US History
1997: Icelandic Sheepdog Association of America (ISAA) founded.
2008: AKC Misc. Class
June 30, 2010: Full AKC Acceptance
Current US and Worldwide Population
The ISAA (USA) Today (10/09):

241members (12.31.09)  
652 Icelandic Sheepdogs in the AKC Studbook
2008 ISAA became full participants in the (ISIC): In October, 2008 during the annual Breeding
Seminar in Copenhagen, Denmark. We were admitted by vote of the FCI ISD clubs. ISAA is the first official
Icelandic Sheepdog breedclub outside the FCI which has been recognised by the ISIC breed clubs.

The ISD worldwide population today:
Approximately 6,000 Icelandic Sheepdogs in the world today (Source: ISIC)
According to AKC Judge Pat Putman, who worked for Sir Mark Watson in the 1950's,
this photo is likely from an educational event at a benched show or a local television event
in San Francisco and Mark was probably talking about his desire to have the Iceland Dog
accepted by AKC.
Sir Mark Watson

More than 50 years, ago an exceptional fore-sighting person conducted a research on the Icelandic
Sheepdog. This person – Sir Mark Watson – wrote in his 1956 publication of the book ‘The Iceland dog’,
that: “The true Iceland Dog is rare and I found only one valley (the Breiddalur), a very remote one in the
east of Iceland, where the true type is in great preponderance – I should say around 90 %. There may be
other remote valleys, similar to the one mentioned above, which I have not found.”

Sir Watson continues: “There is no Kennel Club in Iceland and the people have only bred dogs for utility
purposes. The pureness of the breed has been maintained in certain parts of Iceland owing to the following:
that dogs have never been imported, legally or illegally, into Iceland on anything but a small scale, and
mostly to the southwest and west coasts; that since 1909 it has been against the law to import dogs without
a special license; that the valleys are very cut off from each other and many of the farms are extremely

The research conducted by Sir Mark Watson elucidate the history of the Icelandic Sheepdog since the time
of the first settlers (year 874) until 1956, and is even today considered the most comprehensive research
on the Icelandic Sheepdog ever made. The Icelandic Kennel Club was formed in 1969, followed by the
national club for the breed in 1979. In 1994, the public was made aware of the Icelandic Sheepdog as
being a national heritage of Iceland

© Jørgen Metzdorff
Source: The Iceland Dog by Mark Watson
Stóri-Ás in Borgafjörður, Iceland - 1908
A Brief Account of the History of the Icelandic Sheepdog


The Icelandic Sheepdog came to Iceland with settlers and was used to watch and herd sheep, cattle and
horses. Breeds of dogs that resemble the Icelandic Sheepdog can be found in neighboring countries, but
blood analysis of Icelandic dogs has shown that the Icelandic Sheepdog has its origins in the Nordic
countries (Stefán Aðalsteinsson 1998:79; Stefán Aðalsteinsson 2005:9).

In the spring of 1983, blood samples from 56 Icelandic Sheepdogs were analyzed to investigate the
origins of the breed. The results confirmed that the Icelandic Sheepdog is related to a Finnish breed, the
Karelian Bear Dog. The Karelian Bear Dog originated in Russia and is one of the so-called "Laika
dogs," but these dogs have erect ears and a curly tail (Stefán Aðalsteinsson 2005:9; Stefán
Aðalsteinsson 2004:26).

These results indicate that the Icelandic Sheepdog came to Iceland from Norway. But the relation to the
Karelian Bear Dog indicates that the dog came to Norway from the east, just like the Icelandic cow
(Same references).

Historical Summary

Very little documentation exists about dogs during the first few centuries Iceland was inhabited. No
descriptions exist for sheepdogs in the Icelandic Sagas, but the Sagas contain few accounts of dogs in
general. There are, though, descriptions of exceptional dogs -- like the dog Samur, who belonged to the
Viking settler Gunnar from Hlidarendi. It is believed that Samur was an Irish Wolfhound. Bones from a
large dog that were discovered during excavations in Greenland are thought to be bones of Irish
(Deild Íslenska Fjárhundsins, DÍF, 2005; Gísli Pálsson 1999: 5; Stefán Aðalsteinsson 1998 79).

There was great famine in Iceland around 990 AD. Because of the scarcity of food, it was suggested
that most dogs should be killed in order to save human lives. During the middle Ages, sheepdogs were
often exported, especially to Great Britain, where the breed was a favorite among the aristocracy. In
1492, the navigator and geographer Marteinn Beheim wrote that Icelanders demanded a great price for
their dogs, but would give their children away because they were unable to feed them (Deild Íslenska
Fjárhundsins, DÍF, 2005, Gísli Pálsson 1999:5; Icelandic Sheepdog Committee, 2005).

In 1555, the Swedish ecclesiastic and author Olaus Magnus wrote that Icelandic Sheepdogs were
popular among priests and ladies of the upper classes. Magnus describes the dogs as light-colored or
white with a thick coat. In 1570, the prominent humanist and physician John Caius noted that Icelandic
Sheepdogs were a favorite among the British aristocracy. He observed that the dogs had such long and
thick coats that their heads could hardly be distinguished from their bodies. In William Shakespeare’s
"Henry VIII," written around 1600, an Icelandic Sheepdog is mentioned. Around 1650, English
translator and satirist Thomas Brown wrote that Icelandic sheepdogs were imported to Great Britain as
family pets but also were coveted by English sheep farmers (Deild  Íslenska Fjárhundsins, DÍF, 2005,
Gísli Pálsson, 1999:5).

In 1590, Oddur Einarsson, bishop at Skálholt, describes four types of dogs in Iceland, farm or
watchdogs, sheepdogs, pet dogs that can do tricks and dogs used for fox hunting.  
Oddur states that the sheepdogs were agile workers (Stefán Aðalsteinsson, 1981:99).

French naturalist Count de Buffon wrote an account of 30 known dog breeds in the whole world 1755,
and the Icelandic sheepdog is included. A painting from 1763 features an Icelandic Sheepdog that was
born in Danzig (Gdansk), Poland in 1759 (Gísli Pálsson 1999:5-6).

The naturalists Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson give a detailed account of the dogs of Iceland in their
travel journal from 1752 to 1757. They describe three different types of dogs, the first being the
sheepdog. They describe the sheepdog as having a thick, long, and sometimes extra-long coat. The
sheepdog was used not only for herding sheep -- including bringing the flock to the shepherd -- but also
to retrieve puffins from their underground burrows. The other two types described were miniature
hunting dogs with a short coat and tail. Hunting dogs existed in Iceland in the 16th and 17th centuries,
but are believed to have become extinct in the late 18th century during a famine known as the Mist
Hardship (Stefán Aðalsteinsson 1998:79).

In most travel chronicles written about Iceland from this time until the 20th century, there are accounts of
Icelandic dogs. The descriptions vary somewhat, but it is clear that a distinct dog breed is being
described. The dogs were said to be found in the countryside; they guard the fields, herd sheep, round
up ponies and find lost sheep in snow drifts. At that time, the price for a good dog was comparable to
the price of a horse. (Deild íslenska fjárhundsins 2005; Gísli Pálsson 1999:6; Watson 1956).

Population Fluctuations

In earlier times, the dogs were so important that several were kept at each farm. Whether they were
used to drive sheep to grazing fields in the morning and home at night, or for driving the flock to the
mountains in the spring and back in the fall, the dogs were a necessity (Stefán Aðalsteinsson 1981:99).

In 1869, it is estimated that the dog population in Iceland was around 24,000. But by 1883-1887, the
population had dropped to 10,000 (Deild íslenska fjárhundsins 2005; Gísli Pálsson 1999:6). The
explanation for the decline is an 1869 law, which required that all dogs be highly taxed except for a
limited number of sheepdogs allocated to each farm. The law was enacted because dogs were the
intermediate hosts of taenia, a large tapeworm that caused intestinal infections in humans and infections in
the head of sheep (sheep measles). Though the law resulted in a large drop in the number of dogs in
Iceland, the main cause of tapeworm infestations was a general lack of hygiene among the public
(Same source; Stefán Aðalsteinsson 1981:86).

During the 19th century and early 20th century, foreign dog breeds were imported as the population of
the Icelandic sheepdog had been greatly reduced. Christian Schierbeck, a doctor, traveled a lot in
Iceland during this time. Schierbeck maintained that true Icelandic Sheepdogs could only be found on
farms in remote areas of the country. During his two years of travel in Iceland, Schierbeck -- who was
an owner of an Icelandic sheepdog himself -- managed to locate only 20 dogs with the distinct features
of the breed.

Schierbeck held the Icelandic Sheepdog in high regard, stating that the breed has a strong spatial
orientation and is especially well-suited to driving herds of sheep from the mountains in the fall. He
maintained that the dogs recognized every member of the herd and were a great necessity for every
farmer. Schierbeck went on to state that after the Icelandic Sheepdog population was reduced to a
quarter of its original size due to different pandemics and distemper, the price of a dog equaled the price
of a horse and two sheep.  In 1901, Iceland enacted a law banning the import of all dogs (Deild íslenska
fjárhundsins 2005; Gísla Pálsson 1999:6 og Watson 2005).

In the latter part of the 19th century, the Danish Army experimented with using Icelandic Sheepdogs in
the field. The dogs were trained to carry orders from one army unit to the next. Although the dogs
performed their duties successfully, these experiments were discontinued and the dogs were transferred
to different owners.

Icelandic Sheepdogs were first exhibited at a dog show at the Tivoli in Copenhagen in 1897. Three dogs
took part in the show. In 1898, the Icelandic Sheepdog was recognized as a breed in Denmark. The
English Kennel Club entered an Icelandic Sheepdog into its registry in 1905. At the same time, the club
published a breed standard that had been translated from Danish. The breed was rarely shown in
England, but an Icelandic Sheepdog advanced to “Best in Show” competition at the Crufts Dog Show in
1960 (Same sources; Watson 1956; Palmer 1985:94).

The Iceland enthusiast Mark Watson, known for his tremendous contributions to saving the Icelandic
Sheepdog, traveled extensively in Iceland. During his first trips to the country around 1930, he located
several Icelandic sheepdogs in the countryside. But during his later trips around 1950, the Icelandic
Sheepdog was almost nowhere to be seen except in remote locations such as in Breiðdalur, where 90
percent of the dogs showed the distinct characteristics of the breed. It is clear that during this time the
breed was in grave danger of becoming extinct (Deild íslenska fjárhundsins [DÍF], 2005;
Gísli Pálsson 1999:7; Icelandic Sheepdog International Comittee 2005; Watson 1956; Stefán
Aðalsteinsson 2004:26).

In order to save the breed from extinction, Watson decided to export a few males and females to
California. Páll A. Pálsson, the chief veterinary officer in Iceland, helped Watson export the dogs, but he
kept one of the females from the Vestfjords area. Soon after the dogs arrived in California, they were
stricken with distemper and some did not survive. Those who did live were bred, and the breed was
kept intact. Later, Watson moved back to England with the dogs and continued his breeding program.
But over time, English enthusiasts began breeding according to their own desires -- the dogs became
shorter, more compact and smaller-boned (see same sources; Palmer 1985:94).

Organized Breeding

Páll A. Pálsson was among the first people to realize that the Icelandic Sheepdog was facing extinction,
and he arranged to breed the female he had kept at the Keldur clinic. Organized breeding was also
funded by the Ministry of Agriculture at the town of Hveragerði (Deild íslenska fjárhundsins [DÍF],

In 1967, Sigríður Pétursdóttir started a substantial breeding program at the farm Ólafsvellir in
Skeiðahreppur, in cooperation with Páll A. Pálsson. Sigríður worked with Mark Watson and other
breeders in England, who provided her with invaluable assistance and information. Because Sigriður’s
first dogs were too closely related to continue breeding, she obtained permission to import two puppies
from Mark Watson in England, since the breeding stock in Iceland was very poor at that time.

With these few dogs, Sigríður started her pioneering work in breeding the Icelandic sheepdog (Same
source; Gísli Pálsson 1999:8-9). In 1969, the Icelandic Kennel Club (HRFÍ) was established, and one
of its goals was to protect and advance the breeding of the Icelandic Sheepdog. Eventually the club
became a member of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) and the Nordic Kennel Union

Today, the Icelandic Kennel Club is an umbrella organization for owners and amateur breeders of many
different breeds, but the Icelandic Sheepdog breed club is still the largest in the organization (Same
source:9; Hundaræktarfélag Íslands [HRFÍ], 2005).

The Icelandic breed club, DÍF, was established in 1979. Its mission is the protection and advancement
of the breed under the auspices of the Icelandic Kennel Club (HRFÍ). In 1996, the president of HRFÍ,
Guðrún R. Guðjohnsen, initiated the foundation of the Icelandic Sheepdog International Cooperation
(ISIC) in order to encourage cooperation among countries in preserving the Icelandic Sheepdog. The
ISIC member clubs within FCI are Iceland - Deíld Íslenska Fjárhundsins / DÍF, Denmark - Islandsk
Fårehundeklub / IF, Sweden - Svenska Isländsk Fårhund Klubben / SIFK, Norway – Norsk
Islandshundklub / NIHK, Finland – Islanninkoirat / Islandshundarna, Netherlands – Vereniging de
Ijslandse Hond, and Germany – Deutsche Club für Nordishe Hunde/DCNH. The other ISIC member
club is the USA - Icelandic Sheepdog Association of America/ISAA, the AKC Parent Club for the
breed. An ISIC associated club within FCI is Switzerland – Schweizerischer Klub für Nordische
Hunde/SKNH also called Islandhundeclub Schweiz. [ISIC Newsletter, 2010]

The popularity of the Icelandic Sheepdog has increased in recent years. Though the breed is not
common, it is not in immediate danger of becoming extinct. (Deild íslenska fjárhundsins 2005, [DÍF]).


Pieter Oliehoek, a Dutch biologist and specialist in genetic diversity (1999:5, 33), studied inbreeding in
the general population of the Icelandic Sheepdog from the time standardized breeding began in 1967
until 1999. His results show the imminent threat of a decrease in genetic diversity in the population.

All Icelandic Sheepdogs that exist today are the descendants of 23 unrelated dogs, but three of the
original dogs are dominant in the genetic pool. The genes of these three dogs are behind 80 percent of
the population, greatly reducing the number of alleles available.

Furthermore, Oliehoek found that it is impossible to rectify the contribution of the descendants in the
genetic pedigree. Oliehoek's (1999:33, 39) study showed that inbreeding has minimally affected the
Icelandic Sheepdog through time -- for instance, inbreeding has not influenced the number of puppies
being born. However, Oliehoek maintains that even though the breed has survived inbreeding, it is
imperative to preserve the genetic diversity that exists in the breed. Otherwise, the adaptation of the
breed could be compromised and certain genetic disorders could become fixed in the genetic pool.
Therefore, Oliehoek stresses the importance of preserving small family groups, since even the smallest
families have up to 60 percent of their genetic makeup from three of the original 23 descendants.

In 1991, the Swedish Icelandic Sheepdog breed club organized its first breeding meeting with Per-Erik
Sundgren, a Phd in animal breeding and genetics. Per Erik was the Swedish Kennel Club (SKK)
advisor in genetics and had a special interest in the preservation of dog breeds, especially small
populations with very limited genetic variation. Over the years, he became very involved with the
study of the Icelandic Sheepdog and the work of ISIC.

Guðrún R. Guðjohnsen, then president of the Icelandic Kennel Club (Hundaræktarfélag Íslands/HRFÍ),
was part of a committee formed by the Minister of Agriculture in Iceland whose mission was to suggest
guidelines for future preservation of the Icelandic Sheepdog. In 1995, she convinced the Minister to
invite Per-Erik for a meeting with the committee in Iceland. Per-Erik made it clear that to preserve the
breed, it is a necessity to look at the world wide population of the Icelandic Sheepdog as a whole. This
belief became the genesis of the ISIC, which was instituted the following year.

Per-Erik wrote several articles on genetics that have influenced breeding recommendations in the
Icelandic Sheepdog population and created a data program, LatHunden, which is used within the ISIC
countries to make genetic calculations. Today, all the member clubs of ISIC have agreed upon
International Breeding Recommentation for the Icelandic Sheepdog, based on the recommendation of
Dr. Pieter Oliehoek, Dr. Per-Erik Sundgren and other experts.


The characteristics of the Icelandic Sheepdog include his wide smile and confident and lively
temperament. The Icelandic Sheepdog is a tireless herding dog who loves to bark when necessary-- a
trait that is very useful when bringing in livestock from the fields or moving herds down the mountains.
The dog is happy and sweet-tempered, full of curiosity and loves to work. The breed is useful for many
different farm chores, but today most Icelandic Sheepdogs are kept as house pets.

Icelandic sheepdogs have been trained to assist with search and rescue, both in Iceland and abroad. The
dogs have also been trained as companion dogs for autistic children. But Icelandic Sheepdogs are still
used for herding and to search for sheep lost in snowdrifts. During bad weather when visibility is limited,
the dog's sense of smell allows him to locate sheep when people are unable to. The dog’s nose is also
very useful in collecting eggs, and the Icelandic sheepdog has been trained to locate the eggs of distinct
species of birds.

Original Icelandic Text: Þorsteinn Thorsteinson, Spring 2005
Translated by Anna Sigrúnardóttir and Thordur Runólfsson, Spring 2008
Revised in part, May 2010


Deild íslenska fjárhundsins. 2005. 26. mars. Vefslóð: http://www.simnet.is/dif.

Eggert Ólafsson. 1981. Ferðabók Eggert Ólafssonar og Bjarna Pálssonar. Um ferðir þeirra á Íslandi
árið 1752-1757. 1. bindi. Jón Eiríksson og Gerhard Schöning bjuggu frumútgáfuna til prentunar.
Steindór Steindórsson þýddi árið 1942. Bókaútgáfan Örn & Örlygur, Reykjavík.  (In Icelandic)

Gísli Pálsson. 1999. Íslenski fjárhundurinn. Bókaútgáfan á Hofi. (In Icelandic)

Hundaræktarfélag Íslands. 2005, 26. march. Webpage:

Icelandic Sheepdog International Comittee. 2005, 26. march. Webpage:

Oliehoek, Pieter. 1999. Inbreeding, Effective Population Size, Mean Kinship and Cluster Analysis in the
Icelandic Sheepdog as a Small Population. Wageningen.

Palmer, Joan. 1985. Stóra hundabók Fjölva. Íslensk ritstjórn og meðhöfundur Þorsteinn Thorarensen.
Fjölvaútgáfan, Reykjavík. (In Icelandic)

Stefán Aðalsteinsson. 1981. Sauðkindin landið og þjóðin. Bjallan, Reykjavík. (In Icelandic) Stefán
Aðalsteinsson. 1998. „Uppruni íslenskra húsdýra“. Um landnám á Íslandi. Fjórtán erindi. Ráðstefnurit V,
bls. 73-80. Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir sá um útgáfuna. Vísindafélag Íslendinga, Reykjavík. (In Icelandic)

Stefán Aðalsteinsson. 2005, 12. janúar. „Særtrekk hos islandske husdyr“. Nordisk genbank husdyr.
Web page:

Watson, Mark. 1956. The Iceland dog. A Research on the ICELAND DOG (also known as the
Icelandic Sheepdog). Wensum Kennels, Nicasio, California.

Icelandic Sheepdog International Cooperation (ISIC) Newsletter 2010
For more information:
First Champion in Iceland - ISCH Íslands Garða Tinni
Tinni 'Black like a firestone' is in the pedigree of almost every ISD living in Iceland today.
To learn more about Garða Tinni, click here:
© Used with permission  
© Used with permission.