One tale of the Norwegian Elkhound, an ancient breed with a history full of interesting facts as well as fanciful folklore, tells of a friendly young Norwegian named Tore who accidentally killed a man during a fight at a midsummer dance. He fled to a mountain valley, taking only his dog, Bram, for companionship, and they lived off the land for many years. The deep snow and frost eventually took their toll on Bram, and his tail became caked with ice and dragged after him like a broom. Tore took Bram's tail, curled it over his back and tied it with a leather thong. From that moment on, according to the legend, the Norwegian Elkhound had a curly tail.
A Breed For The Ages
The Norwegian Elkhound's ancestors date back as far as 6,000 years and perhaps further, when Torvmosehund (swamp or peat dogs) were used by the Gypsies of Denmark to hunt both large and small game. Evidence of the dogs has been found preserved in peat bogs in Denmark and southern Sweden. An archaeological dig at the famous Viste Cave at Jaeren in southwestern Norway unearthed stone implements and four canine skeletons dating from 5000 to 4000 B.C. Two of these skeletons were identified by Professor Brinchmann of the Bergen Museum as being of definite Elkhound type. In addition, a clay pot was discovered in an ancient grave at Vallöby, Norway, that depicts a hunting scene with dogs that look very much like today's Elkhound.
These peat dogs were the forerunners of all the Northern spitz breeds, which include the Akita, the Alaskan Malamute, the Chow Chow, the Keeshond, the Samoyed and, of course, the Elkhound. Spitz breeds are distinguished by their wedge-shaped heads, powerful, blunt jaws, small prick ears and curled tails carried over their backs. They also share a straight, harsh outer coat and a dense, soft undercoat that protects them from the elements.
The peat dogs' days with the Gypsies were followed by adventures at sea. Norse Vikings took to the fearless, loyal dogs and brought them on their journeys. The dogs were steadfast companions to these rugged seamen and often accompanied their masters to watery graves; numerous canine skeletons found in shipwrecks dating from the Viking period attest to this fact.
The demise of the Vikings saw one strain of spitz dog moving on to Norwegian farms, where they were companions as well as guardians of the farmers' flocks. Soon, the breed's duties were expanded to include another role-that of a big game hunter. Although the Elkhound is adept at hunting wolf, fox, rabbit and even upland birds, it truly excels when hunting bigger prey, such as bear and mountain lion. But perhaps its most formidable foe is the moose. Indeed, the Norwegian name Norse Elghund translates as "Norwegian moose dog," not "Norwegian elk hound." The moose is an extremely powerful, dangerous foe. The Elkhound's job first was to find its quarry and alert its master with a low bark loud enough for its master to hear but not so loud as to alarm the moose. Then it would circle the moose to prevent its escape and give the hunter time to catch up. Finally, when the hunter was nearly in range, the Elkhound repeatedly would lunge at the moose, darting in and out and barking to distract it and allow the hunter to move in for the kill. Although today's hunter has the advantage of using a gun, the huntsman of old needed to rely on lances, arrows and the dexterity and determination of his Elkhound to allow him to get close enough to kill the prey without endangering himself or his dog.
By the 1800s, Norwegians became interested in creating and preserving specific dog breeds. Norway's first bench show took place in 1877 in Oslo and was held by a Norwegian hunting and fishing club called the Norsk Jeger og Fiskerforening. One hundred twenty-four hunting dogs were entered, including 15 "Bear and Elk Dogs." Shortly afterward a studbook was compiled, and a breed standard was drawn up. This standard captured the essence of Gamle Bamse Gram, an Elkhound of the day who exhibited all the features considered essential to the breed. This led to recognition by both the Norwegian and Swedish Kennel Clubs, and the Norse Elghund became known as Norway's special contribution to the world of purebred dogs.
Because of the poor English translation of the breed's Norwegian name, the Norwegian Elkhound was placed in the AKC's Hound Group. Today, the Elkhound has gained moderate popularity. As of 1998, it ranked 74th out of the 146 AKC registered breeds, with 1,280 dogs listed.
The Body Of A Hunter
To understand the significance of the Norwegian Elkhound standard, one truly must appreciate what this dog was bred to do. The Elkhound had to be an independent thinker that could hunt without constant direction from its owner. However, the breed also needed to be both a loving companion and a watchdog of the farm and family. It needed the stamina and agility to hold a moose at bay for as long as several hours, darting and weaving the entire time to escape the deadly aim of the moose's antlers, until the hunter could kill it. The Elkhound also needed a coat that would insulate it against snow, sleet and rain, yet it could not be so long as to get caught on brush or bogged down in marshes. Consequently, according to the AKC standard, this is an independent, bold, energetic dog that also is friendly and dignified. It is characterized overall by a square, athletic build and the typical appearance of a Northern breed.
The average male stands 20½ inches at the withers and weighs 55 pounds. Females are an inch shorter and weigh about 48 pounds. These dogs have substantial bone structure but should not appear coarse. These measurements are not just random numbers-a dog shorter than the standard height is considered too small to handle the rough terrain and deep snows of its original hunting grounds. Conversely, a dog that is much larger than the ideal may be seen as a threat by the moose, causing it to flee. Ideally, the medium-sized Elkhound can coax the moose into standing its ground, hold it at bay and distract it by barking and making passes until the hunter arrives at the scene. The Elkhound's head should convey an expression of courage but also of friendliness. The wedge-shaped skull is topped by smallish, high-set, erect ears that pivot according to the dog's mood. For example, an alert dog will hold its ears up, while a dog that is on the move or is being touched on the head will lay its ears back. This neither should be penalized nor mistaken for shyness or aggression in the show ring. The Elkhound's keen, intelligent eyes always are dark brown. Eye contact is essential for the Elkhound to anticipate the moose's moves when holding it at bay. The eyes also are set deep enough to protect them from injury.
As stated before, the body is compact and square, and the chest is deep. The arched neck holds the head high, which is typical of a breed that hunts by wind scent. The high-set tail curls tightly and is held over the back.
The Norwegian Elkhound's coat is shown in its natural state. The hard, thick, smooth-lying, water-repellent outer coat is light to dark grey (medium grey is preferred) with variations in shade caused by the number of guard hairs and the length of their black tips. The soft, dense, woolly undercoat is light silver, as are the legs, stomach, rear end and underside of the tail. The muzzle, ears and tip of the tail are a contrasting black. Although this feature is not mentioned in the standard, the NEAA states that a black "mascara line" running from the corner of the eye toward the base of the ear is desirable.
The Elkhound has a number of gaits that can be interchanged and maintained for hours over rough terrain. The breed is shown at a trot, which is even and effortless, but the Elkhound also must be agile enough to spin, turn and lunge quickly and easily. In all, the standard states that the Elkhound's athleticism; attractive weather resistant coat and stable disposition make it "an ideal multipurpose dog at work or at play."
Active With An Independent Streak
There are so many positive qualities found in the Norwegian Elkhound you may think you have stumbled upon the ideal canine companion. However, as with any breed, qualities that may seem perfect for one person may not mesh well with another's lifestyle. Lori Webster, rescue coordinator for the NEAA, states that the Elkhound needs a like-minded owner.
"The Norwegian Elkhound is energetic, friendly and outgoing and independent," Webster says. "The type of person who should own an Elkhound should have the same traits. The type of person who should not own an Elkhound would be someone who is a couch potato, doesn't like dog hair or a dog that barks and doesn't believe in discipline or training."
"Elkhound owners have to be a little smarter than the dog and be sure to be alpha," emphasizes Ruth Ness, chairwoman of the NEAA Canine Health and Research Committee. "If they're not, the dog will outsmart them. They also need attention and challenges. You need to give the dog time, not expect them to stay outside by themselves."
As is befitting its working heritage, the breed has boundless energy. This energy needs a positive outlet, or it may be channelled into not-so-positive or destructive behaviour. Elkhounds can become diggers or "singers" if left alone in the back yard for long periods of time. The breed not only needs exercise, it craves human companionship. If you are looking for a partner to take on long hikes or jogs every day, the Elkhound may be for you. If you want a dog that will be content to lounge by your feet day and night, however, pick a different breed. The Elkhound will be more than happy to lounge, but it will do so only after it has depleted its substantial energy. At the very least, provide 20 to 30 minutes of vigorous exercise twice a day and you'll have a content dog. A securely fenced yard is a must for the breed; this independent thinker will high tail it for the hunt if it sees the opportunity presented through an open gate. Again, although the Elkhound will enjoy time in the yard, like any dog, it should not be left out alone for hours on end. Elkhounds can be talented escape artists once boredom sets in. Whether or not your Elkhound ever will go moose hunting, you can be sure it has retained the independent streak needed for that job. You may have to do a lot of persuading to get your Elkhound to do what you ask. This breed is headstrong and not prone to unquestioning obedience. On the other hand, Elkhounds are highly sensitive to criticism from their owners, although they seem to have a thicker skin when it comes to people outside of the family.
As an owner, you never must do anything to lose your Elkhound's devotion and trust. You must be extremely gentle when training this dog or it will sulk. Even a harsh word seems to insult the Elkhound, and it may take days to get over it. Some breed enthusiasts believe this stems from the days when the breed truly was a 50 50 partner in the hunt. The Elkhound treats its owner with respect and seems to expect the same in return. Whether a dog actually is capable of such human thoughts is unknown, but the fact remains that positive motivation is the best if not the only way to get through to the Elkhound.
The breed also tends to test the laws of the household. For example, the living room couch that your Elkhound obediently ignores while you are home may have a telltale warm spot left by a furry body when you return from being out. Be firm and consistent in what you will and will not allow your Elkhound to do, or it will make its own rules.
Everyday Life With An Elkhound
After you devote time to proper training and socialization, however, this breed can become an indispensable member of the family. "Elkhounds are very people-oriented," Ness stresses. "They love to be around people. They're also very intelligent." Ness tells of one Elkhound that lived in a tall row house in Washington, D.C., that had a steep staircase inside. One day, Chuckie's owners woke up later than usual to realize their 18-month-old baby had not cried to get up at 6a.m."The baby had gotten out of his crib and was having a ball crawling around," Ness says. "And there was Chuckie, lying across the top of the stairs to keep the baby from falling down them. This was something he had never been taught to do-he did it on his own."
Many Elkhounds seem to sense the need to curtail their energy around infants and toddlers. Even Elkhounds that weren't raised with children, although a little standoffish at first, seem to adjust quickly. As with any dog, however, an Elkhound never should be left alone with a small child.
"Many people contact me and say they want a dog that will be fine when their toddler pokes the dog's eyes and wants to 'ride the doggie' or step on them. Why would anyone allow this to happen in the first place?" Webster asks. She stresses that any dog that feels threatened will protect itself. "This is an animal, not a stuffed toy, and self defence is part of survival. Young children must be taught what is acceptable behaviour around the dog, and the dog must be taught what is acceptable behaviour around the child. It works both ways and requires adult supervision to avoid problems that may occur with any breed." Ness agrees that although Elkhounds tend to be very tolerant of youngsters, they still need to be supervised around small children. "If the kids get rambunctious, the dogs will get rambunctious and may knock them over without meaning to hurt them."
Elkhounds are incredibly loving and gentle, and as such they would seem a good companion for the elderly. As stated before, however, the breed needs lots of exercise. If a neighbour or family member is dedicated to exercising the dog daily if its owner cannot, it can adapt to an older owner's lifestyle. Norwegian Elkhounds are excellent watchdogs but not guard dogs. That is, they will bark like mad when strangers come to the door but may lick them to death once they are inside. Their penchant for barking is another characteristic that must be considered. Make sure you have a good relationship with your neighbours before bringing the very vocal Norwegian Elkhound home. Another option is to teach your dog the "speak" and "no speak" commands. Although this can curtail excessive barking when you are home, unfortunately it won't be of much help when your Elkhound is serenading the neighbourhood in your absence.
If introduced while the dog still is a puppy, Elkhounds will accept most pets. Considering their long history as hunting dogs, however, introducing an adult Elkhound to a cat or bird can be a bit more difficult than it would be with another breed. "You must remember that this is a hunting dog, and anything that runs from an Elkhound, like rabbits or cats, is fair game," Webster stresses. "My dogs are great with my indoor cats, but watch out when the neighbourhood strays wander into my yard, the chase is on!"
With other canines, Elkhounds tend to be dominant. Aggression against other dogs of the same sex can be a problem. Webster says, "Norwegian Elkhounds are in general a territorial breed, so if they are not raised with another dog, care should be taken when introducing them to another adult dog with that same trait." If well socialized and raised with another dog from puppy-hood, Elkhounds shouldn't be aggressive toward other dogs, but caution still should be exercised when introducing them to unfamiliar adult dogs.
Elkhounds do shed, so extremely neat housekeepers may want to find a different breed. On the positive side, they are fairly easy to maintain and exhibit almost no doggie odour. A thorough weekly brushing with a pin brush and a slicker brush, followed by a run through with a Greyhound comb, will keep the Elkhound looking its best. The exception to this is during the twice a year coat blowing period, when the dog should be brushed daily.
"During the shedding season, Elkhound hair can be found in birds' nests," Webster says. "They really like it for lining the nest! Also, many people collect this unwanted hair to spin and make sweaters and other clothing." A bath with a high quality canine shampoo can be given every few months or when the Elkhound is dirty. Because the Elkhound's ears stand straight up, they are not prone to the infections seen in many drop eared dogs and are relatively easy to care for. As with any dog, teeth should be cleaned and nails should be clipped regularly.
Maintenance of the dog's coat, teeth and ears is just one side of the owner's responsibilities; keeping your Elkhound mentally and physically conditioned also is integral. Participation in canine sports is one way to achieve this. As mentioned above, obedience competition is an option but must be approached with a lot of patience and humour!
"My first Elkhound I showed in obedience," Webster says. "At one trial, we won first place in our class over more well-known obedience breeds. When the judge handed us our first-place ribbon, he said, 'And this is an Elkhound-how surprising!' I honestly didn't know at that time that they had a misleading reputation for being un-trainable."
Webster explains that you must employ special training methods when dealing with the breed. "Elkhounds get bored easier than most breeds, and they do not live to please you, due to their independent nature essential to hunting the way they do. Praise is important in training the Elkhound, but, for many, food rewards work very well since they are almost always hungry! Also, once Elkhounds learn an exercise or command, asking them to do it many times in a row is very boring to the dogs. All of a sudden they will look at you and act like 'I don't know what you are talking about!' Once an exercise is mastered in a training session, it is best to go on and teach them something else or to work on another exercise."
Elkhounds also excel at tracking, sledding, agility and, of course, hunting. Although they don't hunt moose in the United States, they still go after big game in their native Norway and even hunt moose in parts of Canada as well. Elkhounds are adept at analysing their prey, e.g., determining whether it is young, old, weak, etc., and adapting their approach accordingly. For example, the Elkhound will use a more direct approach with a mature male moose than with an old or sick animal that would be more likely to flee. Elkhounds use this same ability to change their style when adjusting to smaller prey such as wild birds. When asked what sports she feels Elkhounds excel in, Webster replies, "I don't know of too much that they can't do with proper training." In addition to the activities mentioned above, Webster points out that Elkhounds also can be excellent herding dogs. "I've been to herding trials where some of the Elkhounds far outworked some of the typical herding breeds and loved every minute of it and didn't want to stop."
Canine sports aren't the only options for depleting the Elkhound's energy. Their personality also makes them well suited as therapy dogs, while their drive is an asset in search and rescue work." I know several that go to visit nursing homes," Ness says. "They can be so gentle and friendly." Whatever you choose to do with your Elkhound, you can be sure it will put its heart and soul in its work (and its play)!
This versatile and intelligent breed often shares many years with its owner. The average life span of the Elkhound is 12 to 15 years. Although it is a relatively healthy breed, the Norwegian Elkhound is susceptible to certain genetic diseases like all purebred dogs. The NEAA Canine Health and Research Committee have been established to sponsor health research concerning the breed. In addition, a DNA databank has been set up at the University of California, Davis, Veterinary Genetics Laboratory to advance research and allow genetic trait screening. Like many breeds, Elkhounds can develop hip dysplasia. This progressive, degenerative joint disease is blight on countless purebred dogs-consequently any dog with this condition should not be bred. All breeding stock should be evaluated by the Orthopaedic Foundation for Animals, the Institute for Genetic Disease Control in Animals or the PennHIP¨ system and found to be free of this condition before being bred.
Progressive retinal atrophy and lens luxation are two hereditary eye diseases sometimes found in the Elkhound. PRA is characterized by degeneration of the cells of the retina and eventually leads to blindness. This disease should be checked for yearly in all breeding dogs by a board-certified ophthalmologist, and the results should be recorded with the Canine Eye Registration Foundation or the aforementioned GDC.
Familial renal disease, which involves the kidneys, is another genetic problem affecting some Norwegian Elkhounds. This disease, also known as renal dysplasia and renal cortical hypoplasia, affects both kidneys and causes many affected dogs to die at an early age.
Although not as serious a condition, sebaceous cysts sometimes are seen in the breed. These cysts are composed of a thick capsule, as big as an inch in size that surrounds a lump of cheesy material called sebum. These cysts often become infected and must be drained, although on occasion they will drain on their own. Sometimes draining is enough; other times surgical removal is necessary. There are no recognized site predilections for the cysts.