In order to run down and kill wolves, the people of Ireland bred the powerful and long-legged Irish Wolfhound. When they needed something to chase ill-tempered badgers into their holes to exterminate them, Europeans bred the feisty, short-legged dachshund. But five hundred or more years ago, the people on the northern coast of Norway had a different kind of prey to contend with: humble puffins.
Puffins are small sea-birds. They look rather like small, flying penguins with big colorful beaks, and they like to nest in the narrow, twisting caves which honeycomb the local rocky sea-cliffs. The sheer inaccessibility of those cliffs helps to keep the predators away, while the caves add yet another layer of difficulty to anything trying to get at the puffins. Yet in northern Norway, puffins used to be a major source of winter food, and catching them in enough quantity to make it through the long winters was absolutely necessary.
In order to fill this unique niche, the Norwegians bred a unique dog. The resulting Lundehund was an extraordinary animal with some unparalleled gifts. For all its uniqueness, the Lundehund is vanishingly rare. It has been so close to extinction that at one point there were only five of them in existence.
Due to their inaccessible nesting locations, the elusive puffins are difficult to catch in any quantity. A human being would give themselves away long before they reached the birds, and even if their prey were still around when they reached the caves, a human would be unable to navigate the tiny, twisting tunnels. The fox-sized Lundehund, however, was able to scrabble up cliffs and crawl into caves, hauling out the puffins for their owners. Many of the Lundehund’s most unusual features relate directly to the demands of their job.
To enhance traction on slippery rocks, and gripping in tight places, the Lundehund is a polydactyl (multi-toed) dog. Instead of the normal four toes a foot, the Lundehund has six toes, all fully formed, jointed and muscled. Polydactyl dogs are not terribly uncommon, but in most breeds the extra toes are dew-claws – non-functional vestigial toes, not the fully formed variety of the Lundehund. The dog uses these extra toes to gain purchase and haul itself along in positions where only the sides of its legs are touching the rock, a fairly common occurrence while wiggling through tight spots. They also help the dog gain additional traction while scrambling around on steep, often slippery cliffs.
Also helpful when getting into and out of small caves is the Lundehund’s extraordinary flexibility. The Lundehund’s forelegs can bend outwards far enough for the dog to lay flat on its chest, with the legs in an approximation of the human arm position. This kind leg flexibility is unheard of, not just in dogs, but in quadrupeds. The only other four-footed mammal that can match it is the reindeer.
The Lundehund’s extraordinary flexibility is not limited to the forelegs. The dog’s neck and spine are so flexible that it can lay its head back along its own spine, a position most humans couldn’t get into under any circumstances short of a broken neck, let alone most dogs. What exactly is going on with the Lundehund’s joints isn’t certain, but it seems clear that something unique is happening to allow for such unusual joint mobility.
It’s easy to see how this kind of flexibility would be helpful in a career in unassisted spelunking. Whether the dog needs to back out of a cave or turn itself around where there is little room to spare, the Lundehund is limber enough to manage, even with a mouthful of puffin.
The last of the Lundehund’s cave-diving adaptions is a unique ear structure. Normally held upright and pricked, the Lundehund can seal its own ears shut by bending them either forward or backward. Even more astonishing, the tip of the ear can be pricked separately, allowing the dog to use its ears effectively, while still only exposing a tiny, mostly covered space. This ability saves the dog from getting rock dust and water into its ears as it wedges itself through the caves.
Other oddities seem to stem from the Lundehund’s ancient heritage and from its near brush with extinction. The Lundehund has a jaw identical to the Varranger dog – a 5000 year old fossilized dog found in northern Lapland – with two fewer teeth than other modern dogs. A less benign difference is Lundehund syndrome. Lundehund syndrome is a set of digestive disorders that can lead to an overgrowth of digestive bacteria, intestinal cancer, and a loss of ability to absorb nutrients from food. In extreme cases the dog can starve simply because it’s unable to get the nutrients and protein it needs no matter how much it eats. Not every Lundehund is so severely afflicted, some are pretty much symptom free, but every Lundehund has the syndrome. There is no cure, though the disease can be managed.
Despite its oddities, the Lundehund was virtually forgotten outside of its native land until very recently. In 1925, a man named Sigurd Skuan encountered Lundehunds on Værøy Island, and was fascinated by them. By that time the puffin-hunting farmers of the northern islands had started hunting with nets, so the breed was dying out, with only about fifty remaining. Skuan wrote about the animal, but there was little interest in saving the dogs from extinction. The Norwegian Kennel Club originally thought the Lundehund was merely a variant on an existing breed, and even once convinced differently, did not pursue the matter beyond recognizing it as a breed.
Fortunately for the future of the Lundehund, a woman named Eleanor Christie in southern Norway ran across Mr. Skuan’s article. In 1937, she began trying to obtain some Lundehunds for breeding. Finding the dogs proved difficult, but eventually she located a farmer named Monrad Mikalson on Værøy who was willing to send her four puppies: three females and a male. Mrs. Christie received her dogs in 1939.
Her timing was fortunate. In 1942, while the vaccine was unobtainable due to WWII, canine distemper struck Værøy and the surrounding islands, wiping out all but one of the known Lundehunds. The farmer who had sent Mrs. Christie the puppies now called to her for help. She responded by sending two pregnant bitches and two puppies. Once again, the timing was fortunate. Had she not done so, it is likely the Lundehund would not exist today, for in 1944 distemper struck Mrs. Christie’s own dogs, wiping out all but her one original male. The farmer and Mrs. Christie struck up a lifetime friendship, and sent each other dogs several more times in their efforts to save the Lundehund. Despite all their work, it was well into the 1960’s before the number of Lundehunds passed the double digits.
Today the Lundehund is no longer on the brink of extinction. From that tiny remnant of five dogs (Mrs. Christie’s four, and the one Værøy dog), the Norwegians managed to rebuild their breed. It remains, however, one of the rarest of dogs, with fewer than 1000 individuals worldwide. Had Mr. Mikalson and Mrs. Christie been less dedicated to its continuation, or had their timing been less fortuitous, the breed would not have survived, and the world would have lost a dog like no other.