This noble breed of dog, the Norsk Elghund, was developed over 7000 years ago in Norway by the Vikings to help them hunt moose, or "elg" in Norwegian. You'll never find a more loyal, intelligent, beautiful creature on the face of the earth.
So, if you are contemplating bringing a Norwegian elkhound into your home and life, you should learn as much about the breed as you can before you bring one home. The elkhound is a very specialized breed with some wonderful advantages, but they also have some disadvantages for certain types of homes. A good way to start learning whether the elkhound is right for you is by understanding a little about the history of the breed.
The Norsk elghund (literally, "Norwegian moose-dog," often mistranslated as "elkhound" outside of Norway) is a very ancient breed, having been developed over 6000 years ago to help the early Norsemen hunt big game such as moose and bear. Remains of dogs remarkably similar to the modern elkhound have been found in Viking grave sites such as the Viste Cave in Jaeren, Norway, where they have been dated as far back as 4000 to 5000 BCE. For most of its existence, the elkhound has been almost exclusively a big game hunter, although he has occasionally been used as a herder of reindeer by the Lapps, as a draft dog to pull sleds, and as a guard dog on Norwegian farms.
An elkhound hunts moose in one of two ways, as a bandhund or as a loshund. The bandhund ("leashed dog") is worked as a tracker in harness on a long lead. The loshund ("loose dog") is sent into the forest alone, ahead of the hunter. The loshund uses his keen sense of smell to find the game, then slowly moves the moose to an area from which he cannot escape. The elkhound holds the moose at bay with a barking and dodging attack until, led by the bell-like tones of the elkhound's voice, the hunter catches up with and dispatches the game.
Since elkhounds have been bred almost exclusively for their hunting ability until the early 20th century, the hunting instinct is still very strong in the modern elkhound. They are very independent and self-confident, as you might expect from a 50-pound dog that you could expect to go one-on-one with a 2000-pound moose or an 800-pound bear. Successful hunters were self-confident dogs that were agile and quick-witted enough to evade the razor-sharp hooves and immense horns of the moose. Simply put, dogs that failed died and were unable to reproduce. Dogs that were successful were bred. This reproduced and reinforced the self-confidence, keen intelligence, and agility.
What this means for you as a pet owner is that the elkhound is an extremely intelligent, active dog that needs meaningful activity to keep him healthy and out of mischief. A bored elkhound is often a destructive elkhound, and an inactive elkhound is usually a fat, unhealthy elkhound. Tracking, obedience, and agility training and competition are good ways to keep your elkhound active.
After you've learned about the history of the breed, you need to understand the standard for the Norwegian elkhound. The standard is the list of characteristics that describe the correct physical and temperamental makeup of today's Norwegian elkhound. The standard was designed to help breeders select breeding stock that will produce sound, healthy elkhounds that can perform the task for which the breed was developed. As with any breed of dog, if you can understand the standard and why it calls for each characteristic, you will be much closer to understanding the dog you eventually bring home. The official American standard for the Norwegian elkhound begins as follows:
"The Norwegian elkhound is a hardy gray hunting dog. In appearance, [the elkhound is] a typical northern
dog of medium size and substance, square in profile, close-coupled and balanced in proportions. The
head is broad with prick ears, and the tail is tightly curled and carried over the back. The distinctive gray
coat is close and smooth-lying. In temperament, the Norwegian Elkhound is bold and energetic, an
effective guardian yet normally friendly, with great dignity and independence of character. As a hunter, the
Norwegian Elkhound has the courage, agility and stamina to hold moose and other big game at bay by
barking and dodging attack, and the endurance to track for long hours over rough and varied terrain."
(General Description from the official standard for the Norwegian elkhound, The Complete Dog Book, The
American Kennel Club.) Click here to view the complete Official AKC Standard for the Norwegian elkhound.
Let's break up the introduction and see what it can tell us about the elkhound.
1. The Norwegian elkhound is a hardy gray hunting dog. First and foremost, the Norwegian elkhound is a hunter. The Vikings developed the breed about 6000-7000 years ago in Norway to hunt big game such as moose and bear. It is a truly ancient breed, and most modern elkhounds retain a strong hunting instinct. Elkhounds have been bred for pets for a relatively short amount of time. Most elkhounds in Norway are still bred for hunting. In fact, an elkhound cannot compete in conformation in Norway until it has earned a hunting certificate. In the US it's a little different, as you cannot legally hunt moose with a dog, but they can be used legally on many other types of game.
2. In appearance, [the elkhound is] a typical northern dog of medium size and substance, square in profile, close-coupled and balanced in proportions. The head is broad with prick ears, and the tail is tightly curled and carried over the back. The distinctive gray coat is close and smooth-lying. Although the elkhound is indeed a peerless hunter of big game, it bears little resemblance to the dogs most people are used to thinking of as hunting dogs, like coonhounds, basset hounds, beagles, etc. The elkhound is a Nordic, or northern, breed resembling the Siberian husky and other spitz-type breeds. It has a double coat composed of a thick, soft undercoat and longer, coarse, flat-lying guard hairs. The guard hairs repel water and mud, and the undercoat insulates the dog from both heat and cold.
For the typical pet owner, this means the light silver undercoat sheds almost constantly (black will no longer be part of your wardrobe!). The double coat also means it's tough to bathe an elkhound. The guard hairs make it very difficult to get the dog wet enough for bathing, and the undercoat takes a long time to dry once you do get him wet. And you must get him dry. Bone dry. To the skin. If the undercoat remains damp, hot spots can develop and spread rapidly. Hot spots are localized fungal skin infections, causing weeping sores, painful raw skin, itching and hair loss in a remarkably short time. Hot spots can develop in a matter of hours, not days. On the up side, when clean, the elkhound has little or no "doggie odor," except when he is very hot or dirty and wet, and his coat is naturally water- and dirt-repellent. So, (normally) while your elkhound will shed throughout your house, he won't smell it up!
The tail is tightly curled and held over the back to keep it from getting tangled in brush or weighed down with mud and ice and hindering the dog in his hunting duties. A close-coupled dog is much more agile and better able to avoid the horns, hooves, and/or claws it is bound to encounter during the hunt. And a close-coupled dog moves with a shorter, energy-saving gait that he can sustain over longer periods of time.
3. In temperament, the Norwegian Elkhound is bold and energetic, an effective guardian yet normally friendly, with great dignity and independence of character. As you might expect from a 50-pound dog that hunts moose (2000 pounds and up) and bear, an elkhound is an extremely intelligent and independent dog. For nearly 7000 years, elkhounds have been expected to go one-on-one with a bull moose and live through the experience. They have to be able to "think on their feet," to have the confidence that allows them to make life-or-death decisions and act immediately. Breeding for this characteristic for 7000 years has produced a dog that likes making its own decisions, and is less willing to accept your direction. Obedience training is quite a challenge, but it is also very rewarding. You must use motivation to train most elkhounds. Since elkhounds are very strong and very independent, forceful methods almost always produce a resentful, inconsistent worker.
Because of the elkhound's independent nature, you should obedience-train your elkhound from a very early age (i.e., start well before six months). Your elkhound must learn that you are the leader (please note that's "leader," NOT "tyrant") in the household. If you do not make and enforce the rules, your elkhound will probably think he's in charge. This early confusion can eventually lead to a dog that is resentful of corrections, and (as with any other breed of dog) produce aggression problems that are easier to avoid than to correct.
When you start obedience training, you should be very careful to find a trainer who knows the breed and uses motivational methods. You cannot train an elkhound the same way many people train the more popular "obedience breeds," like golden retrievers, border collies or Shetland sheepdogs. These breeds have been developed to work with and take instructions from a hunter or a shepherd. Elkhounds have been bred to track down game and bring it to bay on their own, relying on their own decisions. Your elkhound must think the obedience training exercises are his idea. In other words, it must be something he enjoys doing. If he doesn't want to do it, he won't do it, and you can waste a lot of time trying to make him do it and failing at it.
Most elkhounds are very good with people of all ages, sizes, sexes, colors, and abilities, especially if you make an effort to expose the dog to as many types of people as you can as he is growing. Many elkhounds throughout the country are successful therapy dogs, visiting hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other areas where people can benefit from the love of a good dog. Elkhounds also make excellent service dogs for people with special needs. As of March, 2013, I can tell you from about 8 years of experience so far that they're excellent mobility dogs. I've had three myself so far! They've been excellent help to me and to my husband! And Ed is starting to use an assistance dog himself. They have excellent noses and he uses them to scent when his blood-sugar levels are changing, which is very important for a diabetic!
Elkhounds have also been used successfully as herding dogs on reindeer in Lapland, although people in the U.S. are beginning to use them to herd sheep and cattle, as draft dogs to pull sleds, and some are even working in search and rescue. The elkhound's nose makes him very useful in SAR work! Ed's been using them as SAR dogs for many years, ever since Gracie proved herself to him. They do excellent work. Bob is Ed's current SAR dog. He was certified at age 9 MONTHS OLD, and he's been working ever since. Bob is a very happy worker, and he likes to enjoy his work, so Ed doesn't use him on searches where the victim is known to be deceased. Bob doesn't like looking for someone who has passed away. (They can't play with him when he finds them!) He'll do the search, and he usually finds the person, but he's very unhappy when he does, so Ed doesn't usually send him on these types of searches, because you want the dog to enjoy the work.
4. As a hunter, the Norwegian elkhound has the courage, agility and stamina to hold moose and other big game at bay by barking and dodging attack, and the endurance to track for long hours over rough and varied terrain. In other words, while no dog of any breed should ever be allowed to run free, a free-roaming elkhound can cover many miles in a very short period of time if it catches the scent of a rabbit, squirrel, or anything else. Bottom line: Never let your elkhound roam free, if you ever want to see it again.
To sum up:
The elkhound is a good choice for people with confident, strong personalities.
The elkhound is a poor choice for people who would prefer to let the dog have its own way all the time rather than set rules and consistently enforce them.
The elkhound is a good choice for people who don't mind a little dog hair on their clothes and furniture, or even in their freezers (it goes everywhere!).
The elkhound is a poor choice for people who are meticulous housekeepers, or who suffer from pet-hair allergies.
The elkhound is a good choice for people with the time and energy for obedience training and long walks.
The elkhound is a poor choice for people with little time to spend working with a dog.
The elkhound is a good choice for people with well-fenced yards.
The elkhound is a poor choice for people with no fences, or worse, electronic (buried wire) fences. Elkhounds are stubborn enough and their hunting instinct is strong enough that many will "take the shock" to get out of the yard to chase a squirrel, bunny, kid with an ice cream cone, etc., but they will not take the shock to come back into the yard. Besides, an electronic fence only works on a dog wearing the electronic collar inside the "fence"; it will not keep unwanted guests, like wildlife, free-roaming dogs and cats, dognappers, neighborhood children, etc., out of the yard, but it will leave your dog at the mercy of any of these.