The Norwegian Elkhound is a native of Norway, where he has been tasked with hunting moose and bear for hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years. Often claimed to be among the oldest of all dog breeds, the Norwegian Elkhound is a member of the Spitz family. The breed is known by many names, including Norsk Elghund, Norsk Elghund (Gra), Grahund, Graa Dyrehund, Dyrehund, Grey Elkhound, Grey Norwegian Elkhound, Grey Elk Dog, Swedish Grey Dog, Viking Hound, Viking Dog, and the Elkhound.
Believed by many to be one of the oldest dog breeds, the Norwegian Elkhound has been present in Scandinavia since the earliest known records of the area as a fearless and loyal hunter of big and dangerous game. It has even been said the this breed accompanied the Vikings on their raids and conquests. There is some dissent, however, concerning the true ancient nature of this breed, archaeological evidence tends to suggest that this breed has existed for thousands of years, although on the other hand, recent genetic evidence has suggested that the breed developed much more recently.
The Norwegian Elkhound is indisputably a member of the Spitz family, also known as the Northern Breeds family. Although every member is different, most Spitz-type dogs resemble wolves, with upright ears, thick double-coats, and curly tails. Although Spitz-type breeds are native to areas around the world, the majority are found in regions which border the Arctic Circle. Examples of other Spitz-type dogs include the Finnish Spitz, Pomeranian, Siberian Husky, Russian Laikas and the American Akita. The name Spitz entered the English language from German, as a variety of these dogs has always been popular companions in German-speaking areas. In German, Spitze is the correct plural form, but in America Spitzen is used far more commonly.
For many years it was thought that Spitzen were the oldest of all dog breeds, and had descended directly from the large, thick-coated grey wolves and tundra wolves of the north. It was thought that nomadic tribesmen of the far north domesticated the wolves that either out of curiosity or hunger ventured into the light of early man’s campfires. However, recent archaeological discoveries and genetic tests have put this theory to doubt. There is also no fossil or archaeological evidence detailing transitional forms between Spitzen and wolves.
Though there is still much debate, most modern researchers believe the wolf was first domesticated in either the Middle East or India from the thin, short-furred and timid wolves native to that region. Wolves from these more southerly climates are considerably smaller and less dangerous to humans. They are also known to regularly scavenge the refuse left by humanity and are more comfortable in close contact with humans than the wolves of the north. There is still substantial debate as to when domestication of the wolf took place and due to the fact that early dogs differed very little from wolves in terms of skeletal appearance, it is almost impossible to get a definitive date based on bone structure.
The oldest undisputed archeological evidence for dogs is 7,000 years old, but most archaeologists agree that the evidence is strong enough to conclude that dogs were domesticated between 14,000 and 30,000 years ago. Most genetic studies place the event far earlier; some have even suggested that the dog likely diverged from the wolf as early as 100,000 years ago. It is virtually undisputed that dogs were the first domestic animal, and likely predated the domestication of sheep and goats by thousands of years, and most likely tens of thousands of years. Although dogs were long considered a separate species from the wolf, most modern taxonomists consider them a subspecies.
Archaeological and genetic studies have shown that dogs probably spread around the world from their original home in the Middle East or India. All of humanity consisted of wandering nomadic bands at this point, and their dogs proved to be useful hunting assets and camp guardians, as well they provided as companionship. As all dogs can successfully reproduce with wolves, it is likely that there was occasional interbreeding between the domestic dog and the various wolf subspecies. Eventually, dogs would arrive in the far north. The short-furred dogs of the Middle East would likely have fared poorly in the frigid cold of Northern Germany and Scandinavia. In order to survive, these primitive dogs were either accidentally or deliberately bred with grey and tundra wolves. This theory is supported by genetic studies. These wolf-dog crosses resulted in the wolf-like Spitzen found across the far north today.
The first evidence for Spitz-type dogs in Scandinavia comes from the Viste Cave in Jaeren Norway. Finds from the cave which date from between 4,000 and 5,000 A.D. included four canine skeletons. These skeletons closely resemble those of modern day Spitzen, and Doctor Brinchmann of the Bergen museum identified them as definitely being of the Elkhound type. This single identification is the sole source for the belief that the Norwegian Elkhound is between 6,000 and 7,000 years old. However, it is very possible, and probably likely, that these dogs were not the modern Norwegian Elkhound breed, but a very similar Spitz-type breed which may have been the ancestor of the Norwegian Elkhound.
In fact, genetic tests designed to determine which breeds of dogs are the most ancient found that the Norwegian Elkhound was not as ancient as had been previously believed. The study compared the DNA of 85 dog breeds with those of wolves to determine which breeds showed the least differentiation from the wolf. The study identified 14 ancient breeds, several of which were Spitzen. The Norwegian Elkhound was not among these 14 and was concluded to be a recreation of an earlier type. However, there has been a great deal of controversy over the study including the small sample size of the experiment and that it discounted the fact that the same breed may have been selectively bred for so long that it becomes more distant from the wolf. Even if the Norwegian Elkhound is not the ancestral Scandinavian Spitz breed, it is almost surely descended from these earlier dogs.
Regardless of whether or not the Norwegian Elkhound is 7,000 years old, it is certainly a very old breed. These dogs sailed with the Vikings when they raided Europe and the Middle East from the 8th through the 10th Centuries. Some believe that the breed descended from an ancient Danish dog known as the ‘Torvemoshunden’, or Swamp Dog; however, there is little evidence to support this claim. The breed has assisted the rural farmers and huntsmen of Scandinavia for hundreds of years. Although sometimes used as a herding dog and a property guardian, the Norwegian Elkhounds primary task has always been hunting. Unlike many specialized hunting breeds that are limited to using either sight or smell to find and track their quarry, the Norwegian Elkhound is unique in that it uses the senses of sight, smell, and hearing with equal skill. The breed has been used on almost all game species at one point or another. In the Middle Ages, the dog was known as the Dyrehund, which means Animal-dog. It got this name for its ability to hunt any type of animal. In the more distant past, the Norwegian Elkhound was primarily tasked with hunting bear, which were at one point numerous throughout Scandinavia. However, increasing human populations meant that bear numbers dwindled, particularly in Norway, where the Elkhound was then used to hunt moose.
The name Norwegian Elkhound has long caused confusion in America, as the breed was originally developed to hunt moose and not elk, which do not even exist in Europe. Additionally, the breed is not a true hound, although it is shown in the hound group in both England and America. The name is a direct translation from the Norwegian name for the breed, Norsk Elghund. In Europe, the moose is known as the elk. American settlers were used to the small red deer of England and had never seen the gargantuan elk of continental Europe. They assumed that the massive American elk or wapiti, which is actually a close relative of the red deer, must be a European elk and called it by that name. Also, in Norwegian, hund means dog in general, rather than the specific group of hunting breeds known in England and America as hounds. A more accurate translation to American English would be Norwegian Moose Dog, or Norwegian Moose Spitz.
The Moose is a challenging game species, and requires a very unique hunting method to bring down. They only live in the far north, in difficult and snowy terrain which is impossible for horses to cover. This meant that the deer hunting methods used in France and England where riders on horseback pursued with fast moving packs of hounds would not work. There are very few, if any, animals which are able to move as quickly through snow and pine forests as a moose. These animals can easily outrun and outdistance a man or dog in these conditions. Until, the invention of the snow mobile, dogs and humans stood no chance of running a moose down. Some dogs, such as English Foxhounds, are taught to kill an animal which they are pursuing. A moose is far, far too large for this. Adult male moose can reach weights in excess of 1500 pounds. It would take a massive number of dogs to take one down, most likely at the cost of many dogs’ lives. The only method for hunting moose requires a dog to independently locate a moose, and then hold in place for the hunter to arrive.
Moose exhibit one behavior that is substantially different from other deer. While the first and only reaction of most deer species is to flee, moose tend to stand their ground, often ferociously. Moose will often greet attacking wolves, bears, and humans head on, charging and attacking with their hooves and antlers. The Norwegian Elkhound was developed to take advantage of this tendency. These dogs work alone or in small packs to find their quarry. Once a moose has been found, the Norwegian Elkhound loudly and repeatedly barks. This not only alerts the hunter to the presence of the moose, but also agitates and hopefully engages the moose. Ideally the dog will keep the moose in place until the hunter arrives, hopefully so distracting the giant animal that it does not notice the presence of the hunter. Often barking alone is enough to engage a moose, sometimes charges and bites are necessary. If the moose decides to move off, the Norwegian Elkhound will go silent until it has located the prey again. The Norwegian Elkhound’s short back is said to allow it to jump back quickly to avoid the moose’s charge. This hunting method has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years, and continues to this day.
Although breed members have always been kept as companion animals, the Norwegian Elkhound remained almost entirely a working animal for many centuries. These dogs were typically pure bred, although crosses with other Scandinavian dogs likely regularly occurred. In particular, the breed may have been mixed with Finnish Spitzen brought by Finns escaping famine in the late 1600’s. It is said that this is the reason some Norwegian Elkhounds make excellent bird dogs. Most Norwegian Elkhounds were always grey; however there were also black and white dogs. These black and white Elkhounds are now recognized as separate breeds, but remain very similar to the Norwegian Elkhound in all aspects aside from color.
By the late 1800’s, dog shows were becoming extremely popular across Europe, and resulted in a number of organized breeding programs being developed. This trend spread to Scandinavia. However, dog breeds popular at shows in more southerly climates often faired very poorly in the cold of Scandinavia making Scandinavian breeds more popular in this climate. The Norwegian Elkhound was first shown at a Norwegian Hunters’ Association event in 1877. Shortly thereafter, pedigrees were handed out, and lineages were traced back as far as possible. An official studbook, the Norsk Hundestambak was also published during this time, as well a breed club was formed and a standard was written. The standard was based on a male named Gamle Bamsa Gram, who was born in 1885 and owned by Consul Jens Gram. The Norwegian Kennel Club was founded in 1898, and held its first show shortly thereafter. The Norwegian Elkhound was one of the most popular breeds at early Scandinavian shows, and probably the most popular. The first formal written standard which separated the grey Norwegian Elkhound was written in 1901 and formalized in 1906.
The success experienced by the Norwegian Elkhound in Scandinavian shows garnered the breed interest in other countries. It is believed that the first Norwegian Elkhounds to leave Norway since the Viking Era did so in the first years of the 20th Century, although it is possible some may have accompanied Scandinavian immigrants to the American Midwest several decades earlier. The breed established itself in several European countries, but was most popular in the United Kingdom and the United States. The American Kennel Club (AKC) granted formal recognition to the breed as a member of the hound group in 1913. At the time, there were only three dogs registered. These three dogs, which were owned by Gottleib Lechner of Idaho, are also the first definite record of Norwegian Elkhounds in the United States. Puppies whelped from these dogs were later sent to R.D. Williams of Kentucky, who operated the Rockwood Kennels. The breed caught on slowly in the United States and only 22 were registered with the AKC until 1924 when more of these dogs began to be imported from Norway, and after 1928 England as well. A Norwegian Elkhound named Weeje was given to President Hoover by the people of Norway due to aid he provided to Norwegian friends during World War I. Sometime around 1930, the Norwegian Elkhound Association of America (NEAA) was informally founded to promote and protect the breed. The club is now an official affiliate of the AKC. The United Kennel Club (UKC) granted the breed full recognition in 1948.
World War II and Nazi occupation did not prove as damaging to the Norwegian Elkhound as it did to most large European breeds. These dogs were always numerous and many lived in rural areas. The Norwegian Elkhound remains popular in Scandinavia, and is one of the most common, if not the most common, breed found in Norway and Sweden. In its homeland, the majority of Norwegian Elkhounds are now companion animals and show dogs, but the still occasionally used as a herder and guard dog, and a surprising number are still used to hunt anything from squirrels and birds to bear and moose. This breed also makes an excellent sled dog. The Norwegian army maintains the right to conscript all privately owned Norwegian Elkhounds.
Despite its popularity in Scandinavia, the Norwegian Elkhound remains only moderately popular in the United States. The breed is not a common sight, but it has a sizable and comfortable population. In 2010, the breed ranked 106th out of 167 breeds in AKC registrations for that year. One reason that tends to hurt the breeds popularity is that it is only suitability for cold climates and the vast majority of the United States is far too hot most of the year for the Norwegian Elkhound. These warm regions are also the most densely populated. Considering the lack of bear or moose over most of the United States, it is unsurprising that the majority of the Norwegian Elkhound population in America is made up of companion animals, a task at which this loving and affectionate breed excels.
The Norwegian Elkhound has a typical Spitz appearance with a friendly expression. This breed is considered to be among the most wolf-like in appearance of all dog breeds which are not recent wolf-hybrids. This is a medium to large breed. Male Norwegian Elkhounds are typically around 20½ inches tall at the shoulder and weigh approximately 55 pounds. The smaller females are typically 19½ inches tall at the shoulders and weigh approximately 48 pounds. This is a sturdy breed, known for its stocky build. The breed has a short and compact back which adds to its general appearance of stockiness. The Norwegian Elkhound is quite muscular, although this is largely obscured by the breed’s thick fur. The Norwegian Elkhound has a long tail which is tightly curled over its back.
Norwegian Elkhounds have a thick, solid head which ends in a long, wolf-like muzzle. The muzzle is somewhat wider than those found in most hound breeds and is somewhat boxy in appearance. When the breed’s mouth is open, it appears that the dog is smiling. This gives the breed a friendly expression. The breed has large ears, which prick straight up. The ears of a Norwegian Elkhound should not droop in the slightest. The eyes of a Norwegian Elkhound are typically a very dark brown, and have an intelligent expression. Many people claim that the Norwegian Elkhound’s face suggests the great courage which these dogs possess.
The Norwegian Elkhound has a very thick, straight coat, which is to be expected from a breed native to the frozen winters of Scandinavia. These dogs have a two-layered coat to protect them from the elements. The undercoat consists of soft, dense, and wooly fur. The outercoat is made up of coarse, straight hair which is medium to long in length. The breed’s hair is the shortest and smoothest on the face and front of the legs and longest on the chest, neck, buttocks, back of the legs, and underside of the tail. No alteration of the coat is allowed in the show ring.
The color of the Norwegian Elkhound is more important than those of most Spitz breeds. These dogs should be grey of various shades. The shade is determined by the number of black hairs, and different parts of the dog’s body have a different shade of grey. Norwegian Elkhounds should have black muzzles, ears, and tail tips. This black lightens as it blends in with the rest of the dog’s coat. The legs, stomach, chest, buttocks, and underside of the tail are lighter than the back and sides of the dog.
The Norwegian Elkhound is known for being alert, loyal, bold, and friendly. This breed is known for being especially devoted and affectionate with its family. Norwegian Elkhounds have a tendency to form very strong, lifelong bonds with their family. Many Norwegian Elkhounds are fawningly affectionate with those that they love. Norwegian Elkhounds tend to be friendly with strangers, although some are reserved. Norwegian Elkhounds will very warmly greet those that they know, and have a tendency to become inappropriate greeters. Without training, these dogs have a tendency to jump and lick.
This breed is very rarely aggressive, and typically requires extreme provocation to become so. Because of its lack of aggression, the Norwegian Elkhound does not make an ideal guard dog. However, they are alert and protective and make peerless watchdogs. These dogs will bark loudly at intruders in much the same way that they bark at a moose or bear which they have cornered. Norwegian Elkhounds are known for being good with children, and often form close bonds with them. However, these energetic dogs may accidentally bowl over small children. Owners must make it clear who is dominant as this breed has a tendency to take over.
The Norwegian Elkhound has traditionally been used either alone or in small groups, and does not have a strong pack instinct. These dogs have a tendency towards dog aggression, although they are not as inherently dog aggressive as some breeds. These dogs tend to be dominant and possessive towards other canines as can be expected from their ancestry. Even the most well-trained Norwegian Elkhounds are more likely to get into dog fights than most breeds, and owners must be cognizant of this fact. It can sometimes be very challenging to keep a Norwegian Elkhound with another dog of the same sex, particularly if one or both are unaltered. Because of their hunting ancestry, some Norwegian Elkhounds may not see tiny breeds such as Chihuahua dogs, but rather as prey to be pursued. Proper training and socialization are very important for this breed and can help reduce difficulties. It is always best to use caution when introducing strange dogs to each other, especially if they are to be housemates.
Although most of today’s Norwegian Elkhounds are companion animals, the breed still has a strong hunting instinct. Many breed members remain skilled moose and bear hunters in their homeland. These dogs have a high prey drive and will pursue both small and large animals. It is unadvisable to keep small pets with a Norwegian Elkhound unless the dog has been very well trained and socialized, and never advisable to leave them together unsupervised. This breed is a notorious cat chaser and in general does not get along with felines, which it sees as prey. This does not mean that a Norwegian Elkhound cannot be properly trained and socialized to accept the family cat, it just means that extra care must be exercised. Be aware that a Norwegian Elkhound that accepts the family cat is still very likely to pursue and loudly bark at the neighbor’s new cat.
The Norwegian Elkhound is a highly intelligent breed, but also quite independent. These dogs can prove quite challenging to train. If you are accustomed to training breeds such as the Labrador Retriever, you may get very frustrated with a Norwegian Elkhound. These dogs were bred to work independently of humans, and prefer to do things their own way. This does not mean that these dogs are untrainable. In fact, the Norwegian Elkhound can be excellently trained, and the breed has experienced substantial success in agility and obedience trials. Owners will have to exercise extra patience and spend extra time to train a Norwegian Elkhound. Experts recommend calm but firm training methods when working with these dogs.
The Norwegian Elkhound is a very energetic dog. These animals have a great deal of energy and love to use it. These dogs are happiest when outdoors in the cold. If you are a family which loves to hike or ski, there are few dogs which would be happier to accompany you. The Norwegian Elkhound must be regularly and thoroughly exercised. This breed needs 45 minutes to an hour of vigorous exercise every day at a minimum. Norwegian Elkhounds which are not adequately exercised develop a number of behavioral problems. These dogs tend to become bored easily, and may become destructive. Almost all Norwegian Elkhounds will become high-strung if they are not allowed to release their energy. Owners must be careful when exercising a Norwegian Elkhound in the heat, as this breed’s thick coat may cause it to overheat.
The Norwegian Elkhound was bred to hunt independently of man and to cover ground on their own. This breed is an infamous roamer and escape artist. They like to explore the world. Additionally, they have a strong prey drive, an alert nature, and keen senses. This breed will almost always choose to pursue any creature which it senses. These dogs can be very difficult to call back, and may get too excited by the chase to listen to calls to return. As a result, the Norwegian Elkhound should be kept on a leash at all times when not in a secure area. Any fence which contains a Norwegian Elkhound must be very secure. This is an incredibly intelligent and athletic breed. These dogs are more than smart enough to figure out how to get out and physically capable of doing so.
One aspect of the Norwegian Elkhound which all potential owners should be aware is the dog’s voice. This breed was bred to bark loudly and repeatedly when game was cornered. There is perhaps no breed more inherently vocal than a Norwegian Elkhound. Even the best trained and most stimulated Norwegian Elkhounds will bark very, very frequently. Norwegian Elkhounds are known for having an incredibly loud, incredibly high-pitched bark. Some descriptions provided by dog experts include, “glass-shattering,” “teeth-gnashing,” “headache-inducing,” and even “brain-jarring.” These dogs are very alert and excitable, and will often bark at anything which catches their attention, which is pretty much anything. This breed is capable of controlling its barking to some extent. Training, socialization, exercise, and stimulation, will help but come nowhere close to eliminating the breed’s tendency to bark. Norwegian Elkhounds that have not been properly socialized or exercised may bark non-stop for hours at a time. Norwegian Elkhounds should not be kept outside at night or else they will almost certainly result in noise complaints. Norwegian Elkhounds do not make good apartment or zero-lot-line dogs as a result of their vocal tendencies.
The Norwegian Elkhound has a surprisingly low-maintenance coat. This breed rarely if ever requires professional grooming. Owners just need to give the dog a regular, thorough brushing. When the dog is shedding a rubber glove or comb should be used to remove the dead hair from the new hair. Shedding is a problem that Norwegian Elkhound owners must deal with. These dogs shed a great deal. You will regularly have dog hair all over your clothes, carpet, and furniture. As is the case with most arctic breeds, the Norwegian Elkhound heavily sheds at least twice a year when the seasons change. During these periods, the shedding is so heavy that you can occasionally see large patches of fur fall off the dog as it walks. If you or a family member have allergies or cannot stand the thought of cleaning up dog hair, this is definitely not the breed for you. Norwegian Elkhound coats do however lack the “doggie odor” that is found in most breeds and many find disagreeable.
The Norwegian Elkhound is a generally hardy and healthy breed. Their life expectancy is between 12 and 15 years, which is quite long for a breed of this size. These dogs survived in the freezing conditions of Scandinavia for thousands of years. Unhealthy dogs cannot and did not survive in such an environment. However, the breed has genetic predispositions to several conditions common to large pure-bred dogs, especially progressive retinal atrophy and hip dysplasia. Breeders are working to identify dogs which are carriers and to eliminate these problems from the gene pool.
The Norwegian Elkhound is known for being particularly susceptible to weight gain. These dogs will often overeat, and are skilled at finding any food which is around the house. Owners must take special care to watch the diets of their Norwegian Elkhounds, and to carefully store anything which is potentially edible. Overweight Norwegian Elkhounds are less healthy than dogs which are of proper weight, and are also more likely to develop a number of conditions such as cardiac problems.
It is always advisable to get your pets tested by either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and/or the Canine Eye Registration Foundation, particularly if you intend to breed. The OFA and CERF test for various genetically inherited disorders such as blindness and hip dysplasia that may impact either your dog or its descendants.
The following congenital or inherited health defects have been reported in the breed: