Bergamasco

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Bergamasco

Europeans have, for centuries, depended on sturdy, medium-sized dogs with long, profuse coats to herd and protect their flocks of sheep. This family of dogs has included the French Briard, the Hungarian Komondor, the Russian Owtscharka, the Spanish Gos d’Atura, the Old English Sheepdog, and the Italian Bergamasco, or Bergamese Shepherd. This intelligent and determined dog is distinguished by its coat, unique among the modern breeds for its mixture of three types of hair, which forms thick mats or flocks. As a dog bred to roam amongst its flock as protector and steward, it is an independent and sometimes stubborn breed, but also playful and extremely patient; thus, it makes a good pet for children.

The Bergamasco’s protective instincts do not manifest as aggression, but this dog will protect its flock, or family, when necessary. Though difficult to discern at first glance, a dig through the thick coat reveals a compact and athletic frame that does not require a huge amount of exercise for maintenance. Despite its shaggy appearance, the coat sheds only lightly, and apart from some specific requirements while it is growing, it does not need regular grooming. This is a remarkably healthy breed, with very few health concerns, although the low numbers of these dogs found outside their native setting means it is difficult to be sure of any underlying genetic susceptibilities. The average life expectancy for the Bergamasco is 13 to 15 years.

The breed has ancient roots, being one of the modern pedigrees ultimately descended from dogs travelling from the Middle East with Phoenician traders in pre-Roman times. The Bergamasco’s ancestors were settled in the Italian Alps, north of present-day Milan, where they were employed by local shepherds tending their flocks on the alpine foothills. In this environment, they were exposed to extremes of wind and cold, elements that the impervious, shaggy coat would have protected them from. The breed was required to mingle with sheep during the day while they grazed, and was not kept at the shepherd’s side, so needed to be intelligent and independent enough to handle its duties with minimal direction. Apart from keeping the flock together, the Bergamasco was also required to deter predators – wolves and bears being among them – and developed a strong protective instinct that is still evident today.

Unfortunately, the Second World War, followed by changes in agricultural practice in its wake, led to a sharp decline in Italian sheep farming, and the fate of the breed mirrored that of its industry, with the Bergamasco teetering on the brink of extinction by the 1960s. Thankfully, it was saved, largely through the efforts of one woman: Maria Andreoli, an Italian geneticist who developed an interest in the breed around this time. From her now world famous dell’Albera kennels, she developed a healthy breeding population of dogs that were subsequently exported around the world. While relatively abundant in its native country, the Bergamasco nevertheless remains a rare breed internationally, with only a handful on the Kennel Club register at any given time.

About & History

The breed has ancient roots, being one of the modern pedigrees ultimately descended from dogs travelling from the Middle East with Phoenician traders in pre-Roman times. The Bergamasco’s ancestors were settled in the Italian Alps, north of present-day Milan, where they were employed by local shepherds tending their flocks on the alpine foothills. In this environment, they were exposed to extremes of wind and cold, elements that the impervious, shaggy coat would have protected them from. The breed was required to mingle with sheep during the day while they grazed, and was not kept at the shepherd’s side, so needed to be intelligent and independent enough to handle its duties with minimal direction. Apart from keeping the flock together, the Bergamasco was also required to deter predators – wolves and bears being among them – and developed a strong protective instinct that is still evident today.

Unfortunately, the Second World War, followed by changes in agricultural practice in its wake, led to a sharp decline in Italian sheep farming, and the fate of the breed mirrored that of its industry, with the Bergamasco teetering on the brink of extinction by the 1960s. Thankfully, it was saved, largely through the efforts of one woman: Maria Andreoli, an Italian geneticist who developed an interest in the breed around this time. From her now world famous dell’Albera kennels, she developed a healthy breeding population of dogs that were subsequently exported around the world. While relatively abundant in its native country, the Bergamasco nevertheless remains a rare breed internationally, with only a handful on the Kennel Club register at any given time.

Appearance

Bergamasco  Large Photo

This is a well-proportioned dog with a square outline that may be obscured by its generous coat of thick mats. It is sturdy, well-muscled, has strong bone structure, and gives the overall appearance of being very hardy. It has a large, broad skull (though its width must be less than half the total length of the head) and a good length of tapering muzzle. The stop is quite pronounced, and is bisected by a marked furrow that runs between the eyes. The nose is jet-black, and the lips are tight, thin and similarly pigmented. The Bergamasco has prominent, large eyes of some shade of chestnut that are slightly oval in shape, and the ears are set reasonably high, triangular-shaped, and semi-dropped.

Unusually, the length of the neck is slightly less than that of the head, and it has a muscular arch covered with taut skin. The length of the back should be equal to the height at the withers, giving the dog its square shape, and its top line runs level to the loin, where musculature again creates a slight curve. The chest is let down to the elbows, and is broad, while the abdomen is just slightly tucked up to the pubic bone. The tail is set low, and is thick, strong, and tapers to reach the level of the hock when relaxed.

The limbs have a very upright configuration, with a considerable mass of muscle in the shoulders and thighs, and the lower limbs are strongly and broadly boned. The paws are oval shaped, with tight toes, strong nails, and remarkably hard pads. The coat, the defining characteristic of the breed, is often said to consist of the hair of three animals – the dog, goat, and sheep – and it does indeed contain a mix of soft, coarse, and twisted fibres. Although pups have a fluffy coat that may be scarcely different from that of other breeds, these three hair types interweave as they grow within the first few months of life to form broad, flat mats (as opposed to the distinct cords of the Komondor). The coat can be any shade of grey, ranging all the way to black, and may have solid or patched markings.

The breed standard specifies that males should be between 58 and 62 cm (23–25 in) tall, and females 54 to 58 cm (21–23 in) tall, while their respective weight ranges are 32–38 kg (70–84 lb) and 26–32 kg (57–70 lb).

Character & Temperament

Anyone wishing to understand the Bergamasco’s character need only look at its traditional working role, for it has retained its essential traits as an independent, intelligent, and protective dog. In the absence of a traditional flock, it forms close bonds with its human family, and will devote itself to vigilantly looking after them.

As such, it is an excellent guard dog, and will bark when needed, as well as being capable of standing its ground against a threat when appropriate. Its surrogate lambs, the young children of the family, will be safe in its company, as it is instinctively gentle and considerate with them. Bergamascos are generally good with smaller pets – if they have been raised with them, although trouble can sometimes flare when they mix with other dogs, especially of the same sex.

Trainability

Photo of Bergamasco  puppy

This breed was never meant to depend on its master for instruction, and its independence manifests as extreme stubbornness in training. Don’t buy a Bergamasco in the hope of being the next Crufts obedience champion, for you will be sorely disappointed. However, with a proper understanding of what can reasonably be expected from the breed, along with a patient approach to training, a reasonable level of obedience may eventually be achieved.

Socialisation is vital, as some Bergamascos may be wary of strangers, perceiving any unknown human as a threat, so regular introductions to friends, extended family, and even treat-bearing strangers in the park are crucial to raising a well-balanced dog that is free from any negative behavioural traits.

Health

Remarkably, there are no recognised inherited health problems in the breed. However, this may at least partly be due to the low numbers of Bergamascos found around the world, as the most recent Kennel Club health survey was based on a population of just ten dogs, which can hardly be considered a comprehensive review of the entire breed.

As is true for any pedigree, prospective owners should do their homework on the breeder from whom they are considering buying, as well as on the parents themselves. At a minimum, one should expect to see certificates for hip scoring, as well as for general and ophthalmic health, from the breeder’s veterinary surgeon.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Although the Bergamasco can happily trudge along the alpine foothills all day, it does not demand that much exercise in a domestic setting. However, owners should aim to provide around an hour of walking every day, along with access to a back garden, as this breed does sometimes enjoy spending time in its own company while investigating the sounds and smells of the outdoors.

Grooming

The spectacular, dreadlock-like coat requires very little grooming for most of the dog’s life. At around one year of age, the mats forming in the coat must be “ripped” – a process that breaks these very broad structures into more narrow ones that do not tighten or impede movement. While this process is quite laborious, it can be undertaken by a professional groomer, and only needs to be done once.

Thereafter, all that is needed is to pluck the occasional twig or other foreign body that becomes entangled, and to bathe the dog perhaps twice a year. Apart from these chores, this is close to being a maintenance-free coat. As for any other dog, daily tooth brushing and regular nail clipping (as required) should be practised, with both being introduced in puppyhood.

Famous Bergamascos

Despite being such an ancient breed, the Bergamasco went unrepresented at Crufts until 2014, when these six trail-blazers became the first of their pedigree to enter this venerable show-ring:

  • Jude
  • Rufus
  • Tarot
  • Cicci
  • Freddie
  • Dolce

Cross-Breeds

The Rastafarian look does not seem to be much in demand in the designer dog world, and there are no well-recognised Bergamasco hybrids at this time.

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