The art of raising a Viking dog

They think their god will save their skin,
But all resistance will be in vain,
We stare at death with crimson grins,
With Odin’s help we cannot fail.

We hold our heads up to the sky,
And know that we will never die,
As long as we stand side by side,
As long as we can see the ravens fly.

– Amon Amarth (Raven’s flight lyrics)

Image from the Kickstarter project “Journey to Ragnarok”

Stories of Viking exploits are widely known. The savagery they displayed in battle, their heathen rituals of human sacrifice, slavery and disregard for human life. While all of this is true, there are many layers to the Vikings that are ignored and overlooked.

They were excellent craftsmen and built boats the world had never seen the likes of. They were explorers, venturing into places where none had gone before. They would trade with nations and cultures from all over the world and they did indeed spend far more time farming and building, than murdering. They ran surprisingly civilised Kingdoms and men and women were considered equal long before the idea was even entertained by the Saxons.

While not, perhaps, the perfect role models, I believe there is a lot that we can take from the Vikings to help create a strong, loyal and loving canine companion. To build a true Viking dog.

THE FOUR PILLARS OF ÚLFHÉÐNAR (THE WOLF WARRIORS)

Still from the TV show ‘Vikings’

There were many types of warriors among the Vikings; shieldmaidens, berserkers (bear warriors), svinfylkning (boar warriors) and last but not least, the Úlfhéðnar. These were frenzied warriors, who wore the pelt and head of a wolf when going into battle. They were referred to as Odin’s special warriors and there are many stories of them biting their shields and howling at their enemies, creating terror beyond comprehension.

It is generally accepted that the Vikings were crude warriors. While they were great tacticians and utilised strong teamwork (such as banding together in ‘shieldwalls’ to repel their enemies), fighting with such savagery, and wailing homemade axes and knives, was considered unsophisticated and wild by the Britons. Then again, it worked.

My deep interest for Vikings has led me to define four pillars, which I believe create a resilient and strong warrior. One which would overcome anything that was thrown at them. And I use that as inspiration to develop what I call a Viking dog;


Fearless – Adventurous – Resolute – Autonomous


FEARLESS

All true Vikings desired only to die in battle, as this would grant them access to Valhalla. Valhalla – Hall of the Slain – was an enormous hall, with endless mead and food, governed by Odin himself. All who died fighting were collected by Valkyries and lifted into this “Viking Heaven” where they would fight in battles all day, rise from death in the evening and feast all through the night. They did not fear death and as such pushed hard and were successful in so many of their endeavours.

These warriors were called Einherjar – ‘Army of one’ – would be at the side of the Norse God’s when Ragnarok began, and they would fight and die once more, to protect the nine realms.

If you don’t fear death, anything is possible and from that comes confidence. While it is said that a “fearless man is a fool”, I would argue that a fearless dog will take any challenge in its stride and push harder through stress in order to get what it desires. So if you have a truly fearless dog, anything is possible.

ADVENTUROUS

As I mentioned earlier, the Vikings were excellent craftsmen and shipbuilders. Their dragon headed sea vessels, could soar them across great, vast oceans, and up the narrowest of rivers once they hit land. Their ships were divided into two classes; langskip (longships or warships) and knörr (merchant ships).

To the Vikings, trade was as important – if not more important – than war and raiding. The word vikingr was actually used to describe someone who went on expeditions, usually abroad, not a warrior; as we use it today. The Vikings were great adventurers, and while they loved their Scandinavian homelands, the desire for exploration and adventure would grab them frequently, and they would set off to find new people, cultures and lands.

I want every dog to be an adventurer. To see, hear or smell something brand new and, rather than cower in fear, move towards it, with interest and confidence. I want a dog that is willing and happy to try new things, even though they may not lead to success. I want a dog that grabs the world by the horns and makes it its own personal peeing post.

RESOLUTE

The Vikings were an incredibly independent people, who lived through a lot of hardship. From the frozen north (even as far as Iceland), they struggled on and found innovative and practical ways to thrive where less determined people, would quickly have succumbed to the harsh climates.

They were opportunistic and realised one vital fact early on; with great risk, comes great reward. And so, they pushed, struggled, fought and grit their teeth to survive, in order to better their Kingdoms and their personal lives.

Yet while they were independently resilient, they knew they were stronger together. They trained together and they fought together, never doubting their best friend had their back in the midst of a bloody war. To know that their shield would take an arrow for their neighbour, as their neighbour would take a sword for them.

I want dogs to become a unit with their humans. A cog in the wheel that turns perfectly and allows man and beast to rely on each other. To advocate for each other. To understand that together, there is nothing they can’t overcome.

AUTONOMOUS

While Norsemen (heathens) were despised by the Saxons for their heinous belief systems, they possessed an individual strength, unmatched by anyone. They had no rigid or oppressive religious institutions, which crushed any form of deviance.

Vikings were taught from an early age to be independent. To master skills which could save their lives in a crisis. They were prepared with tales of ships being destroyed by islands, and how lone survivors could live for years, if they knew how to tame the wild. This self-reliance meant they could endure extreme situations, without anyone to guide them, even from a young age. In fact, many teenagers would leave their homes, to test their skills and challenge themselves in the midst of the freezing winters.

I want all dogs to have an unwavering mindset, extreme focus and a clear purpose. I want them to learn how to make good choices and to be independent and free. I want them to be comfortable being away from their pack, knowing they have the skills and determination to be just fine on their own. I want them to know, that in a pinch, they have the power to be autonomous and resolve a situation themselves.

HÁVAMÁL – ‘THE WORDS OF THE HIGH ONE’

Dogs portrayed in Valhalla

The Poetic Edda was written as a rule book for the Vikings. It was written from the viewpoint of Odin, in order to guide the people to make morally correct choices. It spoke of everything from how to conduct yourself around others, to offering food and shelter for those weary travellers and never to overdrink.


Many warriors would be buried with their dogs, so their souls could travel and live together forever.


It holds many truths that are just as valuable today, as they were back then, some seven-hundred-years ago. It is believed that the Vikings held animals – both pets and working stock – in very high regard and treated them with respect. There is even evidence that Chieftans would bring their pet dogs and cats on raids!

Dogs were used for hunting and herding in the Viking communities and because they were expensive to train, were held up as great status symbols; dogs were even depicted in Valhalla. Many warriors would be buried with their dogs, so their souls could travel and live together forever.

Despite what we all think we know about the Vikings it appears there is much more to uncover and learn. But whether you are raising a fire breathing Belgian Malinois to use as a K9 unit, or you are enjoying the company of your accidentally bred Shitzu x Staffordshire Terrier, I strongly believe that every dog will benefit from becoming a Viking dog.


Stian Berg
Dog trainer & behaviourist