You might think a beloved canine companion of the Vikings wouldn’t stoop to cavort with mere mortals like us. Fortunately, spirited Norwegian elkhound dogs are affectionate and dedicated to their families. Ruggedly beautiful, they make exceptional partners for hiking, swimming, hunting, herding livestock, and other rough-and-ready activities outdoor enthusiasts enjoy. When the work is done, they’ll appreciate being indoors close to the fire with a full belly and within easy reach of pats and rubs.
Sofiah Hoefer and her husband Skyler own Montana Mountain Elkhounds located near Missoula, Mont. She says elkies, as they’re sometimes called, are a bold, intelligent breed with a lot of personality. “They crave adventure, freedom, and purpose. They’re also happy, become fast friends with everyone they meet, and are wonderful family dogs with very maternal instincts with children.”
Stately Norwegian elkhounds are built for action: Solid, hardy, and agile, they use strong, compact legs to eagerly scale various types of terrain and keep a good running pace. For a dog weighing only 48–55 pounds, that’s a lot of oomph! His wedge-shaped head tapers to a long black snout, and intense dark brown eyes are oval-shaped and keen. An elkie expresses a lot of emotion with his high pointed ears: Facing you, he’s paying attention and ready for the next task; softened and tilted back slightly, he’s mellow and ready to relax.
Like many Nordic breeds, elkhounds have an abundant double coat of fur you just want to bury your face into. Coarse, weather-resistant top hairs cover a downy, insulating layer underneath. This provides ample protection against harsh winds and helps them dry quickly after a dip into cool waters.
Although "gray Norwegian elkhounds" are often how they’re labeled, these dogs are never completely gray: They have swaths of black, white, and silver across their chests and backs, sometimes extending to their hindquarters.
Let’s not forget an elkie’s fabulous tail! Since male and female dogs only stand about 20 inches high at the shoulder, he won’t clear the coffee table with it, but it’s hard to ignore that multi-colored curly tuft high on his backside—this whole area wiggles when he’s playful and excited.
A Norwegian elkhound’s temperament is a complex blend of loving attention and sharp mental agility.
He’s loyal, patient with children and other dogs, has a playful sense of humor, and is a trusty guardian without aggression. He always wants to be with you and the family: tending to livestock, sprinting along a hiking trail, riding on the edge of your kayak—whatever you do outside, your elkie will be right there! “They’re very people-oriented and consider themselves to be an equal member of the family whose ideas should be valued,” Hoefer says. “You’ll receive intense eye contact with this breed.”
They’re also independent thinkers and need to know you’re the leader of the pack. “Invest in training for these intelligent dogs, either by a professional, or do-it-yourself training to strengthen the loyal bond you have with your dog,” says Patrick Singletary, DVM, owner of Good Dog Veterinary Care in Marietta, Ga. Proper positive reinforcement training helps enrich your elkie’s life and is the best way to teach dogs new behaviors and change old habits.
Because Norwegian elkhounds are so smart, they also get bored easily, especially once they think they’ve mastered something. Hoefer says they respond best to consistent and fair training with plenty of treats and ‘atta boys. For experienced dog owners, having an elkhound means you can interact with him in ways that challenge both of you, such as through nosework, dock-diving (elkies love to swim!), field trials, and other task-oriented jobs. Vary his skill set, and your Norwegian elkhound dog will be quite satisfied.
An elkie’s always curious, so he’s going to follow his wanderlust in an instant and explore all the scents he picks up. For this reason, it’s best not to let him off leash unless in an enclosed area or, if you’re truly tracking game, need his assistance and he responds well to recall. Because an elkhound is such an amazing hunter—sometimes catching birds in mid-air!—he has a high prey drive for smaller creatures, so introduce him to the family cats and other little pets when he’s a pup to ensure good relationships.
While a Norwegian elkhound is apartment friendly, he also needs extensive activity and engagement to be truly happy. He was the primary hunting dog of Vikings, lifting his muzzle to the wind from a ship’s bow and racing ahead through rough terrain on the scent of large game. These instinctive desires don’t go away easily.
Hoefer says Norwegian elkhounds are athletic dogs bred to work and are able to trot and hike for hours. “While having an acreage for an elkhound to roam and explore is ideal, it’s not a requirement,” she adds. “Elkies do just as well with a fenced yard. But an active lifestyle and an ample amount of attention and mental stimulation is a must! A bored elkhound will likely become destructive and develop a barking problem.” Daily visits to a dog park where they can romp with other medium- to large-sized dogs are good for socialization, along with energetic and focused activities such as flyball, Frisbee, or barn hunts.
Singletary also advises prospective owners to be aware of an elkie’s coat and the climate you live in. “Temperate climates present an issue for this breed because they’re prone to overheating in the summer. But keeping them cooped up in the comfortable air conditioning isn’t an option either, as they can have some behavior challenges.” To keep your elkie cool in the heat, create a space that’s dog-friendly with plenty of shelter, shade, and a fun water feature to splash in.
If you’re making a list of Norwegian elkhounds pros and cons, put a big green check mark for grooming on the plus side. They’re one of the few breeds without a doggy smell and will only need a bath two to three times a year, Hoefer says. Spend a few minutes each day brushing his coat in the opposite direction to remove loose hair, and he’ll look spiffy. Spot check his nails and ears weekly, too, and remember to brush his teeth (‘cause he’s not going to remind you).
A Norwegian elkhound’s shedding, known as “blowing coat,” is quite a sight—in the spring and fall, the fur really flies! His bountiful double coat has weather-resistant hairs on top, and a thick, wooly layer underneath. The undercoat releases seemingly endless amounts of downy fluff, which requires you to brush, lint roll, and vacuum much more than usual to keep it under control during shedding season.
Under no circumstances should you shave an elkhound. “Their undercoat keeps them insulated and their body temperature regulated, keeping them warm in the winter and cool in the summer,” Hoefer says. “Once shaved, their hair doesn’t regrow properly.”
“It’s important to do plenty of pedigree research if you’re acquiring one of these dogs from a breeder,” Singletary says. “Norwegian elkhounds have a predisposition for progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), which is an untreatable eye condition that results in blindness. They can be affected as soon as 6 weeks old and have complete loss of vision by 12–18 months of age.” The American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists states that since many animals have an amazing ability to adapt to vision loss, some don't display PRA symptoms until they're receiving cataract surgery or an owner notices problems with their mobility after rearranging furniture in the home.
Hoefer says Elkhounds are also prone to hip dysplasia, which could lead to painful osteoarthritis. Hip dysplasia is a genetic skeletal condition that causes displacement of the ball and socket in the hip joint. If this condition is diagnosed in younger dogs, surgery might be an option. Hoefer says Norwegian elkhounds sometimes develop sebaceous cysts as well, which are often surgically removed successfully as long as the underlying cause is diagnosed to prevent future development.
As active as they are, elkies also love to eat, and they’re not picky! In fact, Singletary says they can rapidly gain weight, so you have to be sure to feed them appropriately. You can tell if your dog is getting a bit chonky if you see his sides or back rippling as he runs. Singletary cautions that an overweight dog with osteoarthritis could have his life shortened by as much as two years.
Overall, Hoefer says elkies are a healthy breed with few problems. You’ll have a long and loving relationship with them, as a Norwegian elkhound’s lifespan is 12–15 years.
Norwegian elkhounds descend from the Northern spitz family group of dogs throughout Russia and Scandinavia that are 4,000–6,000 years old, making them one of the oldest domesticated breeds in the world.
These Nordic wonders developed their sense of adventure traveling the open seas and mountainous terrain with fierce Viking warriors. Valued companions and guardians, they were also essential for tracking large game such as moose, bear, wolf, and lynx. Archaeologists have discovered elkhound remains in their Viking owners’ graves alongside shields and swords, evidence of their important roles in the Scandinavian way of life, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC).
The name Norwegian Elkhound—or “Norsk Elghund”—is a bit of a misnomer, the AKC writes. Elk in Norway are technically moose, a different species than American elk. In Norwegian, “elg” means “moose” and “hund” means “dog”. So this is why, and accurately so by proper translation, he’s sometimes referred to as the Norwegian moose dog.
The AKC classifies Norwegian elkhound dogs in its diverse hound group because of their superior ability to trail and hold game, and they’re placed in this category for dog shows and other competitions, too. The Norwegian Elkhound Association started in the United States in 1930, and the AKC acknowledged the breed in 1953.