Iceland - where cynology is as pure as nature itself
But there’s not only scenery and flora, but also interesting fauna, not only wild animals but 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 recognised dog breed, the Icelandic Sheepdog. It is a lovely dog of medium size, with wavy medium to long hair and a very smart expression. He can be compared to the Nordic Buhund but with long hair and it comes in more colors.
It is not a specific Spitz-type and not a specific Herding type, but he looks more like an allround 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 fast learning..
I decided to combine my visit, not only to see the magnificent scenery of this country, but also to learn more about Icelands Cynology, as since 2011 Iceland became a full member of the FCI. There was a summer dogshow 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 soil can change in 10 meters from frozen ice to boiling sulfur and steaming geisirs, from old black lava deserts, over black sand on the beaches to 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 my hosts, Lara and Björn are breeders of Aussies and Border Collies. They import top dogs from all over the world and sell regularly 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, let stand breeding. 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 probably they 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 so obvious than 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 a dog, they tend to go to a dogschool as if it is the most normal thing in the world. It is standard procedure. There are courses in 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 serious. There are several dog schools in and around the capital of Reykjavik where 80% of the people live. Lara and Bjorn run one of them in a rented horse-paddock and invited me to attend the classes.
All students are on time and nobody comes 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, mum and dad and the children. It is a social happening and they visibly enjoy it. The children too can take part, ask questions etc. Due to the long winters people probably are living in a much closer relationship 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. After 20 minutes we move to the paddock and dog training starts.
Bjorn is a professional dog trainer and has been trained in the United Kingdom. Lara is a trainer too and takes over regularly from Bjorn. I am amused by the pupils, as in five days there is one of 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 serious and want to present their dog 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 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, to the sport. It is a social happening in the first place.
The next day it is show training in the paddock and I enjoy again watching. Suddenly Lara asks me to judge the handling and has even brought some rosettes to make it look more real. Fun for me as I am not a judge and as this is only meant for training. Of course by experience I know what to look at in show training. But the pupils take it very serious 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 leapt in the air as if they had won a huge competition and they congratulate each other warm heartedly.
I also paid 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 call in to have a chat as if it is their clubhouse.
On Friday Lara and Bjorn drop me at a breeder of Icelandic Sheepdogs. The dogs are part of the family here and it is clear that the dogs have changed their family life and become the family hobby. The daughter is one of the top handlers in Iceland and her boyfriend is involved in dogs and 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 already left. On arrival I see that they are not going to work inside the halls to prepare 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 clubshow 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 the next day.
Strange and a pleasant surprise, 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 what we see here: presenting your dog to a judge and appreciate 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 are shared by all. Judges are invited to critique the quality of the dogs (read “dogs of the community”). Having good quality in dogs is common interest. There is no need to defeat friends and corruption has no reason here (as far as I can tell). I must admit this has shock me and reminded me on 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”? But here it has nothing to do with naivety, this 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.
At Lara and Bjorn’s place it is very hectic. Friends jump in to have their dogs prepared or to help grooming the dogs. This is also part of the fun. The dogs are groomed and washed the day before the show, everything needs to be prepared, including the show outfit of the handlers themselves. It is like if tomorrow it’s Christmas. Due to the quarantine rule, there is no opportunity to participate in shows other than those organised in Iceland. That is why it makes them all so special. We, on the continent, are spoiled and don’t realise the luxury we have. We can compete every weekend in up to two shows.
The halls are very nice with four big rings and stairs for the public on one side.
There are a few trade stands in the hallway and a grooming area. There is a lot of public interest is, although there are no demonstrations or other competitions like Flyball or Agility. Five Judges were invited, Mrs Van Brempt and Mr Decuyper from Belgium, Mr Carlos Fernandes-Renau from Spain, Mr Per Iversen from Norway, 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. The level of showing is very high and the quality of the dogs is 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 are really popular like the Labrador with 40 specimen, Golden Retriever with 22, German Shepherd with 34 specimens and the American Cocker with 27. I was very surprised to find no less than 36 Papillons, more than the 23 Chihuahuas and the 39 Cavaliers and the 16 Shih Tzus, breeds that are popular everywhere. The Schnauzers totalled 59, all varieties and colours included and that is rather unusual too compared to the total number of entries.
The best scoring breed was the Siberian Husky. Mr Jos Decuyper had more Siberian Huskies here than he had two weeks later at the European Dog Show in Leeuwarden. I focused on the national breed as you don’t find too many occasions were there are 41 specimens together and to compare. Mrs Van Brempt was asked to judge them and she did very well as I had been sitting next to the former chairman of the Icelandic Sheepdog Club and I can assure you he was pretty sceptical. At the end of the judging I asked him if the judge made a good choice. He assured me that he would have placed almost the very same dogs. The Icelandic Sheepdogs are lovely dogs and deserve to be more popular. They are very similar to the Norsk Buhund and the Lundehund.
Some have also six toes, and they must have double claws on the hind legs. It is a very playful and alert breed and I’m sure he must be very versatile and capable to perform well in many disciplines. The breed comes in several colours and I was pleased that there were so many here, which proves the Icelanders are very proud of their national breed, the only native breed they have.
When the main ring starts all rings are split into two, a pre-judging ring and the main ring. There is little difference to what we are used to seeing in the rest of the European shows. Here too we see Puppy Class and Junior Class, Couple Class and 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 export dogs and who 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 this results now and then in very nice offspring.
Unfortunately for the people of Iceland it is not easy to build up a reputation. The shows are rather small, breeders and handlers cannot participate on shows in other countries with their dogs and very few outsiders come over to Iceland to visit shows. But, some are really ambitious, Iceland has very good handlers and Cynology is taken very serious. All I can say is, if ever you 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 this with their visitors.
Report & Photos
By KARL DONVIL