I’m too distracted to hear the first announcement. The captain is pulling the National Geographic Explorer dangerously close to shore, and I am waiting for a metal-on-rock crunch that never comes in this ridiculously deep Norwegian fjord.

Then it registers. Did I hear “puffin dogs?”

The Lundehund was bred to hunt puffins and their eggs. (Photograph by Edward Readicker-Henderson)

We’re arriving in Værøy, the tail end of Norway’s Lofoten Islands — well above the Arctic Circle, yet, due to the Gulf Stream, its average temperature remains above freezing year round — the day before its annual puffin-dog convention. Sometimes, you just get lucky.

The puffin dog — the Norwegian Lundehund — has a long and noble history. The first reliable mention of the breed dates back to 1591, when a bailiff, no doubt looking for new things to tax, visited Værøy and noted that “one cannot easily retrieve the birds from the depth without having a small dog accustomed to crawling into the hole and pulling the birds out.” Which is great if you want puffin for lunch.

Offhand, I don’t know anybody who wants puffin for lunch.

The Lundehund’s size (about 15 pounds) and personality (cuddly, but playful) combine to create the ideal lap dog. “They’re a good family dog — not too attached to a single person,” Rita Daverdin says. 

I scratch one behind the ear, and the dog leans into it, laying her downy head in my hand. “You’ve hit her button,” Rita says.

We all have skills. Rita’s is that tomorrow, she’ll be elected president of the Lundehund Klubb. Mine is that I scratch dogs well. I just haven’t found a way to monetize it yet.

Because the breed was made to go into narrow burrows, pull out live puffins, and come back out, they’re about as pliable as snakes.

“Please don’t show anybody pictures of this — they’ll get the wrong idea” Rita asks, as she demonstrates how the dog can bend its neck straight back until its head is laying flat against its spine. They can also splay out their legs a full 90 degrees and seal off their ears to keep the dirt out.

The breed is known for its extreme flexibility (and six toes). (Photograph by Edward Readicker-Henderson)

All of it makes perfect evolutionary sense; Lundehunds that got stuck in the tunnels didn’t live long enough to pass on many genes.

But what’s the explanation behind their six toes, all fully functional? Extra grip when running up a puffin-infested cliff? Even then, the fact that five of the front toes are triple-jointed seems…excessive.

Puffin hunting is illegal now in Norway (though you can still find the seabirds on the menu in Iceland and a few other places), but even at its peak, the season was limited and largely confined to the cliffs on the far side of Måstad, the erstwhile center of the lundehund universe.

The village has seen better days, with only a few vacation homes remaining — and, from the looks of it, it’d be hard to vacation because you’d be too busy fixing a leaky roof. I play with the dogs among ruined walls and in grass tall enough that, sometimes, only the tip of a wagging tail is visible.

Just as the village is in decline, so was the breed that made it famous. The lundehund nearly went extinct twice: the population dropped to just two dogs around World War II, then rebounded only to be hit with distemper in 1963, which knocked them down to a small handful yet again.

Now, the breed is back up to a couple thousand, most of them in Norway, which is why the Lundehund Klubb considers keeping the bloodlines from getting too close an essential task. The healthy, happy dogs I spend time with — except for the one who, finding a life jacket to curl up in, decides it’s done moving for the day — prove that the club has done its job.

Maybe the lundehund don’t have their old purpose anymore, but they are living proof that with a little love and care, the brink of extinction can turn into a pack of dogs romping in a field. And that beats a puffin lunch any day.

Edward Readicker-Henderson is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler. Read his life-affirming ode to the healing power of travel, “Cheating Death.”

Comments

  1. cristal
    Florida
    March 8, 2013, 12:24 pm

    Thanks for a great article! Can’t say I have ever heard of the puffin dogs before so loved learning something new. Great photos too!

  2. nanook
    Austria
    January 25, 2013, 5:55 pm

    you may find me on facebook, Nanook, a 3 month old norwegian puffin dog puppie ;-)
    You will see how I discover my home (unfortunately there are no puffins in Austria)

  3. solla
    iceland
    December 17, 2012, 6:57 am

    I eat puffin. ..

  4. Christian Rene Friborg
    November 26, 2012, 12:22 am

    They are so adorable. I would love to have Puffin dogs in my pack as well. :)

  5. Ruby
    MiBCvgzTPFiCAn
    October 30, 2012, 11:24 am

    I\’m quite pleased with the infrotmiaon in this one. TY!

  6. Anneli
    Åland, Finland
    October 28, 2012, 3:46 pm

    The breed is great, I breed them and I have two litters right now. Surf into my website and follow the links to my gallery. I was to Vaeroy last summer 2012 and have a bunch of photos from there: http://www.eriksro.com

  7. Leslie Morrison
    October 17, 2012, 7:06 pm

    I have bred and owned Norwegian Lundehunds (lunde is the Norwegian word for puffin) for the last fifteen years. They are fascinating little dogs, incredibly smart, funny and strong minded. They do require a dedicated owner with plenty of patience and a very good sense of humor, but once you’ve owned a lundehund, everything else is just…a dog. Emily, while you are correct in saying that they are prone to an illness that is distinct to the breed, it is not related to their consumption of grain – my dogs are all few a raw meat and bone diet. but this does not guarantee they won’t get sick. As with all breeds, you need to do your homework before you decide to share your home with a Lundehund.

  8. Rex Ramio
    Hahahahahahahaha I won't tell you
    October 8, 2012, 7:13 pm

    I want one of those dogs so bad. It would be awesome to get one.

  9. Kylie person
    Somewhere
    October 8, 2012, 3:24 pm

    I’m only 11

  10. Jack marvil
    Somewhere
    October 8, 2012, 3:23 pm

    I love you national geografic

  11. Jack marvil
    Somewhere
    October 8, 2012, 3:22 pm

    Awesome! I hope you write more about it. I really liked it!

  12. thuyduong
    Vietnam
    October 6, 2012, 8:31 pm

    Cute dog **

  13. Emily
    4 Corners, USA
    October 4, 2012, 3:48 pm

    We adopted a dog in Central America that is polydactyl and just as flexible as the Lundehund. ?Did Vikings make it to Central America pre-Columbus and drop one off? ‘Doce’ looks similar to a cross between a Xoloitzcuintli, Maned Wolf and a Lundehund. Dog variations are amazing. To ‘A person': Lundehunds need to eat puffins or other animals. They cannot consume grains and therefore are prone to a deadly digestive disease. Consider rescuing a dog in your local area. Each one is unique. You might find a friend that is more unique than a Lundehund.

  14. Elize Kotze
    Alberton, South Africa
    October 4, 2012, 4:33 am

    Cute dog. But I feel sorry for the puffins, they are such beautiful birds! why can’t people just have normal chickens which are bred to be eaten or their eggs? I am glad to see that Puffin hutting is illegal in NORWAY! GOOD!!!!!!

  15. David
    October 3, 2012, 2:07 pm

    My wife and I are the proud owners if two of them. Stella and Bernadette, 4 and 3 years old respectively, are are bundle of fun. Everywhere we go with them, we are stopped constantly and asked if they’re a fox or a coyote or even a baby wolf. We love explaining to people what they are and showing some of their unique attributes.

  16. A person
    October 3, 2012, 9:26 am

    I would love to learn more about the Puffin Dogs, they are a very interesting breed of dog

  17. A person
    October 3, 2012, 9:10 am

    The puffin Dogs are very cute and i would love to have one