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.