We get many questions about the temperament of the Icelandic Sheepdog. Because every dog is an
individual, and the family situations that the dogs live in are varied and unique, we decided to share
some comments from people who love and live with the Icelandic Sheepdog. We hope this will help
families considering them as pets to have a better understanding of the general temperament of the
breed. The Icelandic Sheepdog is known for its gentleness and intelligence and we hope that with
careful matching of puppies to homes - to allow for the range of temperaments - that the Icelandic
Sheepdog will continue to be bred - and treasured for its very special and unique qualities.
The Iceland Breed Standard states:
“The Icelandic Sheepdog is a hardy and agile herding dog which barks, making it extremely useful for
herding or driving livestock in the pastures, in the mountains or finding lost sheep. The Icelandic
Sheepdog is by nature very alert and will always give visitors an enthusiastic welcome without being
aggressive. Hunting instincts are not strong. The Icelandic Sheepdog is cheerful, friendly, inquisitive,
playful and unafraid.”
We asked one long time Icelandic Sheepdog owner/breeder/trainer, Brynhildur Inga Einarsdottir
(Iceland) to give us her overview of the breed.
“The Icelandic Sheepdog is an affectionate, friendly, curious, smart and lively dog. They cannot
tolerate harshness from the owner when growing up. It is extremely social, meaning that it will be your
shadow indoors and out, and needs to have close human contact. It is not a breed that does well in a
kennel situation. The breed is extremely loving with children, they are quite patient and if they feel
threatened they will often walk away rather than show aggression. It has a natural talent for driving /
herding and therefore barking is in its makeup, of course each dog is an individual and some are
noisier than others.
The Icelandic Sheepdog is a breed that is very intelligent and learns exceptionally fast. It is however a
soft tempered dog in the fact that it does not respond well to rough or negative training methods, such
methods may cause stress barking in sensitive individuals.
The breed is not an aggressive breed by nature. They are very easy going and usually love all
humans and animals. However if not socialized properly as puppies they can show aggressive
tendencies towards same sex individuals even in the same household if stressful situations arise, like
during a female´s season.
However in most cases they are easy to get along with and love the company of other dogs. They
seem to bond very well with all types of pets in the same household.
This breed is a working dog, they are very individual in the amount of activity they need. They are
good in herding sheep, horses, cows and they are excellent in agility, tracking and they are well suited
for work as therapy and assistant dogs.
Most ISD´s will make it a point to keep in good contact with their owners while running free, they are not
In general ISD´s are a nice family dog that only needs moderate exercise.
There is no difference between male or female. Both do well as a pet or as a working dog.”
We asked ISAA members to submit comments about the Icelandic Sheepdogs that they live with and to
give the positive, and also the negative, temperament traits that they have observed in their dogs. The
following are some compilations of these observations and we want to thank all of those who
**I have two Icelandics, a 3 year old female and a 2 year old male. The following summarizes what we
like and dislike.
1. Spitz family of dogs – prick ears, curly tails – beautiful dogs
2. Very friendly and outgoing; do not bite; great with kids.
3. Very affectionate and loving.
4. Do not smell, even when wet. Very nice, especially since they like to hop in bed with us
5. Do not require frequent baths. Generally stay clean.
6. Minimal grooming requirements. Brush/comb during periods of shedding.
7. Size – our male is about 32 lbs., female 27 lbs. Not too small, not too big.
8. Canine smile – smiles frequently, numerous times during the day.
9. Love the water, great swimmers. Live on a lake; so it's great to have dogs that enjoy the water.
10. Snow does not stick to them. Live in an area with lots of snow. They do not drag it into the house.
11. Do not hunt. Female has a higher prey drive than the male, and will occasionally follow her
nose. Male very rarely.
12. Great off leash. Male is very reliable and cautious. Female will occasionally wander, but
generally stays close.
13. Travel well – can stay overnight in a motel without issues. Female better than male relative to
riding in cars.
14. Do not snore.
1. Barking, in general
2. Separation barking; uncomfortable staying alone. Become agitated and will bark whenever we (or
others) leave or walk away from them.
3. Car chasing can be a problem with our one dog.
A very lovable and attractive breed. Separation barking is the big negative. But overall, the positives
outweigh this unfortunate blemish on an otherwise impressive list of breed characteristics.
Positive Temperament Characteristics
Over and over again owners of the Icelandic Sheepdog will say that what they love about the breed is
its kindness, gentleness, loving nature and attachment to humans. They are intelligent and so willing to
please that they are easy to train. They are gentle and tolerant of children, they love all people,
greeting strangers as old friends. They love other dogs, also greeting new dogs as old friends as well.
Negative Temperament Characteristics
Among the negative behaviors that some breeders/owners noted, the common ones included car
chasing; lunging/pulling on a leash; barking; separation anxiety; and difficulty in keeping them fenced
It sometimes seems that the very things we love them for, can also turn into aggravating habits!
Because they are so attached to their humans, they often go through amazing acrobatics to get to
them, which sometimes makes fencing them in a challenge. Knowing up front that they have separation
anxiety if left alone, we suggest families train their new puppies to crates early on and most breeders
will recommend that the puppy have a companion dog or cat that will keep them company if their family
is gone for extended periods of time.
**Many of the Icelandic Sheepdogs love water, from boating, to swimming in oceans, lakes and pools.
The main drawback to this we found is that some of them also like to splash the water from their
drinking dish out onto the floor! What a mess. We resorted to using a tall “crock” style dish that makes
it harder to put their front paws into for splash play. But on the positive side, we’ve had many of our
puppy families share great stories and photos of their dogs playing in the water and making great
summer water companions.
**When walking ISD's, consider using a Gentle Leader. You have more control over dogs and can
break their dangerous habit of trying to attack cars/tires as they pass. I had to be VERY FIRM with my
female over this frightening habit. It worked, she no longer lunges at cars. I also carry a squirt bottle to
help make her obey as we have so many deer in our area that we encounter daily on our walks to the
Straits. She will NOT tolerate deer.
**We have tried everything to keep Argo from pulling when going for a walk. He smells the deer and
wants to chase them. The gentle leader doesn't work because he keeps trying to get it off his nose .
Yesterday I bought a gentle leader harness. The leash connects to the harness underneath the chin.
When Argo tries to pull he turns around and faces me. It wasn't as cumbersome as the one that goes
over his snout and he walked without any problem today.
**As Truffle got to be 4-5 months old, she showed a scary strong desire to chase cars, she would
lunge to the end of her leash and bark wildly at them. We don't have cars going by our yard, because
we live back a long lane. So I would go down to my mother's house to work on this and it took 8-10
weeks of maybe once a week or so, one or two 5-10 minute sessions. What I did was every time a car
would go by, I would give her a little piece of food (cut up chicken, liver, etc.) At first she wouldn't even
take the food, she was so frantic to chase the car, so I moved back about 100 feet, to where she would
respond to the food. At first I would just toss the food on the ground as a car came, to give her a
different behavior to do as the car was going by. Then I started giving it to her from my hand.
So I was making a positive association with cars going by, if there was any anxiety there (which I don't
really think there was, she is not the anxious type) and I was conditioning her to turn to me for a
treat when a car went by. After a few sessions, she knew the routine, and I started moving closer to the
road, little by little. I would just do this for a little while whenever I had her down at my mother's.
The training center I go to is on a busy road also, and one evening I spent about 10 minutes on the
front porch there, doing the same thing, treating every time a car went by. I only did that once there.
It has really been successful. I think part of the success was due to the fact that she doesn't have any
opportunity to practice reacting to cars at home since we are off the road. Now, at 8 months, she
doesn't pay attention to the cars. No more of that lunging and pulling and barking at cars. I would
definitely use this approach again with a puppy who showed that tendency, because it is very scary, if
you aren't holding the leash firmly she could get away and I hate to think.
**Both Argo and Dugga like to chase cars. From the very beginning, we make them sit every time a car
passes us while on a walk. We give them a treat for sitting. Haven't been able to get Argo to lose his
interest in chasing deer. When walking if a deer has crossed the road he wants to follow the trail. He
gets the smell of the deer and he is very difficult to get him to redirect to sit and eat a treat. The deer
often are in the woods and we don't see them as we do a car, but he knows they are there.
**I have a deer patrolling female. She looks out from the deck over the neighborhood and lets us know
when she spots one. Both of them can tell when we step outside if there is one nearby and they spring
into action, escorting them from the property. The deer are so brazen that they stop just on the other
side of the property knowing they will be safe and of course the dogs continue to bark at them. She
also barks at trucks and large vehicles that come on the street, especially the garbage truck. She will
race them along the road for the length of the property.
**We have 4 ft high picket fences around part of our back yard, as well as 52” high field fencing and
gates going out to the pastures (we have a sheep farm). You would think that this would keep the dogs
contained, but we have two young females who at about 1 year of age decided to basically “fly” over
the gates and 4 ft. fencing whenever they want to. They also will dig their way under gates, so we have
had to pour cement to stop the digging. If they are really determined they will also climb the 52” high
field fencing to get out into the field should I go out there without them. They are amazing climbers and
jumpers and can definitely be a challenge to keep contained.
**Our first Icelandic Sheepdog never did any digging until she was very pregnant with her first litter.
Then she dug a den under our propane tank, expecting I’m sure that she’d whelp and raise her
puppies under there! Of course, we didn’t allow that, but it did set off a habit of digging which seems
more to follow the underground mole trails. Our dogs do a great job of digging up the moles, but
unfortunately the digging causes as much havoc to the back yard as the mole hills do! They also, like
many dogs, like to dig in the cool dirt under shrubs or trees when it’s hot outside. One book I read
suggested that you put in a special “digging” area in your backyard where they are allowed to dig. You
can bury bones and toys for them in sand that is easy for them to dig up and the theory is that they’ll
leave the rest of your yard alone.
**Another interesting thing – we have three acres, and one acre is fenced, and it is sort of wooded, so I
can't see where the dogs are necessarily, from the house. I heard Truff barking on and off, so I finally
decided to go check out what was going on. When I found her, she had found a rabbit nest, with 4 or 5
tiny baby rabbits, just a couple days old. She had dug all the nest material away, and was sniffing and
sort of digging at it, and jumping back when they would squeak. But she hadn't killed or eaten the
rabbits, and when I said, "Come on, let's leave them alone" she came away rather easily. She wasn't
obsessed, like the GSD's would be. Our GSD's would have eaten them in about 5 seconds flat, but
she had been over there probably about 10 minutes. I think she would have injured them just
scratching at the nest, but I was very surprised that she didn't have that "go for the jugular" reaction
that I am so used to with the GSD's. She goes nuts chasing rabbits, but I don't know what she would
do if she caught up to one. My cousin says her ISD, Kara, will dig up and kill moles.
**Our female ISDs are especially good at hunting field mice and digging up moles. This is a very good
thing on a farm, where mice can be so destructive when they migrate into the house or barns and
**Yes, some (not all) of the Icelandic Sheepdogs will have a more vocal approach to life. It is said that
the only predators in Iceland over the 1000+ years the breed evolved there, were large birds of prey.
So a positive trait that protected the lambs from these large birds, was the dogs’ ability to bark at and
chase away the birds. This seems to have carried down through the collective unconscious of the
breed. Our dogs are very aware of anything flying overhead and will race back and forth across the
yard barking at birds that seem to want to tease them, flying from tree to tree. We once had our female
ISD take off when she saw a large hawk overhead and she ran, head up, straight across a field, intent
on chasing that hawk away, barking as she ran.
Our dogs will alert us to visitors at the door, but we have found in general that our dogs, when out on
leash and in crowds, do not bark at other dogs or people.
Some of the dogs are more barky than the others and a new puppy in the family definitely will learn
barkiness from another dog. So training them when it is appropriate and not appropriate to bark is
something that families need to be consistent with and the pups need to be taught when they are very
**Truffle is 10 months old now, and she is getting more control over her barking, so I can do more
things with her, without creating a public nuisance. Our neighbor has a dog that runs loose, and I have
really been practicing with Truffie to be able to see that dog without erupting into lunging and barking.
Yesterday and this morning I took her for a walk down our lane, once by herself and once with our
female German Shepherd, and both times she walked by the neighbor's dog without barking one single
bark!! That is really a breakthrough. The neighbor's dog comes up behind us and follows us, and it's
rather annoying, but I think Truff has decided that it's a nonevent.
We are in a pre-agility class now, and the first class I had to keep her sequestered from the rest of the
dogs because she was barking too much, but last week, she was really quite good, she went around
the room to the different obstacles, and only erupted a few times, when I let my attention lag, and she
stopped right away when I distracted her. So three cheers, we are making progress!
Here are some fun stories of life with the Icelandic Sheepdog that show the wonderful native
intelligence and loving nature of the breed.
**We were camping in the "Haliburton Forest" in northern Ontario and while our children went to day
camp, my husband, my 12 year old niece and I went for a picnic to a tiny island located in a bigger lake
than ours. We were swimming and Eydis was afraid of jumping in the deep water. She was barking
nervously, so I got closer to the rock were Eydis was standing and extended my hand to calm her down
and invite her to come in the water with us. Instead, she grabbed my hand with her tiny and sharp little
teeth and started crawling backwards and pressing firmly in a way that if I resisted it would hurt but if I
went forward it wouldn't until she took me out.
I don't know if she tried to save me from drowning or she just didn't want to be left alone, but her
strength and determination really impressed us. That little puppy wanted me out of the water and she
took me out.
**They are such incredible dogs and bring our entire family so much joy every day. Their personalities
are so different. Mischa is consistently very spunky and very active. She would have been a great
herder, however we do have to work on her listening skills since she likes to make her own decisions a
lot of the time. Often we work her out separately from Avari since she is so high energy. She loves to
be the center of attention and is very lovable. Avari is a real sweet lovey-dovey. He loves to cuddle and
get individual attention. He is very content and loves to play with Mischa but often just lets her have her
way because it's easier. Avari really surprises us at times because he is a very fast runner and can
often out run Mischa if he has the desire to do that. He loves the one kitten that came to us in October.
We are so happy that we have them together since Mischa really motivates Avari and he teaches her
to settle down. What a pair!"
**I've been meaning to write to you about Gunnar. He is such a little joy. I have always noticed that he
loves music, but the way he expresses it is becoming more and more ingenius. He wags his tail in time
to music! All kinds of music. And on some songs that he likes (when I play the piano), he will go find his
squeaky toy, and squeak in time to the song. He especially likes "Let it Be." Can you believe it? I put on
some Scott Joplin the other day and he just loved it. He got his toys and started throwing them around
and playing. He just loves the music... everyone gets a kick out of him wagging his tail in time.
Comparison with other breeds
**Vinur is so darn smart! I think I told you that he watched Cassie and learned to come over and sit to
be petted. Well yesterday we went to the vet and she walked into the room and he ran over wagging
his entire rear end and sat down right in front of her! I was proud of my baby. He's so smart!!!! He
wasn't much of a jumper to begin with, but now I'm actively teaching him not to jump on people and
generously rewarding him with hugs and kisses when he comes over and sits down. I'm really
impressed with him, and the difference between his attitude and Cassie's is unbelievable! (Cassie is an
Australian Shepherd). She could care less what we want her to do; he is all about "What do you want?
What can I do to make you happy? Anything you want..." He's doing really well with the crate. He now
goes to bed at night pretty much complaint free. He woke up at 4:30 this morning and Adam took him
out, then put him right back in the crate to go back to bed and I think I heard two whines and that was
it. He knows that is where he sleeps at night and it's all night and we'll let him out to go to the bathroom
but that is it until we get up in the morning. He adapted so quickly... another thing Adam is really
impressed with. His face is so incredibly expressive, and those eyes! You can just see the brain
working behind there when you look in his eyes. And he's such a happy puppy. He is so well loved. I'm
so glad we got him and I think Adam is actually glad I talked him into another dog. Cassie seems pretty
happy about it too and now she has someone to play with. I had a chocolate lab who was the perfect
dog. She would do anything I wanted her to do and adapted to anything I asked of her. I've been
wanting another dog like Bailey and I think Vinur is going to be that exactly. (I've already got plans for
the "retirement dog." You know, the dog that replaces your kids and goes everywhere with you, never
leaves your side, becomes the kid you always wanted but never had...the one who follows directions!
Now that's where you want a Rosie. The dog that only wants you and loves you forever but is
independent enough that she can live without constant attention. Yep, the retirement dog is going to
be a female ISD...maybe one of Rosie's great-great-great granddaughters!)
**My male ISD and my male Aussie were/are equally willful BUT my Aussie guarded the fence rather
aggressively and I could not trust him around strangers. A stranger in his eyes was anyone not born
into this household. My oldest daughter could come home once or twice a year and he was fine with
her; but we had to crate Augie when my nephew came over every month or so. I also adopted an older
female Aussie, she was as trainable as ISDs but not as attached to us (again, that might be individual
personality) but ISDs are definitely better with strangers. My two ISDs are rather clean about
themselves and their coats don't seem to matt.
I have also had Cardigan Corgis. They are tough and sweet, but can be nippy and are much more
independent than Icelandic Sheepdogs. They also shed like German Shepherds which means
constantly and in large amounts.
What I love about ISDs is that they range from very trainable and willing to very intelligent and willful
but they are all lovers of people. I do watch them but am not worried about stranger aggression.
Because Aussies have become very popular show dogs since they've gone AKC, there's a big variety
in both physical type and temperament in the breed. I would say Thora (our Icelandic Sheepdog) is
more similar to the working-bred Aussies we have. She is much more friendly with strangers, though -- I
don't think she'd make much of a watchdog, while protection of property is a trait that lands many
Aussies in rescue.
The main similarity is they are both very smart breeds, and they need mental stimulation as well as
physical exercise. They also want to be with their people. Thora is probably a little less biddable than
our Aussies, but I think that's just her personality, not necessarily a breed trait!
Thank you, Laurie Ball Gisch, for volunteering to compile the information for this wonderful article.
|Click on photos to enlarge