Iceland Mag

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Iceland Mag


The Icelandic sheep dog. Small, hardy and happy, uniquely suited to Icelandic conditions

By Staff

  • A friendly little dog The Icelandic sheep dog is a dog breed well suited to Icelandic conditions. Photo/Vísir

Small, hardy and happy; the characteristics of the Icelandic sheep dog, a breed of dog brought to Iceland by the Viking settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries. Ever since then the hardy breed has kept Icelanders company, helping with sheep herding and other jobs farmdogs take care of. The dog enjoyed a brief popularity in the 15th century among English noblewomen, and he even makes a small cameo in Shakespeare's Henry VIII as the "prick-ear'd cur of Iceland!"

Roots in Karelia
The dog breed is closely related to similar dog breeds in neighbouring countries, especially the other Nordic countries. The most closely related living dog breed appears to be the Finnish Karelian Bear dogs. These dogs have the same erect prick-ears and curved tail as the Icelandic sheep dog. 

The sagas make numerous references to dogs, without making any distinction between different breeds. This could suggest that most if not all dogs were the same breed of Icelandic sheep dogs. However, excavation in Viking settlements in Greenland and some descriptions in the sagas suggest the Viking settlers also had larger dog breeds, most likely Irish Wolfhounds.By the middle ages, however, the sheep dogs were dominant.

In the late middle ages Icelanders exported dogs, including to England where they were popular among the aristocracy. By that time the Icelandic sheep dog had evolved into a distinctive breed, thanks to its isolation. The Icelandic sheep dog was mentioned as one of only 30 known dog breeds in the world in 1755 by the French naturalist Count de Buffon.

A breed on the brink of extinction
The breed nearly faced extinction in the 20th century due to numerous reasons. When travelling the country in the 1950’s, Mark Watson noticed that very few Icelandic sheep dogs were left in the country. Only a few were found in remote locations such as the Westfjords. With the help of Páll A. Pálsson, the chief veterinary officer in Iceland at the time, Watson managed to export a number of dogs to the U.S. for organised breeding. In the 1960’s, Páll and a woman named Sigríður Pétursdóttir began organised breeding at the farm Ólafsvellir in Skeiðahreppur, South Iceland.

A British nobleman and Icelandophile named Mark Watson is credited for saving the breed from extinction 70 years ago. His birthday, the 18th of July, is now known as the ‘Day of the Icelandic Sheep Dog’ (Dagur íslenska fjárhundsins).

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The breed is characterised by long, thick fur, pointed ears and a curly tail. The dogs were extremely useful for herding but also served as watchdogs, which means they will bark loudly when they see someone approaching. The dogs are considered very loyal and sociable and make for good family pets. It's build, coat, and personality make it the perfect dog for Icelandic conditions!

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