Is the Icelandic sheepdog a working dog?

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17.09.2023Evelyn Ýr

I was wondering how much people use the Icelandic sheepdog as a working dog. I posted the question on the Icelandic sheepdog department's Facebook page the other day and received a tremendous response in a short time.

It appears that the dog is still used around sheep. They actively participate in sheep gathering in the autumn, saving people and horses many steps in the Icelandic highland pastures. They can be sent a long distance away or kept barking by one's side. The Icelandic sheepdog is a herding dog, keeping sheep away from houses, pastures and woodland within a certain radius and thus being invaluable to many.

The dog is also used around horses. Some dogs fetch horses from the pasture and drive them to their owners.

Stories were told of dogs hunting mice just like cats, which is well-received in rural areas.

There was a discussion about the working nature of the Icelandic sheepdog, which is very different from the nature of the Border Collie (BC). While BC dogs herd sheep by running around them and are usually silent, the Icelandic sheepdog barks while working. This working nature suited (and still suits) Icelandic conditions and landscape. Most owners of an Icelandic sheepdog in the city probably want it to bark as little as possible, which leads to a certain tension between the dog's thousand-year-old nature and modern life expectations. But no one wants a dog that barks excessively, which everyone agrees on. Breeders have an undeniable responsibility when choosing dogs for breeding.

Arnþrúður Heimisdóttir, who has bred Icelandic sheepdogs since 1998 under the name Fljóta-kennel, provided an informative contribution on her theories regarding the history and breeding of Icelandic dogs over the centuries. I was given permission to publish her segment here:


Why did Icelanders have dogs:

1. To comfort little children, preventing them from becoming paralyzed with fear and loneliness, children who were expected to be shepherds day and night, terrified by tales of trolls and ghosts. To be their friends (since they might be the best dogs in the world to instill trust and courage in people, being friendly and brave).

2. To drive sheep out of pastures, acting as a virtual fence since people built their farms right in the middle of the best pastures. So the dogs stayed home at the farm and drove away animals all day. I heard in a radio show recently about a foreign traveler's account from the 1800s describing how every farmer had about 5 dogs that chased out roaming animals and horses (since there were no fences back then). The history of Icelandic agriculture tells us that there was immense pressure after the settlement to fence in, using stone walls, to separate grazing lands and pastures. All men were legally obligated to work on this for one month each year. Then around 1200, this was removed from the law as it was too much work. My theory is that people started breeding these indigenous dogs that drove out of pastures, as most/all stone walls soon became unusable.

3. For gathering and herding in autumn, also during winter time when farmers moved livestock from shelter to winter pasture in often snow and harsh weather conditions. They also helped children/shepherds drive the flock out for grazing and back home. I doubt they've ever herded sheep like Border Collies. At least I've never noticed any Icelandic sheep dog doing it today, but perhaps you can point to other examples.

4. To help people find their way home in snowstorms, both travelers who unexpectedly got caught in a snowstorm, and winter shepherds who faced the same with their sheep.

5. To help people find livestock buried in snow after snowstorms.


I thank everyone who participated in the discussion, which was both enlightening and necessary. We must never forget what the dog was used for throughout history, which shaped the dog's nature we know today.

I personally want to see more Icelandic sheepdogs in the country's rural areas. As the national dog of Iceland, it should be a pride on many if not all farms all around the countryside.
Being a farm dog does not exclude it from being a show dog. There are examples of Icelandic sheepdogs that have received champion points and champion titles at HRFÍ shows and also perform very well in herding and driving livestock.

Let's be proud of this friendly and diligent national dog and work against prejudices that it's just a useless barker. Show responsibility in breeding and respect the dog's nature. Train it well and let it work according to its nature if the opportunity arises!



Lýtingsstaðir, 561 Varmahlíð.
Phone: +354 893 3817
[email protected]



Lýtingsstaðir, 561 Varmahlíð.
Phone: +354 893 3817
[email protected]