History of the Norbottenspets
This small hunting dog originated from northern Sweden and northern Finland. They were an integral to the way of life in the taiga stretching from the North Sea to the Pacific as they were used to hunt furs and were necessary aid in food gathering. Thanks to the works of early outdoorsmen such as A.E. Järvinen, the Finnish Spitz and Norrbottenspets became symbols of northern wilderness. In the 21st century, the bird-barking dogs are just as traditional as the loue (a type of shelter), puukko (sheath knife), leuku (a wide and long knife similar in function to the machete) and kuksa (drinking cup carved from birch burl). In both Sweden and Finland, there is a strong national pride with owning these dogs as they are one of the few last remaining links to the wilderness which largely disappeared elsewhere in the world.
Today, Norrbottenspets is bred as a treeing dog for black grouse, capercaillie, and hazel grouse, but are also very successful with fur-bearing animals as well as baying moose. The breed is strongly embraced by hunters wishing to return to their ancestral roots of simple life and being alone in the forest away from the busy, everyday modern life. As these hunting dogs become central to family life, more and more are emerging in agility and obedience trials. Norrbottenspets are proving themselves to be a very versatile breed.
Taxidermied dog circa 1906 found from the Natural History Museum of St. Petersburg. From pg. 53 of Finsk Spets och Norrbottenspets(1992) by Rune B. Samuelsson. Courtesy ofTraditional Spitz Association.
Hunting spitzes across Eurasia are descended from indigenous dogs of northern hunters since the prehistoric period. They were used to hunt game for food and pelts for clothing and trade. Furs were valuable commerce and were used as currency. These dogs, through natural selection, became adapted to the terrain and climate of the wilderness and provided the economic and subsistence needs of the peoples with whom they lived alongside.
Extracted from the greater landrace, small burly dogs with a range of different phenotypes from red to grey of varying degrees, often with piebald patternings, were used as the foundation for the Norrbottenspets breed. The dogs of today are descended from remote villages of northern Scandinavia in places such as Kainuu, North Karelia, southern Lapland and Tornio river valley.
Initially, in 1906, Swedish Kennel Club registered all native dogs as Nordic Spitz. S. Sahlin, E. Orstadius and Kantzov I Boden in Sweden were the first to describe the small bird-dogs of Norrland. Hugo Johnathan Roos, founder of the Finnish Spitz breed, wrote in Sporten magazine about the piebald village dogs encountered when he toured northern Finland as a sportsman. M.G. Dmitrieva-Sulima and A.A. Shirinsky-Shikhmatov of Old Russia recorded similar descriptions of the dogs of varying colours during their visits to the Grand Duchy of Finland and neighbouring Finno-Uralic tribes. These accounts were during the rise of kennel clubs worldwide in the late 19thand early 20th century. Attempts to create various dog breeds coincided with the rise of the industrial class and nationalism. Transforming local dogs into breeds was another step toward a national identity.
The first attempt to recognize the regional dog as a formalized breed was by the Swedish Kennel Club in 1910 as Norrbottensskällande fågelhund which transliterates to “Norrbottens Barking Bird-Dog”. Only a few individuals were obtained and interest in the breed spluttered. By 1947, the breed was delisted.
The lack of interest during the first half of the 20th century was perhaps the result of pedigreed dogs being largely acquired by people with spending power. Sophisticated sportsmen of the south, influenced by British and Continental styles, were not much interested in the ways of the taiga. For the few inclined the Finnish Spitz, an earlier established breed, had already occupied this niche and captivated their interest.
Indigenous dogs, however, were greatly appreciated during the Great Depression as grouses alleviated food shortages and pelts from martens and squirrels supplemented families’ incomes. This way of life persisted until the 1950s as Finns laboured to rebuild the country after the Second World War and the last of the war reparations made to the Soviet Union was paid.
The events leading up to, and during, the Second World War impacted people and their dogs severely. The border disputes of the Winter War of 1939 and Continuation War of 1941 – 1944 forcibly evacuated inhabitants of Eastern Finland and Karelia. When the tides turned, the scorched-earth tactics of fleeing Germans during the Lapland War of 1944 – 1945 decimated the region with approximately half of the dwellings razed and two-third of the major cities burned to the ground. As the result, over 100 000 refugees settled temporarily in southern Finland and Sweden. It is unknown how many dogs were lost to the turmoils and upheavals.
When the fur prices dropped and Finns began re-industrializing the country, the indigenous dog lost his place in the households. People turned to farming or moved to cities for jobs and the hunting way of life underwent a transition from one of economic or subsistence to recreational. Village dogs were replaced by pedigreed dogs as the robust middle-class grew.
During the 1950s, a Swedish forester Stig Onnerfeld passed through the Tornio Valley observing the local dogs which inspired him to begin collecting them and presented them to the Swedish Kennel Club for the revival of Norrbottenspets breed. The studbook was reopened in 1966 and Rune Samuelsson was commissioned to find specimen by writing to hunters and foresters in magazines and newspapers.
In the following year, over 100 individuals came forward and 36 were accepted.. During the remainder of the decade 80 to 100 individuals were added to the foundation stock.
Since 15 of the dogs were procured through newspapers advertisements in Kainuu, Finland, two men, Matti Kuivila and Erkki Pihlaja, passionate about preserving hunting heritage, petitioned the Finnish Kennel Club to recognize the breed and begin an initiative. Unfortunately, the proposal was shelved.
Recognizing the shared heritage, Swedish Kennel Club proposed a formal joint cooperative program with Finnish Kennel Club in 1973. In April of that year, Olli Korhonen and Juho Perttola made their way north to Oulu, Rovaniemi and Sodankylä where they found 10 males and 29 females. Another 80 individuals were found during the year of 1973 – 1974. By 1980, an additional 20 more were added to the studbook. Under the leadership of Matti Joenpolvi, Kalle Ukonmaanaho and Ari Juntusen, newspaper advertisements seeking indigenous dogs persisted up until the mid-1990s. Efforts to find more indigenous dogs to add to the studbook continued in the Republic of Karelia on the Russian side of the border in 2006 – 2008 yielded a single male. The Finnish Kennel Club is still receptive to adding more dogs to the gene pool.
Norrbottenspets saw a slow growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s as Finnish Spitz fanciers were initially suspicious of the new breed. Understanding all spitzes came from the same landrace, Norrbottenspets was soon adopted by those who embraced the breed as both their hunting and cultural heritage. For many enthusiasts, Norrbottenspets was close to the source of all Nordic hunting spitzes.
During the 1970s and 1980s, there were only about 20 registrations annually. As more people began participating in conformation shows and hunting trials, the registration escalated to about 200 to 250 per year. Today, puppy registration is well over 300, nearing 400 in some years. The global population is now estimated to be over 4 100 individuals with more than four-fifth residing in Sweden and Finland.
The breed is recognized internationally by Fédération Cynologique Internationale, Canadian Kennel Club and American Kennel Club. Coming from a humble origin, the Norrbottenspets is now a cherished breed.
Dmitrieva-Sulima, M.G. Laika and Hunting with It, trans. by Vladimir Beregovoy, 2013. Originally published in Moscow, Russia: 1911.
Specialklubben för skällande fågelhundar. “Rasspecifik Avelsstrategi (RAS)” Svenska Kennelklubben (2009): 1 – 2. Accessed March 8, 2015: http://www.skk.se/Global/Dokument/RASdokument/RAS-norrbottenspets.pdf?epslanguage=sv [in Swedish].
Suomen Pystykorvajärjestö. “JALOSTUKSEN TAVOITEOHJELMA POHJANPYSTYKORVA Versio 2,” (2014): 6 – 10. Accessed March 8, 2015: http://www.spj.fi/binary/file/-/id/1/fid/2751/ [in Finnish].
Perinteiset pystykorvat ry. “Unohdutettu suomalainen pohjanpystykorva (päivitys 29.6.).” Accessed August 3, 2015: http://viljakoiran.nettisivu.org/tiedote-8-2/ [in Finnish]