Love affair with Norwegian breed leads
Parkinson’s patient to life-saving surgery

Photos courtesy of Jason Mullett-Bowlsby of The Shibaguyz
By Ranny Green

Photos courtesy of Jason Mullett-Bowlsby of The Shibaguyz

A relaxed Hammarhojden’s Ultra (Ultra), a Norwegian Lundehund, rests its head on a spectator’s arm before going into the breed ring last month at the Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show in CenturyLink Field Event Center.

A distant connection with a six-toed Norwegian dog breed representing spirituality at its purest level also has proven to be a lifesaver for Sharon Pederson, 54, of Beaverton, Ore.

The former ballerina and mother of two daughters, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 21 years ago and eventually found herself in a “downhill emotional spiral” for years.

Six years after her Parkinson’s diagnosis, her best friend, Frank Bays, of Tomales, Calif., happened onto a web site about the Norwegian Lundehund and became totally enamored with what he saw. “I immediately began to look for Lundehunds to acquire,” says Pederson, acknowledging that because of the rarity of the breed, it would probably take a couple of years.

Ultra is examined by breed judge Pat Putnam, of Wenatchee, left, as owner Sharon Pederson, of Beaverton, Ore., watches.

Living on Bainbridge Island at the time, she turned to the Little Nickel Classifieds and found four Lundehunds in Auburn, purchasing all of them, aged 2 to 3½, and taking them to Tomales, prompting the eventual birth of Cliffhanger Kennel in 1997.

This led to her deep involvement with the breed, prompting annual trips to Norway, where she was seeking top breeding stock. In 2002, her Norwegian host’s son shared with her details and contact information of a doctor in Kiehl, Germany, who was performing deep-brain stimulation surgery for Parkinson’s sufferers.

Upon returning home, she found a clinical study at the University of California, San Francisco, and underwent the eight-hour surgery two years later. “It saved my life,” she admits. “I was having all sorts of problems. The side effects of the drugs were horrendous and I found myself running away from the disease. The surgery basically put me back on track to how I was feeling pre-Parkinson’s and gave me the freedom I was seeking,” she explains.

Pederson guides the 14-month-old Ultra around the breed ring at the Seattle show.

A week following the procedure, she returned to the hospital to have her implanted neurosimulator battery turned on. “I’ll never forget that day. Frank and I drove back to the hospital from the farm to have the procedure done and on the way home I told him I didn’t feel that different. A short time later, I opened my checkbook to write out three checks and when I finished, I looked at my handwriting and it appeared just like it had before I was hit with Parkinson’s. We both rolled down our windows and yelled out with joy.”

And just in case you’re wondering, the unit’s life expectancy is four to five years, but Pederson found herself back in the hospital six months later for a replacement and received a second rechargeable battery implant in 2009, which requires a recharge every third or fourth night.

Prior to entering breed competition, Pederson, a Parkinson’s Disease patient, holds the young Lundie.

During the operation, the surgeon implants electrodes in the brain, which are connected to the pacemaker-like device that can be adjusted and turned on and off. Implanted under the collarbone or in the abdomen, it sends tiny electrical impulses to the brain, disabling overactive nerve cells.

The Lundehund love affair has a win-win on all fronts. “The breed needed a champion in this country and I was there to make the offer,” says Pederson. “Frank and I co-founded Cliffhanger Kennel watched our Lundie population grow from the four to 12 in just a few years, all the while dealing with the advancing case of Parkinson’s.”

The Cliffhanger gene pool has origins not only in Norway but Sweden and Finland, too. “Though we average just six to seven puppies per litter,” she continues, “we continue to import for genetic diversification. Historically, however, the breed is a product of natural evolution, not man’s breeding.

Following the surgery she joined the Sir Francis Drake Kennel Club, based in San Rafael, Calif., for which she serves as president. And that love fest also paid dividends literally, connecting her with Dale Simmons, an AKC judge and now her fiancé.

Pederson believes this breed picked her in 1997 but was the conduit leading her to the life-changing surgery. “I so thoroughly love these creatures that it touches deep in my psyche. I remember meeting my first Lundehund puppy about two months after I picked up the original four. When she came out of the car I was so completely overwhelmed with emotion that all I could do was cry. She was perfection and my heart recognized that.

Six toes are the Norwegian Lundehund’s most distinctive feature.

“Through the worst days of Parkinson’s the Lundehunds allowed me to focus on something other than the disease,” she adds, “which was very important.”

The breed, which first became eligible last year for American Kennel Club all-breed show competition, has a U.S. population of approximately 300, Pederson estimates, and approximately 2,500 worldwide.

It is a small and agile Spitz breed, according to the AKC Meet the Breeds vignette. Features such as six toes on each foot, prickly ears that fold close forward or backward at will; the ability to tip the head backward until it touches the backbone all helped it perform its job as a Puffin hunter until the 1880s when the bird became a protected species in Norway. At that point, the Norwegian Lundehund lost its primary job and was no longer coveted by the farmers. It was saved from near extinction following World War II by two concerned Norwegians. In 1962, there were only six known purebred Lundehunds and from that point their population recovery has been slow and gradual.

Its dense coat ranges from fallow to reddish brown, and its size from 12 to 15 inches at the shoulder. It competes in the AKC’s Non-Sporting class.

“The Lundie is incredibly intelligent,” explains Pederson. “It will stop and think what is good for it. It needs a live-and-let-live type of owner. The breed is very entertaining, yet totally committed to its owner. It is excellent within the family framework and very good around children.”