The Icelandic Sheepdog, also known at times as the Iceland Dog, the Iceland Spitz, the Islandsk Spidshunde, the Islandsk Farehond, the Friaar Dog and the Fiaarhundur, is Iceland's only native canine breed. It is an ancient breed that was developed for the purpose of herding, controlling and guarding flocks of sheep and rounding up other types of livestock. It also was (and still is) used to pull sleds and prized as a family companion, when not working in Iceland's tough terrain. These are spunky, friendly, small-to-medium-sized dogs with pricked ears, plume-like tails and thick, warm coats that come in both long and short-haired varieties. The Icelandic Sheepdog is so adored in its native country, both for its working capabilities and for its companionship, that it has been depicted on one of its postage stamps. The Icelandic Sheepdog was recognized by the American Kennel Club as a member of its Herding Group quite recently, in 2010.
History & Origin
The ancestors of the Icelandic Sheepdog are believed to have arrived on the island of Iceland between 874 and 930 AD, coming with the first Norwegian settlers (the Vikings) and their livestock. This is thought to be one of the very oldest of all domestic dog breeds. Icelandic Sheepdogs were described in the Icelandic Sagas more than one thousand years ago and are mentioned in modern literature dating back to the 16th century. During the middle ages, some of these sheepdogs were exported to England, where they became a favorite of the royal and rich. A 1570 reference was made by Caius to "Iceland dogs, curled and rough all over." Shakespeare mentioned them by name in Henry V (act 2, scene 1): " 'Pish for thee, Iceland Dog! Thou prick-ear'd cur of Iceland." The first known illustration of the Icelandic Sheepdog dates to 1754 and reflects a typical spitz-type dog, with a pointed muzzle, erect pricked ears, a curled tail and a dense coat. Recent blood tests have established a relationship between this breed and the Finnish Karelian Bear Dog.
Icelandic Sheepdogs know every individual sheep in their owners' flocks, presumably by their keen sense of smell. Every Fall, their task becomes to seek out and gather all of their sheep, which have scattered across the Icelandic hills during the lush summer grazing months and must be brought home for winter. The dogs travel far and wide, over difficult and often treacherous terrain, to collect their charges and return all of them safely to their owners. Icelandic Sheepdogs are said to be able to find their sheep even if they are buried under many feet of snow.
The breed suffered several setbacks during the 19th century and came close to extinction. First, many dogs became severely infected with tapeworms due to direct contact with infected sheep. The infestation was serious and widespread. It even entered the human population and affected several percent of all people who were living in Iceland at the time. The second disaster was a major distemper epidemic that killed roughly three-quarters of the entire Icelandic dog population in the late 1800s. After that, the government enacted a law to impose a tax on the ownership of dogs. As a result of that tax, Icelandic Sheepdogs became extremely rare. Records indicate that many farmers offered sheep and even horses in trade for a single Icelandic Sheepdog, because they could not manage their livestock without them. Fortunately, the breed ultimately was saved through the efforts of a few dedicated Icelandic and English dog fanciers.
The first breed standard for the Icelandic Sheepdog was drafted in 1887. It was written in Danish. The first breed club was formed in 1969, for the purpose of preserving and promoting this ancient breed. The American Kennel Club recognized the Icelandic Sheepdog in 2010. While still not a common breed, it is slowly but steadily gaining in popularity in this country.
The average life span of the Icelandic Sheepdog is 11 to 14 years. They are prone to developing cataracts but are otherwise known to be a healthy, hardy breed.
The Icelandic Sheepdog is a naturally lively, alert, outgoing and confident breed, without being overly pushy or aggressive. The standard published by the American Kennel Club describes them as being "cheerful, friendly, inquisitive, playful and unafraid." They are known for having a solid, willing work ethic. Icelandic Sheepdogs are extremely social animals that will not thrive if they are separated from their people for prolonged periods of time. They are gentle, patient and especially fond of children, which make them fantastic family pets. Icelandic Sheepdogs welcome their owners as well as most strangers with exuberant tail-wagging and obvious glee. Overall, this is one happy breed of dogs.
Icelandic Sheepdogs are active, athletic, energetic animals that need lots of exercise to keep them in tip-top physical and mental shape. They enjoy all sorts of outdoor activities, such as taking long rambling walks with their owners, romping at the dog park and frolicking at the beach or along a river. They love to play with other dogs. They also love to participate in obedience, agility, utility, flyball, herding and other competitive dog sports, at which they excel.
As a breed, Icelandic Sheepdogs are smart, willing and eager to please. This makes them pretty easy to train. However, because they are so intelligent and enthusiastic, they should be kept challenged with a variety of different training, exercise and play activities, so that they don't become bored. It can be helpful to rotate their activities every few days, to keep them alert and happy.
Icelandic Sheepdogs have been bred for centuries to manage and move livestock using their instinct, intellect and voice. Unlike some herding breeds, these sheepdogs bark while they are working. As a result, they can be a bit "barky," especially when they are startled or playing chase with a friend. Icelandic Sheepdogs almost always get along well with others, including people and other pets. They typically are not reserved, aloof or wary, even around strangers or in unfamiliar situations. Icelandic Sheepdogs do not have a strong prey drive. This makes a lot of sense, since they were bred specifically to protect and control sheep and other livestock, rather than to hunt and kill them.
General Appearance: The Icelandic Sheepdog is a Nordic herding Spitz, slightly under medium sized with prick ears and a curled tail. Seen from the side the dog is rectangular. The expression is gentle, intelligent and happy. A confident and lively bearing is typical for this dog. There are two types of coat, long and short, both thick and extremely weatherproof. There is a marked difference in appearance between the sexes.
Size, Proportion, Substance: Ideal height: Dogs 18"; Bitches
16½". Rectangular and strong. Seen from the side, the dog is rectangular, the length of the body measured from the point of shoulder to point of buttock is greater than the height at the withers. The depth of the chest is equal to the length of the foreleg.
Head: Strongly built with close fitting skin. Triangular when seen from above or the side. Skull – Slightly longer than muzzle and somewhat domed. Stop – clearly defined though neither steep nor high. Nose – Black. Dark brown in chocolate brown and some cream dogs. The nasal bridge is well–developed and straight. Muzzle slightly shorter than skull, tapering evenly towards the nose to form a blunt triangle when seen from both above and from the side. Lips – Black, close fitting. Dark brown in chocolate brown and some cream dogs. Bite: Scissor bite. Teeth – Complete dentition. Cheeks – Flat. Eyes – Medium size and almond shaped. Dark brown. Slightly lighter in chocolate brown and some cream dogs. Eye rims are black. Dark brown in chocolate brown and some cream dogs. Ears – Erect and of medium size. Triangular with firm edges and slightly rounded tips. Very mobile, reacting sensitively to sounds and showing the dog's mood. Faults – yellow or round protruding eyes.
Neck, Topline, Body: Neck – Moderately long and muscular with no loose skin. The neck is slightly arched and the head is carried high. Body – rectangular and strong. The length is in proportion to the height and in harmony with general appearance. Back – level, muscular and strong. Loins – broad and muscular. Croup – moderately short and broad, very slightly sloping and well–muscled. Chest – long, deep and well–sprung. Belly – Slight tuck up. Tail – high set, curled over and touching the back.
Forequarters: When seen from the front the forelegs are straight, parallel and strong. Angulation – Shoulders are well laid back, oblique and muscular. Dewclaws – Required and may be double. Forefeet – slightly oval, toes well–arched and tight with well–developed pads. Faults – No dewclaws.
Hindquarters: When seen from behind the hind legs are straight, parallel and strong. Thighs – Broad and well–muscled. Dewclaws – Required. Well–developed double dewclaws desirable. Hind feet – Same as forefeet. Faults – No dewclaws.
Coat: Double coat, thick and weatherproof. There are two types: Short–haired – The outer coat of medium length, fairly coarse, with a thick, soft undercoat. The tail is bushy and the hair length is in proportion to the coat. Long–haired – The outer coat is longer than the above, fairly coarse, with a thick, soft undercoat. The tail is very bushy and the hair length is in proportion to the coat. In both lengths, the hair is shorter on the face, top of the head, ears and front of the legs; and longer on the neck, chest and back of the thighs. In the show ring, presentation is to be in a natural, unaltered condition. Specimens where the coat or whiskers have been altered by trimming or clipping shall be so severely faulted as to be effectively eliminated from competition.
Color: Several colors are permitted but a single color should always be predominant. The predominant colors are: various shades of tan, ranging from cream to reddish brown; chocolate brown, grey, and black. White always accompanies the predominant color. The most common white markings, which are often irregular, are a blaze or a part of the face, collar, chest, socks of varying lengths and tip of tail. Lighter shading often occurs on the underside of the dog from throat to tip of tail. On tan and grey dogs, a black mask, black tips to the outer hairs and even occasional black hairs often occur. Black (tri–color) dogs have a black coat, white markings as mentioned above and traditional markings in any of the various tan colors on the cheeks, over the eyes (eyebrows) and on the legs. Patches of the above colors on a white background (pied) are permitted. White should not be totally predominant. Fault – a solid black mantle or saddle on any of the tan colored dogs.
Gait: Displays agility and endurance with good driving action covering the ground effortlessly.
Temperament: The Icelandic Sheepdog is a hardy and agile herding dog which barks, making it extremely useful for herding or driving livestock in the pastures, in the mountains or finding lost sheep. The Icelandic Sheepdog is by nature very alert and will always give visitors an enthusiastic welcome without being aggressive. Hunting instincts are not strong. The Icelandic Sheepdog is cheerful, friendly, inquisitive, playful and unafraid. A confident and lively bearing is typical for this dog.
Faults: Any departure from the foregoing points should be considered a fault and the seriousness with which the fault should be regarded should be in proportion to its degree.
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Sources: American Kennel Club