True Scandinavians, Icelandic sheepdogs are Iceland's only native dog and a symbol of Icelandic culture. Originally bred as herding dogs by Norse settlers (and still excellent working dogs), modern Icelandic sheepdogs are beloved family, sporting, and show dogs.
If you wonder if an Icelandic sheepdog is a good fit for your family, read on to learn what you need to know about Icelandic sheepdogs.
Characteristics of an Icelandic Sheepdog
Icelandic sheepdogs are spitzes — a family of 50 northern breeds of dog with distinct characteristics, including a fox-like face, dense coat, and a bushy, curling tail. Icelandic sheepdogs have a rectangular-shaped body covered in a thick, double coat that comes in various shades of tan, cream, brown, and grey with white markings.
Icelandic Sheepdog Size
Icelandic sheepdogs are medium-small dogs, 16.5 to 18 inches in height and 25 to 30 pounds in weight.
Icelandic Sheepdog Personality
Icelandic sheepdogs are deeply affectionate dogs known for being gentle, patient, and intelligent. The Icelandic sheepdog temperament is typically loving and patient with small children, and they make an excellent family dog.
Icelandic sheepdogs are lively dogs that love to be outdoors, and their water-resistant double coat makes them excellent companions for rugged outdoor activities in all types of weather. Icelandic sheepdogs make a great partner for off-trail hiking, backcountry camping, or other adventures in nature.
Common Icelandic sheepdog characteristics include being:
Caring for an Icelandic Sheepdog
Icelandic sheepdogs are active dogs that require a fair amount of grooming and are best suited for active, involved owners.
Icelandic Sheepdog Grooming
Icelandic sheepdogs have thick, double coats that shed, especially during shedding season. Double-coated dogs like Icelandic sheepdogs "blow their coat" twice a year, shedding their thick winter coat in the spring and shedding their summer coat in the fall. Weekly brushing during shedding season can help remove loose hair, and you can tease out any tangles with a slicker brush or a comb.
Many owners are tempted to shave double-coated dogs like the Icelandic sheepdog during the summer, thinking that their thick coat will cause them to overheat, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Icelandic sheepdogs should never be shaved. Their double coat keeps them warm in the winter and cool in the summer and helps protect them from sunburn and bug bites. Shaving a double-coated dog actually puts them at a higher risk for overheating, heat stroke, and skin cancer.
Like most dogs prone to tangles and matting, any tangles should be removed before bathing, as tangles and mats will tighten when wet. A bath every 4 to 6 weeks is suitable for most Icelandic sheepdogs. Overbathing can strip natural oils from their double coat, so only bathe your Icelandic sheepdog more often when necessary. Use a shampoo formulated for dogs to bathe your Icelandic sheepdog — a dog shampoo formulated for shedding is a good choice for these thick-coated dogs.
You should check your Icelandic sheepdog's coat and skin for ticks regularly, paying close attention to their ears, head, and feet. You can help prevent ticks and fleas by giving your dog a regular tick and flea control treatment. Tick and flea control products come in a variety of formulations: chewables, sprays, topical treatments, powders, and flea control collars, and they are available both over-the-counter and by prescription. Your veterinarian can help you choose the right flea and tick prevention for your Icelandic sheepdog.
Icelandic sheepdogs need regular nail trims and dental care, like all dog breeds. You should trim your Icelandic sheepdog's nails before they're clicking on the ground. Brush your Icelandic sheepdog's teeth with a toothpaste formulated for dogs every day.
Icelandic Sheepdog Exercise
Icelandic sheepdogs need moderate exercise every day and are best suited to an active family. They make great partners for hiking or long walks and enjoy a variety of canine sports, including herding, tracking, and agility.
Icelandic Sheepdog Training
Icelandic sheepdogs are intelligent, people-pleasing, and good-natured, making them highly trainable. Icelandic sheepdogs need consistency in training but do not respond to harsh training methods. Positive reinforcement works well for these loveable, enthusiastic dogs.
Icelandic Sheepdog Medical Care
Like all dogs, Icelandic sheepdogs need to visit the veterinarian every 3 to 4 weeks as puppies and annually after one year of age. All Icelandic sheepdogs need core vaccines, and some will need non-core vaccines.
Core vaccines include:
Non-core vaccines include:
- Bordetella bronchiseptica
- Borrelia burgdorferi/Lyme disease
- Leptospira bacteria
Non-core vaccines are given if your dog has a higher exposure risk. Your vet will help you decide if your Icelandic sheepdog needs any non-core vaccines.
Like all dogs, Icelandic sheepdogs need to be given year-long heartworm prevention medication to prevent heartworms, a potentially fatal parasitic infection spread through mosquito bites. Puppies will be started on heartworm prevention medications no later than 8 weeks, and it comes in oral, topical, or injectable prescription medication. Your dog must be at least six months old to use an injectable heartworm preventative. Your veterinarian can help you choose which prescription is right for your Icelandic sheepdog.
Icelandic Sheepdog Health Issues
The average Icelandic sheepdog lifespan is 12 to 14 years. Icelandic Sheepdogs are generally very healthy dogs. Some health conditions to ask your vet about, though, include:
Icelandic sheepdogs can be prone to hip dysplasia, which occurs when the ball and socket of the hip joint don't fit together correctly. Misalignment of the hip joint causes pain, deterioration, and, over time, loss of joint function. Symptoms include:
- Lethargy or decreased activity
- Loss of thigh muscles
- A swaying or hopping gait
- Lameness in the hind legs
Let your veterinarian know if your Icelandic sheepdog shows signs of hip dysplasia.
Distichiasis is a condition where "extra" eyelashes grow from a gland that doesn't typically produce hairs. While some dogs with distichiasis are asymptomatic, some require medical treatment to relieve eye irritation.
- Eye redness
- Eye discharge
- Rubbing at eye
Cataracts occur when a lens in your Icelandic sheepdog's eyes becomes cloudy. Depending on the severity, your veterinarian may recommend surgery.
- Signs of vision loss, such as bumping into furniture or walls
- A hazy, white appearance to the eye
Icelandic Sheepdog: Special Considerations
Icelandic sheepdogs are social dogs. They're loving family dogs that prefer to be with their owners as much as possible. Icelandic sheepdogs may be unhappy if they're regularly left on their own for long periods.
Icelandic sheepdogs are vocal. As a herding breed, Icelandic sheepdog traits include barking. Icelandic sheepdogs are vigilant dogs that bark to bring something to their owner's attention. This feature can make them an excellent watchdog for a family — one that's all bark and no bite. The instinct to bark can be curbed, though, by training puppies when it's appropriate to bark using positive reinforcement-based training methods.
Icelandic sheepdogs will herd everything — including cars. Due to their herding instinct, Icelandic sheepdogs will chase cars and other moving objects if given the opportunity. They are not trustworthy off-leash and need to be contained in a fenced area.
Icelandic Sheepdog History
Icelandic sheepdogs are as old as the country of Iceland itself. Their ancestors were brought to Iceland by its original Nordic settlers for use as working dogs.
Icelandic sheepdogs became popular with aristocracy in the middle ages. They remained popular with the upper class for many years, even nabbing a mention in Shakespeare's "Henry VIII."
By the mid-1900s, Icelandic sheepdogs were at risk of extinction due to several pandemics affecting the breed in the early 1900s. In the 1950s, archeologist Mark Watson, though, exported a few breeding dogs to California in an attempt to rescue the breed. While Icelandic sheepdogs remain uncommon today, they're no longer in danger of extinction.