from the fenced area around the farm. Some were also used for hunting birds and foxes.

Life could be harsh. In the earlier days, dogs might be left to their own devices to find food and shelter. There was no systematic breeding. The dogs would multiply, and outbreaks of disease on occasion would decimate their numbers. A dog tax in 1890 also had the effect of diminishing the dog population. Towards the end of the 19th century, after an epidemic of distemper, it was said that one true Iceland Dog was worth one horse and two sheep.  In The Faroes and Iceland, published in 1905, Nelson Annandale writes of the Icelandic Sheepdog: "Dogs are an absolute necessity in Iceland; without them it would be impossible to gather the sheep or herd the ponies."  When working sheep, "Their duty is not so much to marshal a flock of sheep as to single out individuals which stray from the others and to bring them in by seizing hold of them. They are trained not to bark when the sheep are being collected; but at other times they have a wonderful nose for strangers and act as very efficient protectors of a house, so far as making a noise can go. They are also able to trace the sheep which have got covered up with snow and to dig them out. In Iceland they are employed in herding horses on a journey. When a man is traveling with a train of pack ponies he drives them on in front of them; but they take very opportunity of running away, unless there is a dog to bark at their heels and keep them in single file." Another account mentions that when fording a stream, the dog might be allowed to sit on a horse's back behind its owner.

Annandale's account mentions that the dogs of the Faroes were somewhat different from those of Iceland, there formerly having been three types, one of which was similar to the Icelandic Sheepdog. He provides an interesting story of herding on Suderoe in the Faroes, commenting that while in most of the Faroes the terrain made it impossible to gather sheep on horseback, according to an earlier writer, Debes, writing in 1670 of Suderoe:  "When therefore they go about their sheep, they ride, and their dogs follow them, they knowing how to ride with their horses up hills and down dales in a full gallop, through moors, and over rocks and stones, so that the horses care for nothing when they hunt after sheep, and where the place is too difficult to ride over to pursue them, the man leaps from his horse in the midst of his course, and takes his best advantage against the sheep, the horse running after him till he leaps upon it again; in the mean time the dogs follow also, till they have driven the sheep into the retten (sheepfold). A part of the horses are also so taught, that the man over-reaching the sheep on horse back, the horse graspeth the same between his forelegs, till the man takes in up."  

By the early 20th century the true Icelandic Sheepdog had greatly diminished in numbers. Many of the dogs left were crossbreds. An Englishman, Mark Watson, who traveled in Iceland in the '30's, 40's and '50's, noticed the decline of the breed and began a search for the pure Icelandic Sheepdog. He carefully selected dogs from areas where the original breed had remained in its purest form, finding most of his dogs in eastern Iceland and some in the north.  His efforts were instrumental in the preservation of the true Icelandic Sheepdog. Mark Watson eventually took the dogs he had collected to California and established Wensum Kennels in Nicasio where he published A Research on the Iceland Dog in 1956. Unfortunately, his dogs were lost in a kennel fire. Two of the dogs he  had collected, however, had remained behind in Iceland and made an influential contribution to the reestablishment of the breed there.

As early as 1898, a standard for the breed had been recognized in Denmark, and in 1905 the breed had been recognized in England, although only a few were imported to England at that time and numbers there remained very small. In 1970 Icelanders formed an association to protect and sponsor the breed, and in 1972 international recognition was achieved.

Today in Iceland there are between 300 to 400 Icelandic Sheepdogs. They are outnumbered there by other breeds such as Labradors, Irish Setters and English Setters. Many farmers use Border Collies or Border Collie mixes for herding, but some farmers are starting to use the Icelandic Sheepdog again because of its endurance and suitability for local conditions.

Iceland is very rural and sheep farming differs to some extent from other countries. The sheep are driven up to the hills and mountains, and in the fall the farmers take their horses and herding dogs to bring the sheep back to the lowlands. Many farmers have one or two dogs, which are used to seek out and gather the sheep from the hills.  The Icelandic Sheepdog doesn't tend to group up the sheep at a distance and keep them in a flock like the Border Collie, but the farmer can walk in the bottom of the valley and send the dog up the hills on both sides, the dogs finding and bringing down any sheep that might be there. The Icelandic Sheepdog will run longer distances than other breeds as it seeks sheep in the harsh, bare terrain.  After the sheep are gathered, the dogs push them along in front of the farmers, barking.  As in earlier times, most farmers don't train their dogs to any great extent. Icelandic Sheepdogs can also herd horses, although they are not used for that as much.  The breed is very hardy and able to handle bad weather, sleeping contentedly in the snow with its nose under its tail while imported dogs are freezing.

A few Icelandic Sheepdogs have been brought to North America from Iceland, Denmark, England, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.  A Montana rancher who has started her Icelandic Sheepdogs on stock comments that the dogs have shown good instinct and, although at first inclined to chase, will bunch and hold cattle.  They are upright workers, preferring to remain on their feet, and tend to move stock by body movement, barking and, if necessary, gripping. They may move fast and dive in on the outrun, but they balance naturally and will fetch and hold stock to the handler, and at times have given evidence of some eye.

Agnes Yr, a breeder in Iceland, notes that Icelanders have for many centuries looked at the dog as one of the farm animals and not cared so much about breeding, but thankfully this has changed. The Icelandic Sheepdog is now becoming popular with urban horse-lovers in Iceland, who keep horses for their leisure time and have fallen in love,  again, with this wonderful dog. Here is a top working breed that adjusts well to urban life -- a happy, proud, intelligent dog that takes joy in pleasing its people.

Thank you to Bill Cordingly, Bolstad Kennels; Agnes Yr, Kennel Yrar; Stefania Siguradardottir; and Anne Milkovich for their assistance with this article.


 


 

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