|"History & Character of The Icelandic Sheepdog"
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. 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 lifespan.
There are two coat types in Icelandic Sheepdogs, a longhaired one and a shorter haired version. They are
called long and short. 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 discontinued breeding the Icelandic Sheepdog.
However, some of his dogs’ genes are still in our current population. We can find their names in our pedigrees.
Her interest aroused by the veterinary school in Iceland, Sigríður Pétursdóttir, a native Icelander, made it her
goal to save Icelandics. Working with around 8 dogs and Watson, 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
Ólafsvellir. 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.
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 remain true to the standard of the breed for the
long term survival of the breed. As long as we all breed with the same goal in mind, the preservation of the
breed; the future of the Icelandic Sheepdog 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.