When Snorri Sturluson mentioned the buhund in his Viking sagas, he referred to a type of dog based on its role among the humans and its abilities – rather than its exact appearance. The word buhund means a settlement-, homestead-, or farm dog.
The first Norwegian Buhund breed-standard came in 1926, based on a dog that had evolved, lived, and worked with the Norwegians since time immemorial. Historically, this was an all-purpose dog with many talents and skills.
The 1926 standard focussed on the buhund’s strength as a sheep dog – but let us start with the beginning.
Norway’s early history
The first humans appeared in the Norwegian landscape after the last ice-age, over 10,000 years ago.
Archaeological finds show that the dog was one of the earliest additional members of the human family.
The oldest Norwegian dog remains are 5,000 years or older – and were discovered in the far north, in Varanger in Finnmark. They belonged to a spitz-dog type – characterised by erect pointed ears and a pointed muzzle. Today’s Norwegian Buhund – itself a spitz-dog – is believed to descend from these early Scandinavian canines.
At first a warning dog and a co-hunter
The early humans lived a vulnerable existence. Ill-intentioned neighbours and dangerous animals posed a constant threat. A dog with its superior hearing and its bark would signal danger.
For millennia, people lived as hunters and gatherers, following the prey on their seasonal journey through the landscape. The dog became a partner and a co-hunter.
According to tradition, and into our own time, the buhund took part in the hunt for moose, roe deer, fox, wood grouse, the smaller mountain grouse, and much more.
Living with and guarding the livestock
As the millennia and centuries passed, in the Later Stone Age, many Norwegians took up farming and settled on farms and in cottages scattered across Norway’s wild and contrasting landscape.
In this historical period, the dog also took on the role of being a protector of the domesticated animals.
Often, the buhund lived among the livestock in the barn or the shed – or in a doghouse located in the farmyard.
In the morning, it followed the other animals and guarded them all day as they grazed in the surrounding forests and fields. This was a chore they often shared with the children of the family.
If predators appeared, the dog barked to scare them away – and to alarm the people back on the farm.
It is in this transforming part of history that we see the role of the traditional buhund take shape; the role that gave it its name.
A herding dog
The buhund was also used in active herding, driving sheep, goats, cattle, – and even reindeer, horses, and pigs.
As the human population increased, so did the number of domestic animals. The Norwegian landscape consists of 40% forest and 40% mountain land. Throughout the summer, this terrain was an ideal pasture.
Through the centuries, the buhund played an important role, helping to locate the animals in the landscape, gathering them into herds and driving the herds to and from the home farm.
It may well have been the buhund’s roles as a warning and herding dog that helped it survive into the modern age.
Remains found in Viking graves
In the Viking museum in Oslo, we find the Oseberg, Gokstad, and Tune Viking ships – found in grave mounds on the west and east side of the Oslofjord – from around AD 800-900.
Both the Oseberg and Gokstad graves contained remains of spitz-type dogs.
A renewed focus and breed recognition of the Norwegian Buhund in the 1920s
After Norway gained independence in 1905, the country experienced a surge in energy and development. In all areas of society, enthusiasts pushed forward in educating the country and building a strong new nation.
One of these enthusiasts was Jon Sæland (1876-1963). He is by many said to be the one who saved the traditional buhund, by establishing it as a defined breed and catapulting it into the new century.
At the time, the buhund as a type was in danger of disappearing, being crossbred and replaced by more recent dog breeds and breeds from abroad. People often used the word buhund in a derogatory way, when describing farm dogs of dubious origin. Sæland himself used coarse language when describing many of the dogs people referred to as a buhund. In his eyes, they were nothing but mongrels, not worthy of the title.
Sæland was a government advisor and specialist on sheep and goats breeding. He was also a specialist on the utilisation of mountain and moorland pasture. In addition, Sæland focussed on the need for developing an excellent Norwegian sheep dog. In line with the times, he made what he believed to be the direct descendant of the ancient Norwegian dog his first choice – with its local connection, history, and well-suited abilities.
He began the search for the individuals he felt best represented the true buhund, and organised the first Norwegian Buhund dog show in 1925. The following year, he helped push through the first breed standard.
In the years that followed, Norwegian Buhund dog shows were held jointly with the state-organised sheep and goat shows – at least in those instances where Sæland was in charge. This cemented the connection between the Norwegian Buhund and its role as a herding dog.
A Norwegian sheepdog
Sæland mentions the name sheepdog in his early writings, and the breed could easily have ended up being called Norwegian Sheepdog. Sæland’s own background from rural Rogaland – and his general interest in Norwegian language and history – probably coloured the choice of breed name.
Flink was the top dog
The dog registered as number 1 in the buhund registry – and the dog that Sæland deemed to be the finest specimen of his time – was Flink from the farm Ravndal in Gjesdal, Rogaland, Norway.
Flink was said to have had a small portion of Scottish sheepdog in him, but Sæland didn’t see this as a problem – rather the opposite. Flink still represented more than enough of the best of the characteristics and qualities handed down through the old stock.
He was the model of the 1926 breed standard. Sæland confirms this in the pedigree register of 1938.
Flink was born in 1924, and when he participated in his last dog show in 1937, he still got 1st price.
Not everyone agreed
It should be mentioned that not everyone agreed that Flink best represented the buhund ideal.
There were two main buhund fractions, both with roots in the south-western and sheep-rich region of Rogaland.
As time went on, the Sæland branch seems to have had the strongest influence.
The colour of the coat
When today’s Norwegians think of the Norwegian Buhund, most think of a dog with a wheaten coloured coat.
However, the breed standard also includes reddish-wheaten, wheaten with dark-tipped hairs, and black – also allowing black with elements of white.
Both Sæland and others noted in early writings, that historically, the buhund was more often black than not.
The Norwegian Buhund club
A buhund club – Norsk Buhundklubb – was established in 1939, with 42 registered members.
135 Norwegian Buhunds attended the national all-dog-breeds-show of 1945, and they were the largest contingent of that year.
Despite some rocky patches over the years, the club had around 400 members in 2017.
Currently, the number of Norway-registered puppies lies between 100-150 per year – and the total buhund-population in Norway is an estimated 1,000 plus.
There has been an increased interest for the breed also outside Norway, and today there are Norwegian Buhunds in many countries across the world.
Among others; both the UK and the US have their own Norwegian Buhund clubs.
A Mr Fanebust from Sauda in Rogaland sent two black buhunds with the Norwegian America Line in 1931. «Bamse» and «Lefle» are said to be the first Norwegian Buhunds on American soil. Their new owner, Mr C.W. Voltz, greeted the two as they arrived in New York.
In 1958, a Mr Laidlow of Melbourne, Australia, imported two Norwegian Buhunds from the UK.
Major changes in agriculture and change of role
In more recent years, the number of Norwegian Buhunds and the interest for the breed has been somewhat erratic. This is strongly connected to the significant change in Norwegian animal husbandry seen after World War II.
A more industrialised agriculture rapidly replaced the old ways. This significantly affected the role of the traditional buhund.
Enthusiasts are pushing forward and working hard to secure the breed for the future. The Norwegian gene bank includes genetic material as part of this process. The scientists have given the Norwegian Buhund the status of critical.
Main roles in today’s society
The Norwegian Buhund is still used on some sheep farms and for hunting. But like with so many other dog types, it has also become a modern-day family dog. The breed has been used as a drug detection assistant, a hearing assistant and more.
Who will be the next Sæland?
On many Norwegian farms, we often find an empty doghouse in the yard; abandoned and silent monuments of a time that was different.
But the pendulum of time may yet swing back. Maybe soon we will see the Norwegian Buhund return in larger numbers – in its role as the multi-talented farm dog. Among the Norwegians – and beyond.
And who knows – maybe you are the one who will take on the mantle – and be the new Sæland – in the next chapter of the old Norwegian buhund history.
Our recommended next post is The Norwegian horse and its history – part 1
Dog breed information from the Norwegian
The 7 Norwegian dog breeds
Norwegian Buhund | Norwegian Elkhound | Black Norwegian Elkhound | Norwegian Lundehund | Norwegian Hound – or Dunker | Halden Hound | Norwegian Hygen Hound
Main sources: «Norsk buhundklubbs jubileumsbok om buhund : historikk 1939-1999» – Norsk Buhundklubb buhund.no | norwegianbuhund.org.uk | Norsk Kennel Klubb nkk.no | nibio.no