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Icelandic Sheepdog

Oliver Jones

Icelandic Sheepdog_Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH_Shutterstock

This is a small to medium sized purebred Spitz dog from Iceland, and is in fact the only native breed of dog that Iceland has. It is also called the Iceland Dog, Icelandic Spitz, Friaar Dog, Iceland Spitz, Islandsk Spidshunde, Fiaarhundur and Islandsk Farehond. It was bred to guard, control and herd sheep flocks and to help round up other livestock. It also helped with pulling sleds and was (and still is) a loved family companion. They also do well in some shows and events including flyball, herding, obedience, utility and agility.

The Icelandic Sheepdog at A Glance
Name Icelandic Sheepdog
Other names Icelandic Spitz, Iceland Spitz, Islandsk Spidshunde, Islandsk Farehond, Friaar Dog, Fiaarhundur and Iceland Dog
Nicknames None
Origin Iceland
Average size Small to medium
Average weight 20 to 30 pounds
Average height 12 to 18 inches
Life span 12 to 15 years
Coat type Dense, double, medium or long, straight, thick, water-repellant
Hypoallergenic No
Color Black, brown, white, chocolate, cream, fawn, grey
Popularity Not very popular – ranked 145th by the AKC
Intelligence Quite intelligent – above average
Tolerance to heat Good – can handle some heat but nothing too hot or extreme
Tolerance to cold Excellent – can live even in harshly cold climates
Shedding High and seasonal – will have lots of hair around the home
Drooling Low – not a breed prone to slobber and drool
Obesity Average – can gain weight if overeats and is not exercised enough but not especially prone
Grooming/brushing Moderate – can become more involved during seasonal shedding
Barking Frequent – will need a command to control it
Exercise needs Quite active – will need plenty of daily exercise
Trainability Moderate – with experience, will be harder for those with none
Friendliness Good with socialization
Good first dog Low – needs to be with experienced owners
Good family pet Very good with socialization
Good with children Very good with socialization
Good with other dogs Good with socialization
Good with other pets Good to very good with socialization
Good with strangers Very good with socialization
Good apartment dog Good as long as gets enough exercise but best in home with a yard
Handles alone time well Low – can suffer from separation anxiety
Health issues Quite a healthy dog but some issues to be aware of include hip dysplasia, eye problems, luxating patella
Medical expenses $460 a year for basic health care and pet insurance
Food expenses $145 a year for a good quality food and dog treats
Miscellaneous expenses $545 a year for grooming, toys, miscellaneous items, basic training and license
Average annual expenses $1150 as a starting figure
Cost to purchase $1,000
Rescue organizations Several including the National Icelandic Sheepdog Rescue Alliance and the Icelandic Sheepdog Association of America
Biting Statistics None reported

The Icelandic Sheepdog’s Beginnings

The Icelandic Sheepdog’s ancestors are believed to have come to the island in the late 9th to 10th century, coming with the Vikings, Norwegian settlers. With them they brought livestock and dogs to take care of them. It is similar to the Norwegian Buhund, the Welsh Corgi and the Shetland Sheepdog. The Icelandic Sheepdog is considered to be one of the oldest breeds still around. There are dogs described in Sagas told over a thousand years ago that reference them and in literature they can be found mentioned in the 1500s. It was during this time that some were taken to England and they became a favorite of royalty and the nobility. In Henry V Shakespeare mentions them (act 2, scene 1): “ ‘Pish for thee, Iceland Dog! Thou prick-ear’d cur of Iceland.” In the 1700s the first illustrations can be found.

In Iceland the breed were used to protect sheep from birds of prey, particularly the lambs. They would also find and gather all the sheep in the Fall to bring home, that had scattered to graze in the summer. The terrain was quite harsh and difficult so the dogs were bred to handle that. It became essential to farmers for a long time in the bid to survive Iceland’s harsh climate and conditions. However in the 1800s there were several issues that lead to a huge decline in its numbers. There was a widespread tapeworm infection problem dogs caught off the sheep. It even spread to some people. Then in the late 1800s there was a distemper epidemic that killed almost 75% of the dog population. Farmers were forced to offer horse and even sheep to trade for one dog, as managing their flock without them was too hard. Then came a dog ownership tax and the breed was facing extinction.

New Lease on Life

With the work of fanciers in Iceland and England the breed was saved. A standard was drawn up in 1887 and the Icelandic Dog Breeder Association was eventually established in 1969 to help preserve and promote it. In recent years its numbers have slowly but steadily climbed once more and while they remain low it no longer faces extinction. In 2010 it was recognized by the AKC. It is not a common breed in the US but it has gained some popularity. It is ranked 145th. In Iceland it is still used today as both a companion and a working breed and as even been depicted on Icelandic stamps.

The Dog You See Today

The Icelandic Sheepdog is a small to medium sized dog weighing 20 to 30 pounds and standing 12 to 18 inches tall. It has a fluffy tail that is set high and curls tight over its back. It is a rectangular shaped dog with a muscular body. It has a deep and long chest and a muscular fairly long neck that is arched. Its back is level and it has straight front legs, feet that are arched and oval shaped and back legs usually with dewclaws, sometimes even double dew claws. Its coat can be two types, long haired or short haired, it is double, thick, water-repellant, dense and straight or a little wavy. Common colors are brown, black, cream, white, chocolate, grey and fawn. It is shorter around the front of the legs, face, top of the hear and its ears. It is longer around the back of the thighs, neck and chest.

The head of the Icelandic Sheepdog is slightly longer than its muzzle. They have almond shaped eyes that are dark rimmed, medium sized and brown. The ears are medium, erect and pointed and can rotate to almost any direction. It has a large nose that is dark brown or black and black lips. There is often black hair making a facial mask and some white somewhere on the face or muzzle too.

The Inner Icelandic Sheepdog


This is a dog that is alert and makes a great watchdog. They come from a history of barking to alert its owners of trouble after all. It does have strong protective instincts and is a fearless dog so will act to defend you and the home. It is not a dog best suited to new owners though, it is best for those with some experience. In the right home it is an affectionate and cheerful dog, playful, energetic and friendly too. It does bark frequently though so be prepared to train it to stop on command.

It is a spunky, confident and outgoing dog but not too pushy and should not be aggressive. It is somewhat sensitive and quite inquisitive and unafraid. It is also a hard working dog and it needs a certain amount of attention and companionship. It will not be happy being left alone for long periods and can suffer from separation anxiety. It will also tend to follow you around the home to be closer to you. It gets along well with other people even strangers, it is not wary around them at all. It is intelligent and can be independent. When indoors its is calmer and is happy to relax and chill with their owner though males tend to be more physically affectionate than females.

Living with an Icelandic Sheepdog

What will training look like?

Icelandic Sheepdogs are moderately easy to train so results will come but it will be a gradual process. It is an intelligent and willing breed and likes to please its owner and that helps things move along. However it does bore easily so keep the training short, interesting and varied. Use a positive approach, being sure to still be firm and confident so it knows you are the boss. Use treats, praise and encouragement to get it motivated and avoid being overly repetitive, rotating activities to keep them happy and engaged. Be consistent and patient too and remember to include a command to stop it barking. As important as basic training is, early socialization is also something to get started on as soon as the puppy is home. Introduce it to different places, sounds, situations, people and animals. Teach it appropriate responses and let it get used to these things. As it grows it will be a happier and more confident dog that can be trusted.

How active is the Icelandic Sheepdog?

This is a very active breed, it is used to working long days and needs to be kept physically and mental stimulated otherwise it will become bored, restless, hyperactive and destructive. It also barks more and is harder to control. Only people who are active and committed to being so should consider this active, energetic and athletic dog. Keep in mind it does not handle very hot weather well so take out it out when it is cooler, and make sure it has shade, water and can rest. The Icelandic Sheepdog if not being kept as a working dog would be happy to join you for hikes, long walks, jogging, having a romp through some woods, going to a dog park to play doggy games, run free off leash safely and socialize. Take it out at least a couple of times a day for some vigorous exercise, a casual slow walk around the block is not enough for it.

Caring for the Icelandic Sheepdog

Grooming needs

They have moderate to high grooming needs, it needs brushing regularly, daily when seasonally shedding, and it needs an occasional trip to a professional groomer. You can expect to see a fair bit of hair around the home, and that regular combing and brushing will lessen it. It also keeps away the mats and tangles that can occur otherwise. Only bathe when it really needs one to prevent drying out its skin, as doing it too often or using inappropriate shampoos can damage its natural oils.

It will also need its teeth brushed two to three times a week at least. You can have your vet show you how, and start it early when the dog is young so it gets used to these things. Its nails may need trimming if they get too long and are not naturally worn down with their physical activity. Use proper dog nail clippers and have someone show you how for this too as if you cut too low you can hurt the dog and cause bleeding. Dog nails actually have blood vessels and nerves in them that should be avoided. If you are not sure about doing these things yourself have the vet or groomer take care of it. Its ears should be checked once a week for signs of infection such as scratching at them, swelling or redness, wax build up. They should also be cleaned using a dog ear cleanser and cotton ball or a damp cloth. Do not insert anything into the ear though.

Feeding Time

A dog of this size is likely going to need around ¾ to 1 1/2 cups of a good quality dry dog food a day, split into two meals. How much can vary from one Icelandic Sheepdog to another depending on their size, metabolism, level of activity, age and health.

How is the Icelandic Sheepdog with children and other animals?

Icelandic Sheepdogs are known to be very friendly, happy, playful and affectionate dogs and that includes around children too. They make a great play mate and children can go out and play ball, or explore together and burn off some energy together, both child and dog! A lot of the Icelandic dogs too are gentle and patient, which is good when around children, especially the younger ones. It is still a good idea to supervise younger children just to make sure they do not pull at or hurt the dog, and make sure you teach children how to treat dogs and play with them nicely. This is not a dog with a high prey drive, it was used to guard and protect sheep not to hunt with. This means usually it is fine with other pets and is not likely to try to hurt them. It may bark a lot at birds, because that was its job originally. It tends to love other dogs and enjoys having opportunities to socialize with them.

What Might Go Wrong?

Health Concerns

With a life span of 12 to 15 years you should have a good number of years to enjoy with this breed. There are some health problems to look out for but not many. They include Hip dysplasia, cryptorchidism, luxating patella and eye problems.

Biting Statistics

In reports of dogs attacking people and causing bodily harm in the US and Canada over the last 35 years there is no mention of the Icelandic Sheepdog. This is really a friendly and happy dog so it is certainly not a dog to be afraid of or to fear that it will attack people each time you take it out! However all dog owners should understand and accept that all dogs, regardless of training, temperament, breed, size are capable of attacking a person. There are situations that might trigger it, or a dog can have a bad day. It is true that some are more aggressive or likely to react aggressively. It is also true that there are things a responsible owner can do to lower the chances. Make sure it gets the level of activity and mental challenge it needs, give it the companionship and attention it needs, make sure it has good socialization and basic training.

Your Pup’s Price Tag

An Icelandic Sheepdog puppy is a rare thing so prices are high, and you can expect to be put on a waiting list when dealing with trustworthy breeders. A pet quality dog from a good breeder would be about $1000, a top breeder of show dogs is likely to charge double or even more. It can be tempting to turn to other sources when you get put on a waiting list, but resist. Do not help fund such places as puppy mills, pet stores and ignorant or worse backyard breeders. Chances of finding one in a shelter may be small, though perhaps there might be a mix you fall in love with.

When you have your puppy you will need to get some items for it such as a crate, carrier, bowls, collar and leash and such. These will cost around $200. It is also important you take it to a vet straight away. It will need a physical exam, shots, deworming, micro chipping, blood tests and spaying or neutering. This will cost about $270.

Then there are the ongoing costs to owning a dog. Basic health care like flea and tick prevention, check ups, shots and pet insurance is going to be around $460 a year. For a good quality dry dog food and dog treats you can look to pay $145 a year. For other miscellaneous costs like basic training, grooming, license, toys and miscellaneous items expect to pay about $545 a year. This gives an annual starting figure of $1150.


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The Icelandic Sheepdog is a great family companion as well as being a great working dog. It is very outgoing, cheerful, full of a zest for life, greeting everyone with joy. It does shed a fair bit though and will need proper regular brushing. It is also active so needs committed active owners and it is very vocal, so not a dog to have if you live in an apartment or have close neighbors who are less than understanding. Also be prepared to have to search for a decent breeder and to have to be put on a waiting list.

Featured Image Credit: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH, Shutterstock

Oliver Jones

Oliver (Ollie) Jones - A zoologist and freelance writer living in South Australia with his partner Alex, their dog Pepper, and their cat Steve (who declined to be pictured). Ollie, originally from the USA, holds his master's degree in wildlife biology and moved to Australia to pursue his career and passion but has found a new love for working online and writing about animals of all types.