Getting Back to Basics
Nurse brings first pair of Eyjahunda sheepdogs into New Zealand
by Kelly Knufken
image2photo by Richard Wood

n animal rights activist for years, Elizabeth Olinger never thought she would become a dog breeder.

But circumstances led her to import the first breeding pair of Eyjahunda Icelandic sheepdogs into New Zealand. In the case of this particular type of dog, it’s all about conservation of a breed that was nearly extinct in the 1960s.

“I was able to have a wonderful dog, and I was able to participate in its conservation, which I felt was a good cause,” she says. “It would be a real tragedy if they were lost from the world.”

Olinger ’89 (MSN ’93) is one of just over 50 nurse practitioners in the country of New Zealand, where she moved from California in 2008, and is helping to promote the burgeoning specialty there.

In a way, this new beginning in New Zealand helps Olinger get back to her roots.

“I grew up in England, and I had been wanting to get back to the green countryside and the slower place of life,” she says. “England is not the place I left. We thought about New Zealand, and it turned out to be the right place.”

She and her teenage daughter live in Hawkes Bay, kind of a “Napa on the sea,” with “lovely restaurants and wineries and countryside.” Each day, she rises with the sun, feeds her horses, dogs and cats, and drives the 45 minutes to work.

She is an educator, lecturing and teaching graduate students advanced assessment and diagnostic reasoning at Eastern Institute of Technology Hawkes Bay, but also sees patients twice a week.

USD uniquely prepared her for this role, giving her a taste for continual learning and an appreciation for the rigors of academics.

“I think USD had very high academic standards,” Olinger says. “The students were really enthusiastic compared to what I’ve seen since then. I think we were encouraged to be individually motivated learners. It really established a lifelong educational habit.”

As she settles into her teaching role after years as a nurse practitioner in the United States, she also is seeing the value of the “solid theoretical foundation” she received at USD.

“I think it’s given me a great framework for how nursing education should be taught. And it’s given me a great appreciation for why it’s done that way.” She also plans to pursue her doctorate.

This nurse, who has fostered hundreds of cats, hedgehogs, birds, possums and other injured animals, now aims to shore up the numbers of Eyjahunda sheepdogs while helping to introduce them to a country that puts its dogs to work.

“I think it’s very exciting to introduce a new breed to a country like New Zealand, especially because they’re a working dog,” she says. “The topography of New Zealand is very much like Iceland.”

Olinger’s work in animal rights over the years — working against cruelty and experimentations — cemented her belief that people should not buy animals that were bred and shouldn’t encourage the breeding or the mistreatment that sometimes accompanies the practice. But when she learned that this breed’s numbers had fallen to just nine animals in the 1960s, she reconsidered.

With the limited gene pool, breeding guidelines for the 4,000 Eyjahunda Icelandic sheepdogs now in the world are very strict to avoid bringing in any defective genes and minimize inbreeding.

Olinger aims for her pair — Gala and Thorri — to be part of a worldwide movement to re-establish the breed.

She became acquainted with the Icelandic sheepdogs on a pair of trips she took to Iceland with her daughter, when they would spend eight hours a day in the saddle for eight or nine days at a time.

“They were just the sweetest dogs. They would run with us for hours and swim across rivers to meet us. They’re very intelligent; they’re a working dog that wants to be with you all the time,” she enthuses.

You don’t have to see her face-to-face to tell that Olinger lights up when she talks about the dogs. She calls them clean, gentle and loving, and even touts their “sense of humor.”

“They actually smile,” she says. “Their little faces go up at the corners.”

Olinger’s zeal for animals actually intersects with her passion for advanced-practice nursing.

“I think I do use animals and the joy that animals can bring in my practice where it’s appropriate,” she says. “Sometimes people’s (need to care for their) animals have stopped them seeking treatment, and there have been times when I’ve taken animals in until a family member can come. I think that’s a commonality among people who love animals, that the welfare of our animals is as important as our own health.”