Icelandic Sheepdog

AKC Herding Group


Photo copyright © All rights reserved.

Photo copyright © All rights reserved.

The Icelandic Sheepdog might be one of the oldest breeds in the world. Though the Vikings likely brought the breed to Iceland when they colonized it in the 870s, bones of a dog similar to the Icelandic Sheepdog have been found in Danish and Swedish graves dating from around 8,000 BC. In the 1600s, Icelandic Sheepdogs were exported to Great Britain, where they were prized both for their working ability and as family pets.

The population of the breed rose and fell over the centuries in Iceland, where these dogs guarded and herded stock, and rounded up animals that had become lost in snowdrifts. In 1869, a law was enacted taxing all dogs except a limited number on farms, because they were an intermediate host for a type of tapeworm that was infecting humans and sheep. By the 1880s the number of dogs in Iceland had dropped by more than half, but, according to the account of a Dr. Krabbe, who visited that country in the 1880s, every farm still had at least two to five dogs and many had more than that.

By 1960, due to the combination of governmental policies and the ravages of distemper and other diseases, the Icelandic Sheepdog was on the verge of extinction, even though in that same year, an Icelandic Sheepdog made it into the Best in Show round of the Crufts Dog Show in England.

To the world’s good fortune, an English lord named Mark Watson visited Iceland repeatedly between 1930 and 1970. During this time, Lord Watson noticed the decline and possible imminent extinction of the Icelandic Sheepdog, took a strong interest in the breed, acquired some of the best representatives, and took them to California for breeding. The Icelandic government, inspired by Watson’s efforts, approached Sigríður Pétursdóttir to work in conjunction with Lord Watson from her kennel in Iceland. Although Lord Watson eventually discontinued his efforts, Sigríður went on to breed Icelandic Sheepdogs for many more years. Today the breed is enjoyed all over Europe and the United States because of Sigríður and Watson’s efforts to save the breed from extinction. Their dogs can be seen in every Icelandic Sheepdog pedigree today. By 1969, enough interest in the Icelandic Sheepdog had been generated to form the Icelandic Kennel Club, and the breed has been a member of the AKC Herding Group since 2010.

The gentle, friendly, and highly intelligent Icelandic Sheepdog is an excellent family companion. He also excels at performance events such as herding, tracking, agility, rally, and obedience.


The Icelandic Sheepdog is a Spitz breed, with the typical Spitz erect triangular ears, dense double coat, and bushy tail curled over the back. This is a smallish or medium-sized, rectangular dog with a gentle, confident, and friendly demeanor. The sexes look distinctly different.

The head is triangular, whether it’s viewed from the side or from above, with the skull a bit longer than the muzzle. The almond-shaped eyes have black or brown rims, and the nose and lips are black or brown as well.

The back is strong and level and the chest extends to the elbow. When looking at the dog from the front or directly behind, the legs should be straight and parallel. The feet are somewhat oval, with arched, tight toes. Dewclaws are required on both front and hind legs. They might be double.

The coat comes in two lengths, medium haired and long haired. In both variants, the outer coat can be straight or slightly wavy. Males tend to have more coat and fuller neck ruffs than the females, especially on longer-haired dogs. The legs have smooth hair on the front and feathers on the back.

Icelandic Sheepdogs generally have one predominant color with white markings. The predominant color can be tan, brown, gray, or black. The white markings tend to be irregular and can include a white face, blaze, collar, paw markings, or tail tip. Tan and gray dogs often have a black mask. A black saddle is not permitted on tan dogs. Additional color specifications can be found in the breed standard.

Key Facts

  • Height:  Approx. 18 in. (male); 16 1/2 in. (female)
  • Size:  Medium
  • Weight:  In proportion to height
  • Availability:  Difficult to find
  • Talents:  Watchdog, tracking, herding, search and rescue, agility, obedience, and performing tricks


One of the few downsides to owning an Icelandic Sheepdog is that they love to bark. For centuries, this breed has driven stock by barking instead of gathering them by staring at them like the Border Collie. Icelandic Sheepdogs also protected newborn lambs from attacks by birds of prey by barking, so this behavior is in the Icelandic Sheepdog’s blood. Owners will find that the dogs will reliably begin a welcome chorus whenever anyone comes to the house. They may also run back and forth barking in the yard whenever a bird flies overhead. Some puppies are more vocal than others, and in multidog households, one bark can quickly become contagious. Wise owners train their Icelandic Sheepdogs when it’s appropriate and not appropriate to bark from an early age. With consistent training, this trait can be managed. Though they will certainly bark the alarm in their own territory, Icelandic Sheepdogs are generally quiet when out in the world at large. This breed also can be difficult to contain. They like to dig, climb, and jump. Owners might need to pour concrete along the bottom of their fences and gates to prevent escapes. It also might help to create a special digging area in the yard, where the Icelandic Sheepdog can “do his thing.” Otherwise the dog might dig under trees and bushes to create cool areas in which to lie. According to some owners, Icelandic Sheepdogs do not smell even when wet, and many Icelandic Sheepdogs love the water. Icelandic Sheepdogs tend to be good travelers.


The Icelandic Sheepdog is a highly intelligent breed and needs a job to do. He is easily trainable, but has a soft personality, so these dogs cannot tolerate rough or harsh treatment. The breed can be prone to separation anxiety, and needs a lot of companionship. If owners must be gone extensively, the breed club recommends leaving the dog with a companion animal.

These dogs are gentle and affectionate and love children. If children harass them, they will just remove themselves from the scene rather than show any kind of aggression. The properly socialized Icelandic Sheepdog is easygoing, and will generally get along well with strangers, other dogs, and pets.


  • Children:  Good with children
  • Friendliness:  Loves everyone
  • Trainability:  Very easy to train
  • Independence:  Needs people a lot
  • Dominance:  Moderate
  • Other Pets:  Generally good with other pets
  • Combativeness:  Not generally dog-aggressive
  • Noise:  Likes to bark
  • Indoors:  Moderately active indoors
  • Owner:  Good for novice owners


  • Grooming:  A little grooming needed (Medium-haired); regular grooming needed (Longhaired)
  • Trimming and Stripping:  No trimming or stripping needed
  • Coat:  Medium coat (Medium-haired); medium-long coat (Longhaired)
  • Shedding:  Seasonally heavy shedder
  • Exercise:  Moderate exercise needed
  • Jogging:  A good jogging companion
  • Apartments:  Not recommended for apartments
  • Outdoor Space:  Best with at least an average-sized yard
  • Climate:  Prefers cool climates
  • Longevity:  Moderately long lived (12 to 15 years)

Useful Links

AKC® Icelandic Sheepdog Breed Standard

Icelandic Sheepdog Breed Club

Search for a Breeder

Rescue Organizations

Books about the Icelandic Sheepdog

Icelandic Sheepdog Gifts