Norwegian Elkhound:
Early development and history of the breed


Throughout Northern Europe we find descendants of the ‘Spitz type’ - they followed man on his trek as the edge of the glacier receded at the end of the Ice Age. Here, climate and vegetation could vary greatly; from the forests to the mountains and valleys, to the rocky coasts and fjords of Norway, to the Tundra of the Arctic circle. It was a foreboding environment.

All along Norway’s 1,110-mile length, fingers of ocean wind inland between steep mountains. Three-quarters of the land is rocky slope, bleak plateau, lake or glacial ice. Forests cloak nearly a quarter in conifers and birch; scarcely four per cent is flat and fertile. Thus with its face to the sea, its rugged interior hostile to the plough, the fjord country in Norway saw the flowering of the Viking Era. To survive, man was forced to utilise whatever natural resources he could; while man and dog in co-operation fared much better.

Although these dogs received little in the way of food or shelter, there was no place for them if they did not satisfy their existence by being a hunter, herder or watch dog, Through the process of selection, the dogs within these environments, were shaped according their usefulness to man. Within each area, the conditions would vary greatly as to the requirements for survival, and hence selection of dogs. Common to all these dogs was their need for a good coat to survive the cold winters and also as protection against rain. All were typical Spitz breeds in appearance. The hunter in the great forests would want a dog that could track, keep bear or moose at bay and enable the hunter to get close enough to kill the animal. In the forests of Norway it was natural to prefer a dog which, in addition to being a guardian of the home, could also be used for hunting.

As rugged as the land from which he sprang, the Norwegian Elkhound - a cherished possession of his Viking masters - appears in much of the folklore of the time. Although he is known as the "Dog of the Vikings," the Elkhound’s association with man dates from much earlier. In the famous Viste Cave at Jaeren in Western Norway, archaeological investigations brought to light a number of stone implements and bones dating from 5000 to 4000 BC.

Included among these remains of an even earlier civilisation were four skeletons of dogs, two of which were identified by Professor Brinchmann of the Bergen Museum as being of definite Norwegian Elkhound type. Even before the Viking Era, the Norwegian Elkhound began that long and staunch companionship with mankind. What his earliest duties were we can only surmise, but it is safe to say they involved the chase and the guardianship of his master's crude belongings and primitive hearth.

The Viking Period and beyond

The Vikings were bold and daring Norsemen who travelled the seas, sailing in large, skillfully designed ships made of oak. Up to 60 rowers would be manning these ships. Some of the recordings of Viking invasions are somewhat romanticised but, as the story goes, while their menfolk were away, their wives, children and elderly took care of the farms with the help of dogs. Dogs were the prized possessions of the Vikings, serving as, guardians, comrades and hunters at home and on the farm.

Viking ships were often used as burial ships with the dead being placed in special burial chambers what included their possessions, clothing, jewellery food and dogs. The skeletons of at least six dogs were found outside the "Gokstad" (one of three Viking ships excavated in the nineteenth century). Study and research categorised these dog bones as having a strong resemblance to an Elkhound-type breed of dog. From the present time, right back through the centuries of recorded time, Elkhounds have been kept in Norwegian rural districts by farmers, herdsmen, and hunters to serve as watchdogs, guardians of flocks, and trackers of big game: moose, reindeer, and bear. A rigorous climate, often sub-arctic, a wild country of forests, and both dogs and owners had to be strong and hardy to withstand such conditions.

With the passing of the Viking period and the arrival of Christianity in Norway, little was recorded about the Norwegian Elkhound. The country suffered from the ravages of man and nature and deadly plagues took their toll. Gradually, groups of homeless people from surrounding countries began to filter back into Norway, accompanied by Elkhounds to help them hunt big game in the rugged mountains and deep snow.

The wolf period

A much more recent period in Norse history was the 20 year stretch between 1825 and 1845 known as the Wolf Period. During this time, many thousands of hungry wolves swarmed through Scandinavia, killing much of the livestock including many dogs. The Norwegian Elkhound is credited with ridding the country of these wolves through its skill of ingenuity and fearless fighting. The folklore preserving the history of the wolf period portrays the Norwegian Elkhound as its hero and gives the exact night of the incident - February 14th 1842.

Wolf night - a piece of Elkhound history

Dogs and livestock were barricaded in sheds at night to protect them from marauding wolves. Fanarouk, an Norwegian Elkhound known for his leadership qualities, had just lain down in the straw when he heard screams from his little brother Purven. Somehow, he had been off playing when the others had been closed in for the night. Purven stood no chance against the wolves and was killed. Fanarok vowed to revenge Purven's death and with mournful howls he sent the message to farm after farm throughout Norderhove valley,.

The next night, as he sat alone on the ice in the middle of Lake Juveren, the wolves began to approach. Suddenly Fanarok moved to the other edge of the lake where eight strong Elkhounds lay waiting. The noise from the ensuing encounter between wolves and dogs attracted additional hungry wolves as well as farmers with clubs and weapons. The raging farmers encircled the small lake and began closing in on the surprised wolves, retaliating for 20 years of torment. By morning, Norway was rid of wolves and the Norwegian Elkhound again proved his worth as hunter, family guardian and protector.

Beyond 1850

The wolves had taken a heavy toll on the elk population and by 1830 they were scarce. By 1850 this trend was beginning to reverse and there was an equal increase in the interest in hunting and dogs for that purpose.

In 1877 the Norwegian Hunters and Fishing Association held, in Oslo, its first dog show at which Northern hunting Spitz breeds were classified as Bear and Moose dogs. There were no standards at that time and the dogs were judged by hunting men on their ability to hunt.

That year perhaps marks the beginning of interest in the Norwegian Elkhound as a show dog. A standard was drawn up shortly after this first show - based on a puppy born in 1865 - who was destined to become the cast for today's Norwegian Elkhound was born. He was called Gamle Bamse Gram and was owned by a well known sportsman of the time - Consul Jens Gram of Ask, Ringerike. The Norwegian Kennel Club was founded in 1898 and adopted the Norsk Dyrehund Graa, the grey Norwegian Elkhound, the National dog, as its emblem - which it still uses today; the first dog to be registered was an Norwegian Elkhound. A group of Norwegian hunters and sportsmen established the Norsk Dyrehundklub in 1899 and began to formulate the breed standard for the Norwegian Elkhound - the name of the club was changed to the Norsk Elghund Klub in 1949.

Drawing up the Breed Standard

Although a standard had been formulated based on Gamle Bamse Gram in the late 1870's, it was in 1901 that a separate standard was considered for grey Elkhounds, although it was not finalised for several years. In 1902, a committee was formed between the Norwegian and Swedish Kennel Clubs to discuss the Spitz breeds and to re-write existing standards. They also sought to decide whether the Norsk Elghund Graa and the taller, longer cast, Swedish variety (with longer narrower head, and light cream or grey patches on cheeks , muzzle, throat ) the Norrland dog (or Jamthund as it became known in later years) should have the same standard. For background, it needs to be recognised that in Sweden, two types of Norwegian Elkhound had evolved - one, the Grahund - similar to the grey Norwegian Elkhound and the other - the Norrland dog which was confined to the Northern area of Sweden where the snow lay much deeper in the hunting season; the advantage being that this type of dog had the leg length to cope with such deeper coverings.

By the Spring of 1908 no agreement between the Norwegian Kennel Club and the Swedish Kennel Club concerning the division of the Nordic Spitz breeds had been reached. To remedy the need for a standard, the Norwegian Kennel Club's proposed standard for the Norsk Elghund Graa was printed in the show catalogue of the speciality Club's show in Oslo in 1908. However, the standards for the Jamthund and the other Spitz breeds adopted by the Swedish Kennel Club in December 1908 were not identical to those proposed by the Spitz Committee and adopted by the Norwegian Kennel Club. In 1910, the Swedish Standard for the Grahund was adopted which was almost identical to that of the Grey Norwegian Elkhound. The Swedish and Norwegian Kennel Clubs again agreed a common standard for the grey Norwegian Elkhound in 1937. The taller dog continued to exist in Jamtland where it had much favour as a hunting dog and, eventually, in 1946 it was recognised as a separate breed.

Arrival in Britain

The Norwegian Elkhound arrived in England towards the end of the 19th century. The first one entered in the Kennel Club Stud Book was Major Godfrey Faussett's Feordig - born 1874.

He may not have been the first here - merely the first to win a prize to qualify him for entry into the stud book. The first bitch to enter the stud book was Milly bred by the Hon Mrs Baillie Hamilton. The first breed classes at Crufts were in 1897 when the winner was Northern Light.

The first British champion (in 1898) was Ch King - owned by Capt A W Hicks Beach and bred by Rev Longinetto (a Roman Catholic priest from Windsor) from Blue Belle ex Jager. From 1908, Elkhounds were included in a separate breed register in the Kennel Gazette although it is uncertain what was the exact date of "recognition". In 1915, Mrs George Powell bred a litter by Wolfram out of Thalma, a grandaughter of Ch King which contained her own Ch Woden.

In 1923, nearly fifty years after Feordig was registered, the British Elkhound Society was formed. By that time, approximately 90 Elkhounds had been registered in England. In the same year, Mr W F Holmes registered two Elkhounds - Dagmar and Olga of the Holm. Mr Holmes became the leading breeder and exhibitor with over 35 champions to his credit and imported many Elkhounds from both Norway and Sweden. Infusion of new blood was much needed and an excellent article produced by Julia Rands (1938) entitled "Scandinavian Invasion" sets the scene for the difference and controversy at the time when the newly imported "Glitre" dogs first arrived. Quoting , she wrote:

"Certainly there was a difference in type between the "English" and "Glitre" dogs, but they both had characteristics rarely found in the breed today. In general appearance they were both handsome, more massive and rugged than the dogs of the present day. None of them I should have described as pretty, an epitaph one constantly finds oneself applying to the exhibits nowadays. Compared with the "Glitres", some of the "English" Elkhounds were inclined to look "common", while the former had a "foreign" appearance to people accustomed only to the latter. Both were about equally and fairly inbred. Many of the first crosses between the two strains were very beautiful and charming animals and we were very pleased with them; but after them our troubles began".

And up-to-date

Space precludes mention of more recent Norwegian Elkhound history and those who are now involved in the breed - this is well chronicled in many publications and, especially the excellent book by Anne Roslin-Williams - The Norwegian Elkhound in the British Isles; published this year is Juliette Cunliffe’s book on the breed which is ideal for anyone contemplating an Elkhound or when they have their new puppy. Both are available from Our Dogs Mail Order Department.

I have included several important dates within the establishment of the breed in Britain, key personalities and milestones.

Throughout its long history in Britain - over 125 years - there have been many devotees of the breed. Miss Joyce Esdaile (later Mrs Winter) registered her first Norwegian Elkhound Brita of Fourwents in 1928 and in 1933 saw the foundation bitch of Mrs Kitty Heffer's Friochan line registered - Indira. 1936, a second breed club was established - the Elkhound Club. The Norwegian Elkhound Society of Ireland formed in 1939 and on 22nd November 1948 so was the Norwegian Elkhound Association of Scotland. The British Elkhound Club was formed by the amalgamation of the Elkhound Club and British Elkhound Society in 1973.

During the Second World War, breeding was very difficult and the larger kennels which existed in those days were much reduced in numbers and the Elkhounds retained considerably curtailed as well. Nevertheless, the efforts of so many people ensured the continuation of the breed through these difficult times - although many good dogs were lost to the breed.

There have been many well known dogs and people within the breed. But of special note must be to the star who came to the fore in 1980 - Ch Ravenstone Hattie bred by Margaret Harper (nee Lovell) and owned by the late Fred Pickup. Hattie established a new breed record of 44 CC's , the first won at 14 months of age. A remarkable ambassador for the breed.

In 2001, a proposal to change the breed name from Elkhound to Norwegian Elkhound was put forward by members of both breed clubs, to reflect the origins of the breed. This was accepted in the Summer of 2002 by the Kennel Club.

From the time of its establishment 125 years ago right up to the present day there have been a number of importations of fresh stock. Over the last 30 years there have been further importations of new blood from Norway, Sweden and America which have been incorporated into the existing bloodlines. Nowadays, there are no big kennels; instead a number of dedicated breeders; the custodians of the breed. Successful long-time breeders of Elkhounds in many countries has helped preserve the natural beauty of the breed, his intelligence and ruggedness, though careful breeding programmes. The Norwegian Elkhound remains a guardian and hunter, much like his ancestors who first roamed the lands of Scandinavia.



THE OUR DOGS NEWSLETTER

To receive Breaking News dog stories direct to your Inbox,

sign up for the weekly Our Dogs email newsletter here