Iceland's National Treasure: The Icelandic Sheepdog

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Iceland, the island nation that seems to sit almost at the top of the world, was the last of the European countries to be settled when Vikings landed there in the 9th and 10th centuries. They came primarily from Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, as well as from Norse settlements in the British Isles, and thus the culture and language of the island were from the beginning Scandinavian with a trace of Celtic influence.

Ruled by Norway and Denmark until it gained independence in 1944, Iceland experienced hardships through the centuries including epidemics, famine, massive volcanic eruptions, and climate changes so severe that farming and the keeping of livestock became almost impossible. But Icelanders persevered, and for centuries the country’s primary industries have been agriculture and fishing. Icelandic farmers have raised cattle and sheep and produced eggs and dairy products, barley crops, nourishing grasses for livestock, and homespun wool.

Much of the interior of this unique country is uninhabitable, made up of arctic desert dotted with mountains, glaciers and volcanoes. Its population settled primarily along the southwestern coast near the capital of Reykjavik. The Norsemen who colonized Iceland brought dogs with them, and since few other dogs were brought in throughout history succeeding generations remained largely unchanged. In a sparsely populated country of harsh conditions, dogs were prized for their working ability as opposed to appearance. Iceland’s only native breed adapted well to the local terrain and the hardships on the island, and eventually became indispensable for watching and rounding up livestock and keeping an eye on the farms, where they would sound an alarm by barking when a stranger approached. A dog with endurance, determination and the ability to work at a variety of different tasks was prized above all others.

In the 1930s under the direction of Englishman Mark Watson, islanders began to selectively breed some of the best specimens available. With descendants from Watson’s efforts, Icelanders Páll Pálsson and Sigrídur Pétursdóttir developed breeding programs in the mid-1960s and at the same time Iceland’s Ministry of Agriculture gave grants to start breeding Iceland Sheepdogs in Hveragerdi. When the Icelandic Kennel Club was formed in 1969 its purpose was primarily to monitor the native breed.

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