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This handsome silver-gray dog native to Scandinavia, is, by his own demeanor, an aristo­ crat among Northern dogs. The Norwegian Elkhound roamed with his Viking masters and served as a multipurpose guardian, herder, hunter, and protective companion for thousands of years before finding his way to the United States in the early 20th century.

The Elkhound hunts on the steep, rocky terrain of his country. To endure the harsh winter weather, he must possess stamina, athletic prowess, and intelligence, coupled with the correct coat and other traits described in the breed standard.

A hardy and courageous breed, the Elkhound is both a fine hunter and a typical Northern dog. He uses many of the tactics of sight and scenthounds, yet he knows instinctively when to bark and when to remain silent on the hunt. His innate intelligence gives him a special aloofness, often mistaken for stubbornness. Easy-going, reliable, intelligent, and eager for praise, he serves as a devoted companion and guardian to those who win his respect.

Survival of the Typey-est

Prominent breeder-judge Marie Peterson, whose Windy Cove Kennels were established more than 50 years ago, knows whereof she speaks. She has imported dogs from Norway since the 1960s. She says, “The breed must be of correct hunting type with a male 20 to 21 inches, agile, athletic, and short-coupled. The dog is made for endurance, durability, and hardiness. This breed is no cream puff.”

Autumn in the far north introduces an onslaught of alternately freezing and thawing conditions. An Elkhound with an improper, open, single coat is exposed to grave danger; he can become wet to the skin while he hunts the moose that browse in areas from marshes to high country. As a result, ice accumulates within the incorrect coat, which could allow the dog to freeze to death in arctic temperatures. The guard hair of a harsh, outer coat protects the undercoat from dampness, allowing the correctly coated Elkhound to follow moose without peril as temperatures drop.

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Unless the Elkhound is structured according to the standard, he will be less likely to survive as a hunter. There is a purpose for each part of the whole: correct shoulders and hindquarters; long, deep rib cage and short loin, providing a strong, level back; proper feet with thick pads; upright ears; silvery tail curled over the back. He will not have the athleticism to jump over rocks, go up or down steep inclines, or hold his prey at bay if he is short in leg or neck, straight in shoulder or stifle, long in back, or overbuilt.

The breed’s versatility allowed it to be used successfully to herd reindeer in Lapland, guard flocks and farm, and hunt both large and small game. A wide range of therapy work has been added to his duties in the 21st century. As the national dog of Norway, he is featured on the country’s half-krone coin (equivalent to the U.S. 50-cent piece). More than 1,000 specimens are regis­tered annually in Norway, a country justly proud of its contribution to the world of purebred dogs.

His modern hunting duties in his home country revolve around the hunting of the giant moose, called elg in Norway. Hence the true translation of elghund is moose dog. He origi­nally hunted bear and wolves, resulting in the temporary extinction of the wolf in Norway. The Scandinavians recognize Gray Elkhounds and Black Elkhounds, but what is called the Norwegian Elkhound in the United States is the Gray type.

The earliest recorded pedi­grees are traced back to 1865. Many of them include Gamle Bamse Gram, the Gray Elkhound considered to be the cast for today’s Norwegian Elkhound. The first benched dog show competitions in Norway for bear and moose dogs were held in 1877 and 1880. The first show where classes were divided for the Gray Elkhound and the Black Elkhound was in 1900. In order to become a hunting champion in Norway, the dog must achieve two first prizes in a field trial (one having been achieved on a two-day field trial), and one first prize based on quality in a dog show.

Coming to America

The breed was first imported into the United States by hunters of bear and elk prior to modern game laws. Three  Elkhounds were registered in the AKC Stud Book in 1913. Lady Helga, an Elkhound bitch, is on record as the first Elkhound shown in the United States, at a 1913 Los Angeles show. Elkhounds were first shown at Westminster in 1924, competing in the Miscellaneous class.

In 1930, a group of Elkhound fanciers met informally to discuss the formation of a parent club. The Norwegian Elkhound Association of America was formally admitted to the American Kennel Club in November of 1935. The Norwegian standard was accepted as the official AKC standard. A continuing effort has been made by the NEAA to preserve the Elkhound as it came down through history-a comrade, guardian, and hunter, much like his ancestors, who roamed the rugged, ice-covered lands of Scandinavia.

The late Susan Phillips was president of the parent club in 1969, when, during an evaluation of the standard, she stressed that short legs were “the drag of the breed” and that the breed should have leg length considerably longer than 50 percent of the total height. Because it was not the custom in those days to trim the belly to give the appearance of more leg length, the committee compromised and described the dog as 50 percent leg length to 50 percent body.

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Phillips’ Pomfret dogs won the first two nationals under Norwegian master breeders Herr Johnny Aarflot in 1962, and Miss Gerd Berbom in 1965. The much-respected expert on the breed, Catherine Peck of Pitch Road Kennels in Connecticut, states it simply, “The breed must be square and leggy.” Peck’s famous Norwegian import, Ch. Tortasen’s Bjonn II, was the first Elkhound to ever win the group at Westminster. Bjonn is in the pedigree of every Elkhound to win or place in the group since his win in 1959.

Dr. Robert Indeglia, respected breeder-judge of the Tekdal Elkhounds, was on the committee with Phillips and wonders if it is time to revisit the issue of percentage of leg length. “We all agreed with the Norwegian master breeders that the dog should be close to 55 percent leg length in relation to body depth, but since the coat made it look like a 50-50 situation in the body-depth/leg-length equation, that’s what went into the update of the standard in 1969. With the excessive grooming of today’s show dogs, perhaps we need to call for a change in the standard to assist both breeders and judges in preserving the leggy hunting type.”

Breed standards are written to preserve the breeds, not to change them. In Norway, the Gray Elkhound standard describes what the quality Gray Elkhound looked like in 1906, what it should look like today, and how it should look in the future. Norway has continued to emphasize the hunting ability of the Gray Elkhound, protecting the form-follows-function relationship. Norwegian Elkhounds bred and shown in the United States should be as similar as possible to the original Gray Elkhound that was bred and used for hunting bear and moose in Norway, not an Americanized version of its counterpart.

Longtime breeder Karen Elvin, of Sangrud Norwegian Elkhounds, is concerned about breeding trends that interfere with a dog’s ability to execute this job. She feels that an Elkhound must be in balance and fit; she is troubled by dogs who are out of balance.

Of concern are dogs with short legs, disproportionate angles of front and rear assembly, and dogs with heads too small for their bodies. In her opinion, dogs that lack correct muscle mass and muscle tone simply do not represent the breed standard. Elvin’s priority is on proper temperament and functionally square dogs. She wants the breed to have heart and intelligence, as well as a sound body so that its ability to perform demanding jobs is not compromised.

Breeders agree that the Elkhound is not a cookie-cutter breed, and that the standard allows for some variation. Size, for instance, affects working capabilities in deep snow and rugged terrain; however, as Peterson advises, too much variation above or below the recommended height is discouraged. The correct square profile is achieved by proportionate parts; for example, a short rib cage and long coupling, while appearing square, is incor­rect. The head is wedge-shaped and broad at the ears, which are erect and not too large. The topline is straight and strong, the tail is center-set and tightly curled. Legs are straight and parallel, with shoulders at a 45-degree angle.

Hunting Moose

The Elkhound is more compact than most Arctic breeds. He is high on leg and square n profile, with a very short loin. Good running gear allows him to trail moose for miles in rugged terrain, while his short-coupling enables him to bounce side-to-side, intriguing the moose while yipping and barking so that the hunter can approach to make the kill.

No wonder he is made so much like the quarter horse, for he works the huge moose in a similar way to a quarter horse eyeballing and working cattle. Like the quarter horse, he is an athletic animal, with good substance, but not coarse or cloddy. Like the quarter horse, he was bred to be a hardworking, generous animal, able to endure a rugged lifestyle and thrive on little.

When Scandinavia was first populated, the landscape abounded with herds of big game. As the terrain began to shed the glaciers of the last ice age, people followed the slowly devel­ oping flora and fauna. The valleys and waters of this rugged land were rich with game and fish. Hunting elg from the giant herds provided the migratory people with meat.

As Nature took things into her own hands, balancing the fragile laws of the universe, the herds were devastated by wolves first, and then by huge black bears. Overpopulation of bears and wolves decreased the elg herds almost to the point of extinction. Ironically, the elg repopulated later thanks to the Elkhound’s profi­ciency in hunting wolves and bears, bringing the predator numbers under control.

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The economic impact of moose hunting is signifi­ cant, with approximately 40,000 moose harvested each year in Scandinavia. There are two hunting methods used in Norway, loshund (loose) and bandhund (on lead). The Elkhound quietly follows the scent of his prey and leads the hunter to it.

The dog is expected to initiate a wide search for the moose without losing contact with his handler. In his confrontation with a moose, the dog circles it, nipping and darting in and out to keep it preoccupied. His barking is a signal to his handler to get close enough to shoot.

If the moose begins to move, the dog stops barking and follows silently. When the moose stops, the confrontation begins again. The entire process takes hours and miles of trekking for hunters and dogs.

When working at a reconnaissance trot or lope, the Elkhound wind scents, as well as trails. He can be observed, scanning the horizon, his head slowly moving back and forth as he looks, listens, and scents for whatever game may be of interest to him.

The Norwegian Elkhound has not received the acclaim as a hunter in the United States as he has in his native land due to modern game laws restricting the hunt of antlered game with dogs. Hunters who needed hardy dogs in pursuit of bear and other big game were among those who originally imported Elkhounds. He hunts elk, bear, and other game where laws permit, in much the same way as he does in Scandinavia, and his versatility allows him to outwit such prey as squirrels, rabbits, or birds. He is truly a multipurpose dog able to work live­ stock for ranchers and farmers, much like his ancestors herded reindeer.

The Elkhound, overall, is a healthy dog. He is not plagued with any breed-specific problems, though that does not mean be is immune to problems that afflict many breeds. The purpose of breeding purebred Norwegian Elkhounds is to eliminate undesirable traits and perpetuate the desirable ones. Breeding out unwanted traits is like a game of hide-and-seek.

The ultimate success or failure of a breeding program hinges on the selection of breeding stock. Studies indicate that conditions to watch out for include generalized progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), familial renal disease, hip dysplasia, and subcuta­neous cysts, all of which can become problematic for any breed unless considered in a breeding program.

Elkhounds are known to be sound and relatively free from hereditary disease. The breed will remain that way only with cooperation among breeders and the diligent use of sound breeding practices.

The Elkhound is independent and loves to please his master—when it pleases him! It takes a firm hand, and tender, loving care to guide him into becoming a trustworthy member of the household. Whether he is being shown in a puppy match, a conformation show, obedience, tracking, or agility, an Elkhound can excel when properly prepared. In the Elkhound’s natural environment, the thick under­ brush, low-lying trees, and other scrub rid the coat of excess and shedding hair. In his modern home, with manicured yards and carpeted rooms, regular grooming and bathing are necessary to control unwanted shedding.

Because Elkhounds are relatively odor-free, they are, for the most part, indoor/outdoor dogs. Elkhounds thrive on raw diets, love fish and meat, and are easy-keepers whose weight must be monitored. An Elkhound will provide a loving family with 13 to 15 years of listening, guarding, entertainment, and devotion, herding small children and alerting the family to potential intruders.

True to his Viking heritage, he is a courageous, stalwart companion, happy to accompany you on any adventure, from the store to the Arctic Circle.

Related article: American Water Spaniel History: An Origin of Mystery
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