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The Icelandic Sheepdog’s roots go back more than a thousand years.

About 1,100 years ago, Norse settlers sailed west across the Norwegian Sea to Iceland. These seafaring pioneers set about creating a new Scandinavian country on the otherwise uninhabited island. Among the cultural touchstones they brought from Norway were the Nordic language and a taste for epic literature. Another was the spitz-type dogs the Icelanders used for herding sheep and rounding up ponies, forerunners of the modern Icelandic Sheepdog.

Little is mentioned of the dogs until the mid-16th century, when Swedish clergyman Olaus Magnus wrote that Icelandic Sheepdogs, which he described as thick-coated white or light-colored animals, were popular among the Swedish upper class, especially women and priests. In 1570, British humanist John Caius noted that the British aristocracy also favored the breed.

In 1576, Abraham Fleming included a description of Icelandic Sheepdogs in his tract Of English Dogges, the Diversities, the Names, the Natures and the Properties. In this treatise, he notes:

“Iceland dogs, curled and rough all over, which, by reason of the length of their hair, make show of neither face nor of body. And yet these curs, forsooth, because they are so strange, are greatly set by, esteemed, taken up, and made of, so many times, instead of the spaniel gentle or comforter.”

Another Englishman, translator, and satirist Thomas Brown, wrote that Icelandic Sheepdogs were exported to Britain as family pets but were also greatly valued by sheep farmers there.

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But while Fleming and Brown appeared to be saying that Icelandic Sheepdogs were greatly valued despite their rough-looking appearance, William Shakespeare—or at least one of Shakespeare’s characters—seemed to feel otherwise. In Act II, Scene I of Henry V, Pistol appears to consider the dog’s origins a suitable epithet to hurl at someone who has insinuated that Pistol’s wife is a madam: “Pish for thee, Iceland dog! Thou prick-eared cur of Iceland!”

Despite the Bard’s insult, Icelandic Sheepdogs were consistently mentioned in naturalists’ writings and travel chronicles from 1600 through the 20th century. According to the ISAA, “The descriptions vary somewhat, but it is clear that a distinct dog is being described. The dogs are said to be found in the countryside; they guard the fields, herd sheep, round up ponies, and find sheep lost in snowdrifts.”

But while the dogs were a necessity to Icelandic rural life, a tapeworm infestation in the mid-19th century caused the Icelandic government to enact a burdensome tax that resulted in a significant reduction of the country’s entire dog population. Distemper and other diseases further reduced the Icelandic Sheepdog population. Nevertheless, three Icelandic Sheepdogs were exhibited for the first time at a dog show at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens in 1897—the first such exhibition of the breed—and Denmark’s kennel club recognized the breed in 1898. The Kennel Club (England) recognized the breed by entering a single dog into its registry in 1905, and it published a breed standard at the same time.

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Bosi and Brana, 1956

Nevertheless, the breed’s population continued to drop. By 1950, Icelandic Sheepdogs were almost nowhere to be seen in Iceland except in remote areas. In an effort to save the breed, enthusiast Mark Watson exported some Icelandics to California. Watson also bred Icelandics in his native England.

Meanwhile, two Icelanders, Páll A. Pálsson and Sigríður Pétursdóttir, started a breeding program in the mid-1960s. Pétursdóttir imported two puppies from Watson to add genetic diversity to her kennel. By 1969, the Icelandic Kennel Club had been established, in part to preserve and advance the Icelandic Sheepdog as a breed.

Lively and Confident

Today’s Icelandic Sheepdog, recognized as a member of the AKC Herding Group in 2010, is just under medium size—about 18.1 inches high for dogs and 16.5 inches high for bitches—with prick ears and a curled tail. The breed standard states that when viewed in profile, the dog has a rectangular shape, with the length of the body from shoulder to buttock exceeding the height at the withers. The depth of the chest equals the length of the foreleg.

This dog was bred to work in harsh climates and has the coat appropriate to that task: double-coated, thick, and weatherproof. An Icelandic may have one of two coat types: short-haired, which includes a medium-length outer coat, with shorter hair on the head and fronts of the legs and longer hair on the rest of the body; and long-haired, in which the outer coat is recognizably longer than is the case with the short-haired type. Both types feature soft, thick undercoats.

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Photo taken by M.W. during the summer of 1938 in Snaefellsnes Sýsla, Iceland.

The coat may be tan, chocolate brown, gray, or tricolor, with one of those colors predominating. Accompanying any of these coat colors are white markings, generally on the face, the collar, chest, feet, and tail tip. Tan is the most common coat color, followed by tricolor.

The head should be strongly built, with the skull slightly longer than the muzzle. When viewed both from above and in profile, the head should have a triangular shape. The teeth should form a scissors bite, and dentition should be complete. The eyes are medium-sized and almond-shaped, dark brown in color, with black eye-rims. The lips are also black, and the cheeks are flat; no droopy jowls should be seen in an Icelandic.

The dog should have a confident and lively bearing, as evidenced in part by an agile gait that shows endurance and good driving action. The dog’s expression is expected to be gentle, intelligent, and happy.

U.S. Icelandic Sheepdog enthusiasts plan to do all they can to maintain these qualities. “We hope the Icelandic Sheepdogs will remain like they are,” ISAA president Spike Williamson, of Henrico, Virginia, says. “We are guardians of a national treasure of Iceland, and they should be maintained and shown in accordance with their home country’s desires and requirements. We Americans … must guard against creating our own version” of this breed.

Related article: Newfoundland Breed History: North Americas Water Rescue Dog
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