Posts Tagged ‘lundehund’

The Norwegian lundehund will be making its debut at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show this year.

This breed is a surviving artifact of the cultures along the coast of Norway that relied very much upon nesting seabirds as a source of protein. Various pelagic birds nest in vast rookeries throughout the North Altantic, and for a few weeks out of the year, a great bounty can be had simply through stealing eggs and killing both adult birds and chicks.

Among the birds that these Norwegian coastal villages hunted was the Atlantic puffin. Puffins nest in deep crevices and tunnels that are protected by sea cliffs. In this way, they can avoid most predators that might be stalking around their nests. Puffins were good to eat, and their very soft and very dense down was quite valuable.  Thus, there was a very strong market incentive to catch puffins when they came ashore to nest.

The Norwegians began to adapt dogs for the task of making it easier to raid puffin nest. The small farmers on the coast of Norway had sheep dogs with prick-ears that were quite good at the task, and these same dogs were used for raiding puffin nests in Iceland.

The Norwegians called their dog the lundehund or “puffin dog.”

The Icelandic sheepdog and the dog we call the lundehund today are quite closely related, and the ancestors of the Icelandic sheepdog definitely were used in raiding puffin nests. Icelandic sheepdogs today often have double dewclaws on their hind legs, and I believe they are one of the few breeds that must have dewclaws on the back and hind legs.

Dogs of this type were found in parts of western Norway and in Iceland for hundreds of years, but then the bulk of the population in Norway became extinct. The puffin colonies themselves began to decline as a result of over harvest, and the Norwegian farmers began to use buhunds and imported herding dogs to handle their sheep and cows.

The only remaining puffin dogs were on the island of Lofoten, and there, they could only be found in a little village called Måstad.

As a landrace, they were reduced to relict population.

However, the dogs in Lofoten had some unique traits that made them really distinctive.  They were virtually all polydactyl– usually averaging six toes per foot. They were also unusually flexible for a dog. These traits have all been suggested to give the dog some advantage in climbing up steep cliffs and wedging itself into puffin burrows. And there may be some truth to these suggestions. I just haven’t seen them confirmed in a real world situation or with any empirical analysis.

The puffin dogs continued on in obscurity until the Second World War. That’s when tragedy struck . Norway was occupied by the Nazis, and a distemper epidemic swept the islands. Because the nation was deeply embroiled in war, they were unable to attend to things like conservation breeding. The puffin dog numbers were able to recover somewhat, but then in 1963, distemper hit the islands again. Perhaps because these dogs were so isolated that they had no regular exposure to the disease, or maybe their lack of resistance to the disease came from them developing very homozygous MHC haplotypes from their earlier genetic bottleneck. Whatever it was, distemper destroyed them, leaving behind only six dogs– five of which were from the same parents.

All lundehunds today descend from these six dogs. I have not encountered any evidence that these six dogs were outcrossed to other breeds at all, though they may have been.

But what is clear is that all the lundehunds living today exist within a closed registry system, and as a result of being derived from such a small number of founders, every single one of them has the genetic basis for developing what is called Lundehund Syndrome, a series of gastrointestinal issues that at  in an advanced state prevent the absorption of nutrients and results in the slow and agonizing death of the dog. And at their absolute worst, may produce intestinal cancer. The average lifespan of this breed is in the 7 year range, which is about half of what it should be.

This breed is getting a lot of PR right now. It is just making its way to Westminster, where the often foolish media makes a big deal about its multiple toes– as if that were the breed’s only issue worth discussing.

The fact is this breed should never have been allowed to exist in a closed registry system anywhere– much less the AKC. We have a 100 percent saturation with the gene or genes that cause these gastrointestinal issues, and the only way ever to solve them is to outcross.

And the Icelandic sheepdog is a pretty good choice for an outcross. The two dogs were likely the same breed for hundreds of years, and they do have many traits in common.

But having a serious discussion about outcrossing with many people in these breeds is a bit like pulling teeth.

Maybe I don’t understand the theology that says lundehunds are better off as closed registry show dogs, but my logic and reason in the reality-based world says this is one of the worst breeds ever admitted to the AKC. It might be the worst.

This dog needs help that only an entities outside the closed registry system can provide, but now, it has been consumed by the mother of all closed registry systems. This isn’t worming the cat with arsenic. This is worming the cat by running him over with a pick-up truck.

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This is hilarious:


The dog has no interest in bitches. According to the youtube description, he was castrated long ago. Apparently, this happened before he became sexually mature, because he has no interest.

However, the bitch is willing and ready.

But he just wants to chew on his bone.


Yes. These are lundehund, the polydactyl puffin dogs from Norway.

In addition to being polydactyl, they are also quite flexible. (Another example. Do not try with “normal dogs,” you’ll break their necks.)

For lack of a better word, these dogs were used as puffin terriers. Atlantic puffins are auks that nest throughout the North Atlantic. I know of at least one colony that is found in the state of Maine.

The birds nest in burrows and rock clefts were they are inaccessible to most predators. The reason why the dogs are so flexible is so they can fit into a puffin’s den.

Puffins do not always nest in dens. They sometimes nest on rocky cliffs. It is often suggested that the extra toes on the lundehund gave it a better grip on the rock facings and allowed them better access to these puffin colonies.

They are every bit as fascinating as basenjis are. These dogs are truly unique, and are worth studying for their uniqueness alone.


As I noted earlier, the Norwegian lundehund has issues with a condition called lundehund gastroenteropathy. All lundehunds have genetics for the disease, but not all of them have symptoms.

They are also suffering from what I think is the most extreme genetic bottleneck in history of purebred dogs. There are roughly 2,000 of these dogs worldwide, but they are all derived from six individuals that survived a distemper outbreak that happened during World War II.

How these dogs have managed to survive such an extreme bottleneck is certainly a good question.

In fact, I have a few questions that I’d like to ask any knowledgeable lundehund person:

  1. The lundehunde are clearly unique dogs, but there are other breeds like them in Scandinavia and Iceland. Were any of these dogs used to increase  the genetic diversity in the breed?
  2. What percentage of the dogs suffer from lundehund gastroenteropathy that is so bad that the dogs cannot have a good life?
  3. Because puffins are protected throughout their range, are there any career change positions that have been considered for these puffin terriers?

I would like these questions answered. I’m not trying to pick on anyone here.

I just want to look at unusual dog breeds and the effects of extreme genetic bottlenecks on various species.

I’m just curious. Nothing more.

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