Iceland 2008; Understanding ISIC, Breeding Matters

Originally published on the ISAA Website & Newsletter

ISAA President Attends ISIC Conference

by Donna R. McDermott, MPPA

On April 3, 2008, I traveled to Iceland to attend a meeting with the presidents of the Icelandic Sheepdog International Cooperation (ISIC) member clubs. Iceland, Denmark, Sweden,  Norway and the Netherlands were in attendance.

The meeting was held in Geysir. I was greeted first by the president of the Netherland’s club, Vereniging de Ijslandse Hond in Nederland, Árni Th. Eymundsson. Árni is a charming and  very funny man who immediately expressed how excited the ISIC membership was about ourdecision to attend the meeting. I next met Guðrún R. Guðjohnsen, the person responsible for the ISIC. If you look back in your Icelandic Sheepdog’s (ISD) pedigree, you may find a dog from Íslands Garða (Iceland’s Garden) Kennel. Guðrún is considered one of three experts in the world on the ISD. It was a tremendous honor to meet her.

As more ISIC members arrived, the group spoke many languages to one another and I learned that although different, they each understand the Nordic tongue. Following introductions, we enjoyed dinner. Most who were present have known one another for many years. The cumulative experience related to knowledge of the breed (or the “race” as some called the Iceland Dog) was astounding. There were hundreds of years of experience, knowledge, struggle, joy and love for the Icelandic Sheepdog sitting at the table. I must admit, that at times, it was overwhelming to be in the presence of such people.

Sitting quietly, I listened with every cell in my body as they exchanged stories, reminisced and caught up on club business from around the world. It was as if I was a beginning pianist sitting at the table with Mozart or an amateur artist in the presence of Picasso. However, each displayed such grace and humility that it immediately created an environment of learning.

Following dinner, we were invited to Guðrún’s home. As you enter her house, it is as if entering a museum for the Iceland Dog. On one wall hangs a painting by Icelandic artist Baltasar. The painting, given to her as a gift when she left the presidency of the Icelandic Kennel Club (HRFÍ), is of her male ISCH Íslands Garða Tinni, a dog present in many of our pedigrees. Tinni means “black like a firestone.”

Guðrún told the story of calling the owners of Tinni to check on him, as she did each year with every dog that she sold. Sadly, she was told that he was to be put down as he was no longer
wanted. She immediately drove to the home and retrieved Tinni. He was three years old.

When they got home, Tinni would not enter the house and it became apparent to Guðrún that he had not lived a happy life. She slept with him in the kitchen as that was as far as she could
get him to come into the house. After time, he became a very happy dog and as Guðrún spoke of him, her deep affection for this dog was apparent. You may have heard the term “Tinni  spot”. This term came from him. Guðrún said, “He had a black spot on top of his head on a white bliss.”

ISCH Íslands Garða Tinni went on to become Iceland’s first Conformation Champion and in the painting that graces her living room, he stands so proudly, a reminder that our International history is so deeply personal and touches every part of our lives.

Guðrún then took us down the hall and showed us many awards, most handmade by Icelandicartists, which she has collected over the 40 years she has spent in the world of the Icelandic
Sheepdog. There were many photographs hanging on her wall, dogs that are in all of our pedigrees, the first dogs we have names for. One of those dogs was Kolur, the father of my first ISD. I had never seen his picture and hope to get a copy so that I can share it with all of you. Kolur is likely in your ISD’s pedigrees.

When Guðrún spoke of Sir Mark Watson, it was again, with great affection. He is considered by most Icelanders that I have met as an important part of history and is profoundly regarded.
Watson’s love for Iceland went beyond the ISD. He loved everything about Iceland; the horses, the history, the people. He is responsible for funding the restoration of one of the largest remaining sod houses in Iceland. It is evident that his generosity and love for the Icelandic people is mutual.

Finally, Guðrún began the meeting. There was much laughter as people discussed the “state of the ISD” in the world. The agenda was set for the next two days and late in the night, we
retired to our cabins, the sound of the nearby river audible as I fell asleep.

I awoke the next morning at 5 a.m., my internal clock haywire from the travel. Unable to fall asleep again, I thought a walk to Geysir would be a nice early morning adventure. When I  walked outside, the cold took my breath. It was -6  C. I quickly abandoned my plans for a walk and jumped into the car. As silly as it was to drive the quarter mile to the Geysir, it was
necessary … for an American living in the Pacific Northwest.

When in Iceland last August, we visited this same spot. However, the Geysir was surrounded by tourists on that particular day. On this morning, the experience was solitary. It was not
tourist season and even if it was, what insane person rises at that hour and visits Geysir? I parked the car, engine running, and heater blasting and sat watching as Strokkur erupted over
and over again. The experience of sitting there in complete solitude was beautiful-church-like. The magic of this land is awe inspiring.

I drove the highway and watched the sun fully enter the sky as it shone off the glass-like ice. Horses quietly munched crispy grass and looked up as I watched them from my car, their
breath steaming in the cold morning air.

Driving on, I discovered a sod house, abandoned long ago. Who lived there? What was their story? What animals had been here? When the Icelanders used these homes, the animals lived
on the lower level of the sod house, providing heat for the family above. Forcing myself out of the car, I walked; crunching ice beneath my feet, noticing each touch, the fencing, the old
stool, broken windows and the many colors one sees when one allows the eye to look closely.

When 8 a.m. finally came, coffee never tasted so good. Everyone welcomed the day with warm greetings and smiles. Guðrún opened the meeting and we began working on the ISIC’s
bylaws immediately. This was a tremendous opportunity for me to see how our International community completes such a task. Our club will soon begin the same work.

I learned that ISIC membership benefits include access to club magazines from each participating country and rights to reprint any articles in those magazines/newsletters. Denmark’s magazine is quite amazing, a professionally done magazine. Of course, that club has 550 members and each member pays $70 annually for membership. Some of the articles were
written by Guðrún, Sigríður and Hans-Åke, the third person distinguished by the HRFÍ as an expert all things ISD. The generous chairman from Denmark, Svend Brandt Jensen, has
volunteered a member of his club to interpret some of those articles for us. We also have an ISAA member volunteer who will bring some of those articles to our newsletter. This is a
wonderful benefit of membership in the ISIC.

The ISIC maintains an international database on the ISD. Each member country contributes health information and that information is calculated so that we can see how the ISD is doing
worldwide. It is my hope that we will begin to participate in this study very soon.

Each member club also presents an annual report to the ISIC. I was tasked with compiling the information from 2007. Did I really volunteer for that? I presented them with our 2007
Annual report. Such information presented included number of litters born, puppies, exported and imported dogs, etc. Each club reports illnesses occurring nationally and can seek assistance from other clubs as is necessary. The benefits of membership are tremendous.

One of the key goals of the ISIC is, of course, preservation of the ISD. Sharing information, exchanging ideas and supporting one another, we bring the world of the Iceland Dog together
and keep the breed true.

One issue came up that day that I had hoped would not. I knew that the United States is the only country that does not use the FCI version of the standard. Each time I go to Iceland, it is
always discussed. It is a hard topic to avoid. I came a day early to interview Sigríður again and when I interviewed her, she discussed the issue at length.

There is great international concern about our AKC standard. It is impossible to ignore the issue. Like us, the desire of each country is to preserve and protect the ISD. However, they
agree that this can only be accomplished by following the same breeding guideline/standard of excellence in every part of the world.

There is no way to get around the issue since ours is viewed by the rest of the world as representing a different dog. Gently, they appealed to us to consider utilizing the FCI standard.
They understand that the formatting must be modified to meet AKC’s template, but wish for us to consider using a “re-ordered” FCI version as our standard instead of using our current
AKC standard. I assured them I would bring the concerns back to the membership.

The ISIC works with Dr. Per-Erik Sundgren, the author of the Genetica program responsible for compiling statistical data related to the ISD. It calculates things like the breeding use of
“matadors”. I learned that, even when a stud may only sire one litter, if his progeny goes on to sire many litters, he can be considered a matador as well. I also learned that Sundgren
recommended that sires be two years of age prior to breeding to insure full maturity and that we carefully measure our use of studs to insure genetic diversity in our population.

Over dinner on the first night, Guðrún looked across the table at me and asked, “What kind of breeder will you be?” I advised that I will never breed many litters and told her some of my
personal goals. She then explained that she believes there are two types of people that are in the business of dog breeding. They are “producers” and “breeders”.  The later considers everything, is hungry for knowledge, studies dogs and considers the job of a breeder to make the dog better than the parents while breeding to the standard. “It is hard work.” I asked her what the things she considers important are. She explained that in her entire breeding career, she produced about 40 puppies. Her goal was to always make a better ISD, as close to the FCI standard as possible. Better ears, better tail, better health, better coat, better type, better temperament, always breeding up.

It is important to note that on this trip, I saw her dogs everywhere I went; pictures, that is. For someone who produced only 40 pups, hers were used as subjects of many photos. If this is
evidence of good ambassadors of the breed, it is fair to say that Guðrún achieved her goals.

Day two was a deeper study of day one. Sigriður Pétursdóttir attended as a guest and it was wonderful to have all three of the HRFI recognized ISD experts sitting in the room. I was
overcome with gratitude for the work they had done.

We discussed topics such as natural protection of genetic variation, analysis of breeding with the ISD, effective population size and future breeding recommendations of the ISD. The Four Legs of the Breeding Table (Insuring that breeders consider the big issues, not just look at the dog in isolation) was by far my favorite topic.

Basically, we must consider the entire dog when breeding. What are the dog’s strengths and weaknesses, conformation, health; does s/he conform to the standard? I learned about correct
ear placement and spacing, how to measure for correct placement … so much information … at moments I was overwhelmed, but rapt.

I left the meeting with armloads of information. As I distill it all, I will share it all with you.

This was an important step for our club. As we move closer to full AKC acceptance, we must consider our place in the international community. Will we become more active in that
community? To insure that we provide good stewardship of the breed, we must and we are. We have some issues to discuss and we will. It is all about the dogs and what is best for the
breed. There is so much to learn and we are all learning, all the time.

The ISAA BOD voted to apply for full membership in the ISIC as it is clear that the benefits are many. This is one step on our journey, remembering that the ISD is Iceland’s cultural
heritage and we are stewards of the breed in the United States. It is an awesome responsibility and one that your BOD takes very seriously.

While we are not sure what some of our next steps will be, we are sure that we are committed to the preservation of the Icelandic Sheepdog and hope to engage you in conversation about
our place in the International community of those who also cherish this amazing breed.

Best regards,


Epilogue 2012: While I was President of the ISAA, the club embraced each of the requests of the ISIC, most recently modifying the breeding recommendations to match the ISIC Breeding Recommendations. This was an exciting, long and difficult journey that could not have been completed without the help of Maggy Pease and many others.