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(Photograph by Edward Readicker-Henderson)

Norway’s Best-Kept Secret: Puffin Dogs

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?”

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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.

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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.”