DIGITAL ISSUES

Menu toggle icon.
Menu toggle icon.

Iceland – Where Cynology is as Pure as Nature Itself

Steam is coming out of the ground in Iceland.

 

Iceland – Where Cynology is as Pure as Nature Itself

For many people, visiting Iceland is a dream come true—and this applied to me too. Last summer that dream became reality.

Iceland’s fascinating nature speaks to everyone’s imagination. There’s not only scenery and flora, there’s interesting fauna too. And not only wild animals, there’s also domestic animals. The Icelandic horses, for example, are world-famous and most elegant. You see them everywhere as if every inhabitant has a whole bunch of them. There is a specific way to ride them and this sport is extremely popular. Less known is the one and only recognized dog breed, the Icelandic Sheepdog. It is a nice and lovely dog of medium size, with medium to long hair and a very smart expression.

He can be compared to the Norwegian Buhund but with longer hair and he comes in more colors. He is not a specific spitz type and not a specific herding type; he looks more like an all-around companion, smart and capable of fulfilling 1,000 tasks with ease, from herding sheep and horses, guarding the farm and protecting the family, killing rats, and accompanying fisherman as well as hunters. He is swift and alert. I suppose he can be noisy if not trained correctly, but on the other hand, I have the impression that he doesn’t need much training as he is very smart and a fast learner.

Icelandic Sheepdog
Photo by Karl Donvil

Since 2011, Iceland became a full member of the FCI and there was a summer dog show in Reykjavik on the last weekend of my stay. This gave me the opportunity to focus on the native breed that you don’t see that much abroad but one which deserves much more attention. So, I decided to combine my visit, not only to see the magnificent scenery of this country but also to learn more about Iceland’s cynology.

Iceland is a land that can hardly be compared to any other country. It is vast and the soil can change in 10 meters from frozen ice to boiling sulfur, and from steaming geysers to old black lava deserts, black sand on the beaches, and deep ravines and high cliffs. This variety asks for alertness. Dogs need to be clever, fast, enduring, and resistant to the extreme climate. No wonder herding breeds are very popular and no wonder why my hosts, Lara and Björn, are breeders of Aussies and Border Collies. They import top dogs from all over the world and sell the offspring regularly, not only to locals but overseas as well. Dogs have a central place in their lives and I really think it is in a different way.

Living on an island cannot be compared to living on the continent and being able to travel thousands of miles with a car from show to show and country to country. Due to Iceland’s vastness and its long winters, people are probably living in a much closer relation to each other, and social life is much more important and a way to survive the hostile environment and break the isolation. I can hardly imagine this in Belgium. In Iceland, everybody knows everybody and no glacier stands in between. This makes breeding not so obvious. Getting known abroad is not so easy, let alone breeding. This implies that breeders sell mostly to homes on the island. Fortunately, with the modern communication facilities and cheap flights, it has become somewhat easier to sell puppies to the continent.

Icelandic Sheepdog
Photo by Karl Donvil

For a long time there has been an American Airbase, and they’ve probably imported several dogs to Iceland. And the good connections with the Scandinavian countries has helped a lot too. But still, breeding and finding homes is not as obvious as we think here on the continent. (Keeping in mind that Iceland has only 328,000 inhabitants.) But Icelanders love pets and enjoy their company. There is enough space and no problem to keep them. If someone takes in a dog, they tend to go to a dog school as if it is the most normal thing in the world. It is standard procedure. There are courses on nutrition, there is puppy training, ring training, any training we have abroad, but the difference is that people are so passionate to learn. They take it really seriously.

Icelandic Sheepdog
Photo by Karl Donvil

There are several dog schools in and around the capital of Reykjavik where 80 percent of the people live. Lara and Björn run one of them in a rented horse paddock and invited me to attend the classes. All students were on time and nobody came late. First, there’s a lesson in Icelandic. I could not understand a word of it, but that allowed me to better observe everything. The whole family was involved and concerned, mom, dad, and the children. It was a social happening and they visibly enjoyed it. The children too could take it all in, ask questions, etc.

Icelandic Sheepdog
Photo by Karl Donvil

After 20 minutes, we moved to the paddock and the dog training started. Björn is a professional dog trainer and has been trained in the United Kingdom. Lara is a trainer too and takes over regularly from Björn. I was amused by the pupils, as in five days there was going to be one of the four big shows in Iceland. There was some stress, not because I was there but much more for the upcoming show. They took it seriously and wanted to present their dogs correctly.

There is no way to visit a show every weekend like we can do on the continent. No wonder a show is extremely important to them. It is hard to describe, but the difference is immense. A show is not only one of the occasions to beat your competitor and win a title, it is much more a way of being part of it. Winning or losing is not that important. Participating is, giving volume to the Kennel Club, to the show, and to the sport. It is a social happening in the first place.

The next day, it was show training in the paddock and I enjoyed watching again. Lara suddenly asked me to judge the handling and she even brought some rosettes to make it look more real. Fun for me as I am not a judge, and it was only meant for training. Of course, by experience, I knew what to look at in show training. The pupils took it very seriously and I was forced to change my attitude and take it more seriously too, like a general repetition of a play. When I handed over the rosettes to my winners, they leapt in the air as if they’d won a huge competition and they congratulated each other warm-heartedly.

I also paid a visit to the offices of the Icelandic Kennel Club. It is a nice place with a reception area and some open offices where four people were working. Most visitors tended to jump in to have a chat as if it’s their own clubhouse.

Icelandic Sheepdog
Photo by Karl Donvil

On Friday, Lara and Björn dropped me off at a breeder of Icelandic Sheepdogs whose dogs are part of the family. It was clear that the dogs had changed their family’s life and became the family hobby. The daughter is one of the top handlers in Iceland and her boyfriend is involved in dogs and is a handler too. After the photo shoot at the nearby river, we all went to the halls where the show was going to take place. The daughter and her boyfriend had already left. On arrival, I saw that they were not going to work inside the halls to prepare the show. No, instead, on the park place in front of the halls there was much activity.

At first, I thought there was some kind of club show going on, but after a while I understood that Junior Handlers were sharing their experience with newcomers, teaching them how to show their dogs, giving advice on the dos and don’ts. It was a final rehearsal before the show the next day. It was a strange and pleasant surprise, with so much friendship and understanding—no rivalry, no hatred, no envy… everyone helping everyone to give the best possible performance the next day at the show. This is the essence of showing in Iceland; presenting your dog to a judge and appreciating his opinion and critique. It has nothing to do with defeating opponents, as all the opponents are friends. Of course, winning is part of the game, but the joy of the victories is shared by all.

In Iceland, judges are invited to critique the quality of the dogs (read: “dogs of the community”). Having good quality in dogs is a common interest. There’s no need to defeat friends, and corruption has no reason here (as far as I could tell). I must admit that this created a shock to me and reminded me of my naive start when my Great Dane won its first cup, a souvenir, in fact, given to every “very good.”

Who would be happy now with a “very good?” The critique, however, has nothing to do with naiveté. It has to do with national pride and with the Icelandic Kennel Club, which every self-respecting local dog fancier stands behind. They invite judges from abroad to qualify the Kennel Club and the national level of breeding as a whole. They want to show the best they have in the country and want to find out if their dogs can compete with the dogs on the continent.

Icelandic Sheepdog
Photo by Karl Donvil

At Lara and Björn’s place it was very hectic. Friends jumped in to have their dogs prepared or to help with grooming the dogs. This was also part of the fun. The dogs were groomed and washed the day before the show, and everything needed to be prepared, including the show outfits of the handlers themselves. It was as if tomorrow was Christmas or Easter. Due to the quarantine rule, there is no opportunity to participate in shows other than those organized in Iceland. This is what makes dog shows so special here. We, on the continent, are spoiled and don’t realize the luxury we have. We can compete every weekend in up to two shows.

The halls were very nice, with four big rings and bleachers for the public on one side. There were a few trade stands in the hallway and a grooming area. There was a lot of public interest, although there were no demonstrations or other competitions, like Flyball or Agility. Five judges were invited: Mrs. Van Brempt and Mr. Jos De Cuyper from Belgium; Mr. Carlos Fernandes-Renau from Spain; Mr. Per Iversen from Norway; and Mrs. Kornelija Butrimova from Lithuania. Of course, all judges must be able to judge several breeds as there is no budget to invite a judge for one or a few breeds.

Icelandic Sheepdog
Photo by Karl Donvil

The level of showing was very high and the quality of the dogs was surprisingly high. I was also impressed by the variety of breeds. Popular breeds are, of course, the Border Collie and its nephew, the Australian Shepherd. But some breeds were really popular, like the Labrador Retriever with 40 specimens, the Golden Retriever with 22, the German Shepherd Dog with 34, and the American Cocker Spaniel with 27. I was very surprised to find no fewer than 36 Papillons, which was more than the 23 Chihuahuas, 39 Cavaliers, and 16 Shih Tzus; breeds which are popular everywhere. The Schnauzers totaled 59, all varieties and colors included, and that is rather unusual too compared to the total number of entries.

The best scoring breed was the Siberian Husky. Mr. Decuyper had more Siberians here than he had two weeks later at the European Dog Show in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands. I focused on the national breed, as one rarely has an occasion to find 41 specimens together for comparison. Mrs. Van Brempt was asked to judge them and she did very well, as I was sitting next to the former Chairman of the Icelandic Sheepdog Club and I can assure you that he was pretty skeptical. At the end of the judging, I asked him if the judge had made good choices. He assured me that he would have placed almost the very same dogs.

Icelandic Sheepdog
Photos by Karl Donvil

The Icelandic Sheepdogs are lovely dogs and deserve to be more popular. They are very familiar to the Norwegian Buhund and the Lundehund. Some also have six toes, and they must have double dewclaws on the hind legs. It is a very playful and alert breed, and I’m sure it must be very versatile and capable of performing well in many disciplines. The breed comes in several colors and I was pleased that there were so many, which proves the Icelanders are very proud of their national breed, the only native breed they have.

When the main ring started, all rings were united into two; a prejudging ring and the main ring. There was little difference to what we are used to seeing at the rest of the European shows. Here too we saw the Puppy Class and Junior Class, Couple Class, and the Breeders Group. I could give you some names of the winning dogs, but unfortunately, I suppose they will not be known outside Iceland, although some breeders do export dogs and are successful. And why not? Icelanders import good dogs from all over the world, and just as any breeder on the continent they combine good bloodlines and now and then these result in very nice offspring.

Unfortunately for the people of Iceland, it is not easy to build a reputation. The shows are rather small, breeders and handlers cannot participate at shows in other countries with their dogs, and very few outsiders come over to Iceland to visit the shows. But, some are really ambitious. Iceland has very good handlers, and cynology is taken very seriously. All I can say is, if you ever visit Iceland or make a stopover on your way to the States, or from the States, and you are interested in dog shows, take a look at the calendar of the FCI (www.fci.be) and see if there is a show. Usually they are all in Reykjavik. Or visit the Icelandic Kennel Club and find out about your favorite breed.

And if the Icelandic Sheepdog is your breed, there is no reason to not stay for a longer period. The people of Iceland are nice and hospitable, and communicating in English is no problem. They know they live in a fantastic country and don’t mind sharing it with visitors.