Great Swiss Mountain Dog

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Great Swiss Mountain Dog

Once thought to have become extinct, the Great Swiss Mountain Dog was an indispensable farm worker for hundreds of years in its homeland. Having been displaced from its work by other breeds and modern technology, it is now more often found as a companion, a role to which it is equally well suited. It has a calm, confident, and fun-loving nature. Despite its size, the Great Swiss is a gentle animal and is considerate of children. It has a strong guarding instinct, and will put on a show of force if it feels that either itself or its family is being threatened, but this is not an aggressive breed, and it is usually quite accepting of strangers.

This giant breed has the agility and athleticism one would expect of a farm dog, and is also incredibly powerful, having also been used as “the poor man’s horse” to pull carts and other heavy loads. Even with regular exercise, this is a breed that needs outdoor space in which to stretch its legs, and so is not suitable for apartment living. It shares some common ancestry with other giant breeds, like the Bernese Mountain Dog and Saint Bernard, but enjoys better health than some of its cousins. Nevertheless, as one might expect from such a large dog, its life expectancy is limited, averaging 8–10 years.

About & History

The Great Swiss is a molosser breed, originally derived from Mastiff-like war dogs that travelled across much of Europe with the legions of Rome over 2000 years ago. Though no early records exist, it is likely that these molossers bred with some of the local herding dogs, and that the native farming tribes, seeing the versatility of these larger offspring, encouraged their breeding and development. As well as strength and stature, the breed needed to retain the agility and nimbleness of its progenitors in order to continue working the herds and flocks along the Alpine foothills, and this unique combination of power and dexterity is still in evidence today.

The Great Swiss Mountain Dog is, in fact, one of four closely related breeds known as the Sennenhunden, the others including:

As its name suggests, the Great Swiss is the largest of the four breeds, and it seems that it also became the most popular on Swiss farms over the course of several centuries. Its size and strength meant it could be used as a beast of burden, used to pull carts and carry heavy loads. It was popular with butchers for this purpose, and more than one dog could be used together in much the same manner as one would use draught horses. Its herding instincts were used on farms, but it was also employed as a drover’s dog to transport livestock to market, and it could serve as a courageous and intimidating guard dog to protect its people and property. Such a range of talents make it easy to understand why the breed was so widespread in Switzerland until the late 1800s.

Bizarrely, however, the Great Swiss population plummeted some time after 1870. Replaced by imported breeds and made redundant by the increased use of farm machinery, the breed was thought to be extinct by the turn of the twentieth century. However, a male presented for show as a short-haired Bernese in 1908 was recognized by one of the judges as a Great Swiss, and the ensuing excitement resulted in several surviving females being identified. From such a precarious position, the breed was re-established over several generations, and was subsequently exported to many countries, thus ensuring a broader population base and its continued survival. The breed was officially recognized by the Federation Cynologique Internationale in 1939, and by the American Kennel Club in 1985.

Appearance

Great Swiss Mountain Dog Large Photo

The Great Swiss is a very handsome dog, powerfully built and with clear and distinct markings. Its large stature is complemented by its dignified and calm manner. It has a broad, flat skull with a moderate stop, and a strong, square muzzle that is approximately equal in length to the crown. Unlike some other very large breeds, the lips are well fitting, meaning that excessive drooling is not a common complaint. The lips and nose have black pigmentation throughout. The breed has brown, almond-shaped eyes that are neither protruding nor recessed, and the eyelids are also black. The ears are set high on the head, and are triangular and medium in size. Though they sit flat at rest, they can be raised semi-erect and are quite mobile.

The Great Swiss carries a great mass of bone and muscle throughout its body, with a strong neck and back, and powerful limbs. The forelimbs are laid back, with angulation of the shoulders, although the rest of the limb is quite straight. The hindlimbs, too, are quite upright and are set well apart to accommodate the heavy muscling of the thighs. The lower limbs are very heavily boned. The tail is heavy, set fairly low, and usually carried at the hocks.

The breed has a coarse outer coat of medium length and a dense undercoat. The breed standards specify that it should be tricoloured, with black predominating. Symmetrical tan markings are seen on the cheeks, eyes, ears, chest, legs, and tail, while clean white markings generally form a blaze on the head, run from the throat to the chest, and may appear on the paws and tail tip.

There are no strict weight requirements for the breed, but males measure 65–72 cm (26–28 in) tall, and average 54–70 kg (119–154 lb), while females, at 60–68 cm (24–27 in) in height, weigh 45–52 kg (99–114 lb).

Character & Temperament

Rambunctious, clumsy, and often destructive as puppies, Great Swiss Mountain Dogs mature into calm, even-tempered, and loyal adults – eventually. The breed is known to be slow to mature, and retains some of its juvenile traits for the first three years of life. However, it is worth the wait, as this is a gentle and loving breed that is family-oriented, full of fun and very fond of children. Indeed, it is with children that it can be seen at its best, as a patient guardian and energetic playmate. Its large size can be a problem with the very young or very old, as it can inadvertently bowl people over in its enthusiasm. However, this is also more of a puppy trait, and something that most outgrow.

As mentioned above, the breed has been used as a guard dog in the past, and it still plays this role in the home. It is alert and watchful, and will raise the alarm if it senses something out of the ordinary. However, very few Great Swiss have any aggressive tendencies, and they quickly warm to strangers once they have been introduced. They are also very accepting of other pets in the home, particularly once they have been raised with them.

Trainability

Photo of Great Swiss Mountain Dog puppy

The Great Swiss Mountain Dog hasn’t forgotten his working origins, and given a job to do, will happily toil at his owner’s direction. For this reason, the breed takes well to sports like agility and flyball, to assistance work, and obviously to farm work, as well. However, it is also often described as stubborn, and may be slow to see the value in obedience training and mannerly lead walking.

It needs a firm owner who is able to provide consistent reinforcement and correction, and who has the patience to deal with the breed’s slow maturation. In the same vein, house training can take six months or more, and crate training is therefore recommended for young Great Swiss pups.

Health

Serious health disorders are mercifully rare, which is unusual for such a large dog. Joint disorders are the most common group of problems to be seen, but most Great Swiss Mountain Dogs will never experience any of the conditions listed below.

  • Entropion – Some Great Swiss pups will be seen to have ocular discharge and discomfort because of this inward scrolling of the eyelids. This allows hairs to scratch the eye’s delicate surface, which can cause significant inflammation and scarring. Surgical treatment is necessary to correct the abnormality, but it may need to be done in stages, as the shape of the eye changes as the pup grows. Most commonly, veterinary surgeons will place temporary tacking sutures in the skin around the eyes as a means to alleviate discomfort while postponing definitive surgery until adulthood.
  • Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus – A dramatic condition that occurs because of rotation of the stomach, trapping gas and liquids and causing the dog’s abdomen to swell rapidly. Without swift surgical intervention, this is usually fatal as a result of severe shock.
  • Osteochondritis Dissecans – The growth of weak and brittle cartilage within the joints in rapidly growing pups, causing lameness and pain. There are several factors contributing to the development of the condition, including genetics, poor nutrition, obesity, and excessive exercise.
  • Hip Dysplasia – A major cause of hindlimb lameness in many large breed dogs, this is a developmental disorder, with one or both hip joints developing growth abnormalities sometime between 5 and 14 months of age. Stiffness after exercise is often the first sign noticed by owners, which may progress to persistent lameness. Heredity plays a strong role in the development of hip dysplasia, and all breeding adult should be “hip scored” to minimise the risks of perpetuating the problem in the breed.
  • Elbow Dysplasia – The elbow is a complex joint that depends on the ordered development of several growth plates for its normal development in growing pups. Damage to one or more of these growth plates can cause significant incongruity in the joint, causing pain and lameness in pups as young as 4 months of age. In common with hip dysplasia, this disorder can be inherited, and adults should have their elbows scored by a specialist veterinary panel before being considered for breeding.
  • Panosteitis – Another cause of lameness, panosteitis is the result of inflammation of the long bones, and is often framed as a severe manifestation of “growing pains”. In reality, however, the condition can cause quite marked changes in the bones, with x-rays revealing a loss of normal structure. The lameness seen in these cases often shifts between limbs, with affected dogs eventually outgrowing the problem by 18 months of age.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Great Swiss is an adaptable breed – with its working background, it is capable of being very active, and it can sustain a brisk walk for hours if required, but most are content with as little as half an hour of exercise per day. However, it does not tolerate warm weather well, and should be walked either early in the morning or late in the evening during the summer months. Around the home, the breed is happy to nap the day away, but it does need a secure garden to patrol and explore.

Grooming

Coat care is straightforward, with weekly brushing sufficing for most of the year. The Great Swiss undergoes two heavy moults – one in spring and the other in autumn, when it loses large clumps of hair and may need daily grooming, but it is a light shedder at other times. Its large, strong nails are inclined to become excessively long, when they can be heard to click against the floor, and need to be clipped with a good-quality nail clipper. Great Swiss pups should have their nails regularly trimmed, while taking care not to cut them too short, to make this routine task less stressful when they are adults.

Famous Great Swiss Mountain Dogs

The most famous Great Swiss on record is undoubtedly Bello, who was the male presented for showing at Langenthal, in Switzerland, in 1908, when the breed was thought to be extinct. The judges though him to be “too gorgeous and thoroughbred” to be considered a shorthaired Bernese Mountain Dog.

Cross-Breeds

Some of the more common Great Swiss cross-breeds include the following:

  • Corswiss Cross between a Great Swiss and a Welsh Corgi
  • Great Swiss Mountain Dane Cross between a Great Swiss and a Great Dane
  • Great Swiss Rottweiler Cross between a Great Swiss and a Rottweiler
  • Swiss Bernese Mountain Dog Cross between a Great Swiss and a Bernese Mountain Dog

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