Posts Tagged ‘Norwegian lundehund’

lundehund puffin

The Norwegian lundehund is one of the most inbred dog breeds in the closed registry system, and I have questioned the wisdom of including this breed into a dog population management culture that celebrates blood purity over health and good science.

Because of its peculiar adaptations for traversing rocky cliffs and squeezing down puffin burrows, there is a tendency in this breed to believe that it is too unique to have new blood added. If you add new blood, the dogs cease being lundehunds– which is actually theological reasoning and is unfortunately all too common in the world of purebred dogs.

All lundehunds alive today derive from six founders, and five of these were all from the same mother.

That is not a very large founding population, and when a breed is placed into the closed registry system and bred to a particular standard, a lot of genetic diversity will be squandered. If you start out with a population that is already quite small, the effects of such breeding practices will be magnified.

This breed has a condition known as “lundehund syndrome,” which is just a shorthand for a variety of gastro-intestinal disorders that affect this breed, which can range from mild issues of malabsorption of nutrients to cancer of the intestines. It is estimated that anywhere from 40 percent to 100 percent of this breed suffer from some variant of the disorder.

There is definitely some sort of genetic basis for the syndrome, but no one has been able to say what might be done to rectify the problem.

Further, the breed is also suffering from a general inbreeding depression, which means the breed is eventually on its way to extinction unless something is done. The breed is rapidly losing its fertility, and without new blood, they may simply become impossible to breed.

And the Norsk Lundehund Klubb (Norwegian Lundehund Club in Norway) has decided to begin an outcross program to save the breed.

The club recently announced that a lundehund had been bred to Norrbottenspets, a small treeing spitz from Norway that is known for its prowess in treeing forest grouse. The club’s announcement reads as follows:

The Norwegian Lundehund Club has initiated a project to increase the genetic diversity of Norwegian Lundehund. This is absolutely adamant now as this very special dog breed is on the verge of extiction (sic). Norwegian Lundehund is one of the most inbred dogbreeds (sic) in the world, and it shows indications of reduced fertility. In the long run, inbreeding depression might be the end of this wonderful dog breed, and we cannot sit still and watch this happen. The first cross has taken place, a Norwegian lundehund male and a female of Norbottenspets. This had to be done by insemination as the male, unfortunately, was too small. The puppies that we hope will be borne in two months time, will be registered at the Norwegian Kennel Club in an x-register, and they will not be sold on the open marked. For all of you that own a lundehund, keep up your breeding programme, as there will be many years until any individual that is a result of crossbreeding will be introduced in the true breed. We hope to save the breed, but we need your help to keep up the numbers of truebred (sic) lundehunds over the years to come. More information will be available on our homepage and fb within a few days.

So when a breed is faced with extinction through poor population management, the only solution is to make radical steps to save it.

Of course, these steps aren’t radical at all. If people were not so accepting of the tenet of faith that blood purity at all costs is a virtue in domestic dog breeds, this breed would be as healthy and viable as any other.  New blood would be brought in every couple of generations, and the population would be carefully managed.

But this concept– which is essentially without controversy in the scientific animal husbandry literature as well as the literature on population genetics– is utter heresy in the world of dogs.

To cross breeds is the ultimate sin– something that only done when there is no alternative.

It is really sad that this breed had to come to this point before the Norbottenspets outcross program was accepted.

But the truth is all of these other breeds are in the same boat. They aren’t moving at exactly the same pace as the lundehund, but they are all moving in this direction slowly but surely.

It really is time to drop the blood purity cult.

It’s just not serving the dogs well.


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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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If one looks at the basenji, one sees what should be a tough little dog, free of exaggeration in conformation or type. It looks like it had been entirely selected by the processes of natural selection.

Although capable of barking, it very rarely does so, and when it does, it is just a short little woof. In this regard, it is very much like the wolf or the dingo.  The bitches have one heat cycle per year.

It is almost like a wild animal, so one would think that there wouldn’t have been a healthier breed to own.

Unfortunately, all that you have just read is nothing more than an appeal to nature fallacy. All the natural appearances are superficial.

Basenjis in the West are just like any other breed of dog. They have a limited number of foundational sires, and when one gets involved in producing quality dogs for the show ring, the tendency is to use just a few members of the population to produce offspring. With a closed studbook, all sorts of new hereditary problems began to surface.

But unlike other breeds of dog, the basenji started out with a very small population in the West.  Just 18 or 19 dogs founded the original basenji population. That is a pathetically small number on which to found an entire breed.

By the late 1980’s, basenjis were in a lot of trouble. In 1989, Dr. Russell Brown of Virginia Commonwealth University sent a letter to the AKC Board explaining why the basenji needed to have its studbook reopened.

The AKC eventually opened the studbook to allow new blood to be imported from the Congo. This is actually where the brindle coloration that has popped up in the basenji came from.

It is often mentioned that basenjis are quite common in Africa. One must be careful with such assertions, because basenjis have peculiar traits that are actually not that common in the African pariah dog population. This needs to be repeated, for there are assumptions that just about African village dog with prick ears and a curled tail is a basenji.

It ain’t so.

This is not a contrived breed. It’s not like the West Highland white terrier, the golden retriever, and the Norfolk terrier, which have all been separated from their closest relatives on what amounts to little more than superficial reasons.

This is an actual landrace that is native to Central Africa. It may superficially resemble other pariah dogs that are found in other parts of Africa.

But those dogs bark a lot and the bitches have two heat cycles per year. From what I’ve seen, most of these dogs really don’t have the curled tails of the show basenji or even loosely curled tails that one sometimes sees on African basenjis.

Any population of dogs that rarely barks and has but one heat cycle per year is clearly different from other dogs, no matter how one looks at it. These dogs are physically and behaviorally unique.

To rejuvenate the bloodline, African dogs indeed were allowed in. These dogs had the same traits that we associate with dogs of this type, and some of the health problems are indeed being mitigated.

But what the basenji story actually tells us is what happens when we allow just a tiny population of dogs to found a breed and then close off the studbook.

Basenjis were nearly ruined through such an extreme genetic bottleneck. They may yet be redeemed through these African imports. I certainly hope so, for the basenji is such a unique dog that I think it is very much worth preserving.

Its unique characteristics give us insight into what the early dogs might have been like. The inheritance of its barklessness was actually tested by Fuller and Scott, when they crossed basenjis with cocker spaniels. It turned out that barking was a dominant trait, but the number of barks that a basenji/cocker will give is still somewhat lower than that of a pure cocker. That study suggested that the constant barking trait that so characterizes other dogs could have easily been transmitted through the populations of domestic dogs very early on.

And all of these genetic disorders certainly do give us something else to examine.

The African dogs lived very well for thousands of years. They evolved to fit a particular task and a particular climate. But when our dog culture picked them up, things just didn’t turn out that well.

Maybe the future will be better for these African “barkless dogs.” But we have to be very careful about these registries. We don’t need to ensure the genetic viability and general health of all of these dogs. We have to start thinking in such a way for all of these dog breeds.

If we don’t, the potential exists for even more problems like the basenji was facing in the 1980’s. In fact, this potential is almost a certainty if we don’t starting thinking differently.

Dogs are organisms, but our cultural backage winds up having major effects upon them, whether we like it or not. Our inability to understand them as organism with need for sustainable gene pools is a major problem for the long term viability of the domesticated form of C. lupus.

If we could just start thinking this way, maybe we could have a better future for dogs.

But we have to change our dog culture, and that is going to take time.


Basenjis are hardly the most extreme case. The Norwegian lundehunds (the polydactyl puffin hunting dogs) are derived from just six dogs that survived a distemper outbreak that happened during the Second World War. All of these dogs have the genetics to develop an extremely debilitating set of digestive disorders called lundehund gastroenteropathy in which digestive bacteria grow out of control, preventing the dogs from deriving nutrients from food.  Some dogs never develop symptoms, but others eat and eat and never get enough nutrients.

Open registries are not the solution for all problems solving dogs. Lots of things have to be done to solve these problems. Opening registries alone will not save them in the end. However, if we don’t open them, we will be doing very little to solve the macro-level problems that are making breed after breed less healthy.

The registry issue is systemic, which means that it is sometimes harder for people to understand. It is also the biggest sacred cow in the fancy– purity for purity’s sake. To even suggest that this problem is the greater systemic problem in dogs is a great heresy.

But not everyone in the fancy is entirely in love with it. I think the number of people who love dogs as dogs in the fancy is much larger than you might assume from reading this blog or others.

Within the fancy itself, there are people who want something better and who are articulating it and pushing for it.

Bit by bit, change will come.

For those of you who want a better future for dogs, please know that you’re not alone. It’s starting to happen.

In the public consciousness, the AKC doesn’t mean what it once it did. When people think AKC, they think of unhealthy purebred dogs. It doesn’t mean golden. It means gilded.

That’s a major branding problem.

It’s one I’m sure the AKC doesn’t want to have.

It’s also why the AKC is losing out market share the paper mill registries. If the AKC is just a paper mill, then why can’t Jim Bob down the road start his own?

In the end, we have no quality control or consumer protection institution for dogs in the United States.

We are lost.

We have to do this research for ourselves, which, thanks to Google, means that it isn’t as hard as it once was.

But I still think we need some kind of body, even at the breed and function-based level, to have some sort of regulating or quality control influence over breeders. I’m not in favor of new laws. I’m in favor of a better system in which dog people regulate themselves.

We need an open registry system, but we don’t need one in which people are inclined to do crazy crosses just for the hell of it.

And that’s my dilemma.


In case you were getting ready to dispute me on whether basenjis can bark:


I wonder whether living around “normal” dogs has any effect on that behavior. I remember reading about some wild-caught wolves that were kept in a kennel with lots of barking domestic dogs. The younger wolves in the pack started barking like dogs.

Barking does have a learned component to it. I knew a Dalmatian that joined a household that included a mongrel beagle. This beagle had a tendency to great everyone with a baying howl.

After about two weeks, the Dalmatian was trying to make that noise– very unsuccessfully.

Maybe some basenjis are learning let loose a few barks here and there  just to fit in.

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