Visiting Iceland is a dream come true for many people, and that applies to me too. Last summer that dream became reality. It’s fascinating that nature speaks to everyone’s imagination.
In Iceland, there are not only scenery and flora, but also interesting fauna, both wild animals and domestic ones. 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 wavy, medium-long hair and a very smart expression. He can be compared to the Norwegian Buhund, but with long hair that comes in more colors. It is not a specific Spitz-type and not a specific Herding type, but 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, and 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 learns quickly.
I decided to combine my visit, seeing the magnificent scenery of this country and learning more about Iceland’s cynology, as in 2011 Iceland became a full member of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale. There was a summer dog show in Reykjavik on the last weekend of my stay, and this would give me the opportunity to focus on the native breed that you don’t see that much abroad, but that deserves much more attention.
Iceland is a land that can hardly be compared to any other country. It is vast, and the terrain can change in 10 meters from frozen ice to boiling sulfur and steaming geysers, from old black lava deserts to black sand on the beaches, and from deep ravines to 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 my hosts, Lara Birgisdóttir and Björn Ólafsson of Heimsenda Hundar Dog Kennel in Reykjavik are breeders of Australian Shepherds and Border Collies. They import top dogs from all over the world and regularly sell the offspring, 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. In Iceland, notwithstanding its vastness, people live in a much closer community. Everybody knows everybody, and no glacier stands in between. This makes breeding not so obvious. Getting known abroad is not so easy. That implies that breeders sell mostly to homes on the island. Fortunately with the modern communication facilities and cheap flights, it becomes somewhat easier to sell puppies to the continent.
For a long time, there has been an American airbase, and military personnel probably imported several dogs to Iceland, and the good connection with the Scandinavian countries has helped a lot too. But still, breeding and finding homes is not so obvious as we think they are 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 in keeping them. If someone takes 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 in nutrition, puppy training, ring training and all training we have abroad, but the difference is that people are so passionate to learn. They take it really seriously. 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 invite me to attend the classes. All the students are on time, and nobody comes in late. First there is a lesson in Icelandic. I cannot understand a word of it, but this allows me to better observe everything. The whole family is involved and concerned, mom and dad and the children. It is a social happening, and they visibly enjoy it. The children, too, can take the word, ask questions, etc. Due to the long winters, people probably are living in a much closer relation to each other here. The 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.
After 20 minutes, we move to the paddock and dog training starts. 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 am amused by the pupils as in five days there is one if the four big shows in Iceland. There is some stress, not because I am there, but much more for the upcoming show. They take it seriously and want 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 for them. It is hard to describe, but the difference is immense. It is not only one of the four occasions to beat your competitor and win a title. It is more about being part of it. Winning or losing is not that important. Participating is giving volume to the kennel club, to the show, to the sport. It is a social happening most of all.
The next day it is show training in the paddock, and I again enjoy watching. Suddenly Lara asks me to judge the handling and even has brought some rosettes to make it look more real. This is fun for me as I am not a judge and as it is only meant for training. Of course by experience, I know what to look for in show training. But the pupils take it very seriously, and I am forced to change my attitude and take it more seriously, like a general repetition of a play. When I hand over the rosettes to my winners, they a leap in the air as if they won a huge competition, and they congratulate each other warmheartedly.
I also pay a visit at the offices of the Icelandic Kennel Club. It is a nice place with a reception and some open offices where four people are working. Most visitors tend to jump in to have a chat as if it is their clubhouse.
On Friday, Lara and Björn drop me at the kennel of a breeder of Icelandic Sheepdogs. The dogs are part of the family here, and it is clear that they have changed their family’s lives and become the family hobby. The daughter is one of the top handlers in Iceland, and her boyfriend is involved in dogs as a handler too. After the photo shoot at the nearby river, we all go to the halls where the show is going to take place. The daughter and her boyfriend have already left. On arrival, I see that they are not going to work inside the halls to prepare for the show. No, on the park place in front of the halls, there is much activity. At first I thought there was some kind of club show going on, but after a while I understood that junior handlers share their experience with newcomers, teaching them how to show their dogs, giving advice on do’s and don’ts. It’s a final rehearsal before the show of next day.
It was a strange and a pleasant surprise, with so much friendship and understanding, no rivalry, no hatred, no envy. Everyone helps everyone to give the best possible performance next day at the show. This is the essence of showing that we see here: presenting your dog to a judge and appreciating his opinion and critique. This 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. Judges are invited to critique the quality of the dogs (read “dogs of the community”). Having good quality in dogs is the common interest. There is no need to defeat friends, and corruption has no reason here (as far as I feel).
I must admit this has created a shock to me and reminded me of my naïve start when my Great Dane won its first cup, a souvenir in fact, given to every “very good” dog. Who would be happy now with a “very good”? But here it has nothing to do with naiveté. It has to do with national pride, 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.
Back at Lara and Björn’s place, it is very hectic. Friends jump in to have their dogs prepared or to help groom the dogs. This is also part of the fun. The dogs are groomed and washed the day before the show, and everything needs to be prepared, including the show outfit of the handlers themselves. It is as if tomorrow it’s Christmas or Easter. Due to the quarantine rule, there is no opportunity to participate in shows other than those organized in Iceland. That is what it makes them all so special. We, on the continent, are spoiled, and don’t realize the luxury we have.
If ever you visit Iceland or stop over there, take a look at the FCI calendar and see if there is a show. Usually they are all in Reykjavik. If the Icelandic Sheepdog is your breed, there is no reason to not stay for a longer period. The people of Iceland are hospitable and communicating in English is no problem. They know they live in a fantastic country and don’t mind sharing it with their visitors.
Karl Donvil lives in Belgium, where he is a freelance photographer and reporter specializing in dogs. He founded the World Dog Press Association in 2001 and is the current CEO. He is a member of the editorial board of the FCI newsletter and covers shows throughout Europe, including Crufts and the World Dog Show.