Breed Profile: Icelandic Sheepdog

These are the only dogs native to Iceland. This small herding dog is great for families with children and other pets.

breed-profile-icelandic-sheepdog
Icelandic sheepdog. By: Sara Björk

Breed

Icelandic sheepdog

Group

Herding

Physical Description

The Icelandic sheepdog is an ideal family dog. This medium-sized herding breed is the only canine native to Iceland and believed to be one of the oldest dog breeds in the world.

They are intelligent and eager to please and known to be great with children. The thick double coat is waterproof and can be long or short. Various color combinations and patterns are typical, with no one preferred color or pattern. The tail is curled, and the triangular-shaped ears stand erect.

The average height is between 12 and 18 inches, and the average weight falls between 20 and 30 pounds. The average life expectancy is around 11 to 14 years.

Origin

The Icelandic sheepdog is believed to have been brought to Iceland with the Vikings, who settled there toward the end of the ninth century. The breed was used to herd cattle, horses and sheep.

Blood tests indicate these dogs came from Norway, and the breed was also linked to another breed that originated in Russia. The dogs were exceptional in their herding abilities and demeanor and were often exported to other countries such as Britain. Around 990 AD there was a famine in Iceland. Years later a traveler reported the people preferred to keep their dogs and give their children away instead because they could not feed them.

The breed became a favorite of the Swedish upper class and British aristocracy and was mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare and Thomas Brown. The breed was continuously noted in the centuries that followed, and at one point the cost of an Icelandic sheepdog was the same as a horse plus two sheep.

In the late 1800s, the breed’s population dropped from an estimated 24,000 dogs to just 10,000 after a new law placed a heavy tax on all dogs. This was done to reduce the number of dogs in Iceland because of a tapeworm epidemic. The dogs were believed to be hosts for tapeworms, which caused infections in humans and sheep. The cause was later found to be poor public hygiene, and dogs were imported to replace those lost. This ended in 1901 when Iceland enacted a ban on importing dogs.

Icelandic sheepdogs appeared in dog shows beginning in 1897 in Copenhagen. The breed was recognized in Denmark in 1898 and entered by the English Kennel Club in 1905. The American Kennel Club added the breed in 2010.

Purpose

Icelandic sheepdogs are cattle, horse and sheep herders in addition to being a companion pet and participating in conformation and in agility events.

Temperament

This breed is prone to separation anxiety, so it is not recommended as an outside-only dog. The breed is social, affectionate, playful and friendly, making it a great option for families.

Icelandic sheepdogs are great with children, other dogs and smaller pets. The prey drive is not strong in this breed, so smaller pets should be welcomed by them. Always supervise your dog with smaller animals because the hunting instincts can vary depending on the individual dog. Calm but firm training is recommended.

Icelandic sheepdogs bark when active, working or excited, so apartment residents should take this into consideration.

 

Exercise Needs

Icelandic sheepdogs are active and need daily exercise. Frequent walks and play are recommended, and they can be good jogging companions.

Confining your dog, leaving her alone for long periods of time or not providing enough exercise can cause boredom or destructive behavior, and the breed is known to suffer from separation anxiety. Giving your pet a chance to be with the family and work off excess energy will keep her calmer and happier.

Grooming Requirements

The double coat sheds like that of the average dog, but Icelandic sheepdogs shed their undercoat twice per year. Daily brushing is recommended, especially during seasonal heavy shedding.

You should trim the nails (and dewclaws) regularly. The dewclaws do not touch the ground, so they do not naturally become worn. Clean your dog’s teeth as part of a regular routine, and check the ears for discharge.

Use the grooming time as a way to recognize any changes or problems your dog may have. Because of the breed’s double coat, take care when outdoors in high temperatures, and always have water on hand.

Common Health Problems

There are no genetic or common health problems known to be directly linked with this breed. Icelandic sheepdogs are susceptible to certain conditions that affect all dogs, such as:

Annual vet visits will help your pet maintain optimum health and recognize any problems sooner. If you intend to buy an Icelandic sheepdog from a breeder, ask about any health tests given to the parents, and ask to see the parents — or at least the mother — interacting with the puppy. This ensures the dogs have been around each other and raised in a social environment.

Is the Icelandic Sheepdog the Right Dog for You?

Icelandic sheepdogs are not large dogs; they are a little smaller than medium-sized herding dogs. They are active dogs: Daily walks and play are needed for them to expel energy they will naturally have from their herding instincts.

They can do well in apartments if their exercise needs are met but would appreciate a yard. They are not recommended for outdoor-only living because they are prone to separation anxiety.

Grooming is another responsibility with this breed. Shedding is average with two heavy seasonal shedding periods, and this will require additional brushing. The maintenance needs of this breed are underwhelming as a whole and easy to satisfy with a little diligence. Icelandic sheepdogs are great with kids and other pets, making them an ideal choice as an addition to your family.

Adopt, Don’t Shop

An Icelandic sheepdog could be waiting for a home in a shelter or rescue, so check adoption resources first if you are interested in this breed. When purchasing any dog, avoid any seller, broker or store who exhibits signs of operating a puppy mill or will not disclose the dog’s origin, parents or medical history.

Additional Resources

Kristine Lacoste

View posts by Kristine Lacoste
Kristine Lacoste, editor in chief of Petful, has been researching dog and cat breeds for nearly a decade and has observed the animals up close at dog shows in both the United States and the United Kingdom. She is the author of the book One Unforgettable Journey, which was nominated for a Maxwell Award from the Dog Writers Association of America, and was host of a weekly pet news segment on the National K-9 Academy Radio Show. In addition, she was the New Orleans coordinator for Dogs on Deployment, a nonprofit that helps military members and their pets, for 3 years. Kristine has researched and written about pet behaviors and care for many years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, another bachelor’s degree in English and a Master of Business Administration degree.

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