The Bergamasco Shepherd is a breed of sheepdog native to Northern Italy, where it has been present for many centuries. The Bergamasco is famous for its unique coat, which forms curls that resemble dreadlocks and helps to protect the breed from predators and inclement weather. Nearly extinct after World War II, the Bergamasco has steadily increased in population since that time. Although the breed is still quite rare in the United States, the Bergamasco is slowly gaining popularity there. The Bergamasco is also known as the Bergamasco Sheepdog, Bergamasco Shepherd Dog, Bergermaschi, Bergamo Shepherd Dog, Bergamo Sheepdog, Cane de Pastore, and the Cane de Pastore Bergamasco.
The Bergamasco is a very ancient breed, and almost nothing is known for certain of its origins, as it was developed long before written records were kept of dog breeding and was primarily kept by rural pastoralists who cared far less about a dog’s ancestry than its working ability. There are many theories regarding the origin of the Bergamasco, but most of them are little more than myth or educated conjecture. What is clear is that the breed has a very long history in Northern Italy where it has helped countless generations of Italian shepherds manage their flocks. The breed was primarily found in the mountainous region around the modern province of Bergamo, an area where the fertile Po Valley meets the formidable Alps. The breed became so associated with that region that it became known as the Cane Pastore de Bergamasco, which loosely translates to Bergamasco Sheepdog.
Some claim that the Bergamasco first appears in the written records around the time of the birth of Christ, although it is unclear which records these refer to. Supposedly, even at this time the shepherd dogs of Northern Italy possessed a unique coat. There is great dispute as to how the Bergamasco’s coat was developed. For many years, it was believed that the breed was either a descendant of or ancestor to the Komondor and Puli, two similarly-coated breeds native to Hungary. However, the Komondor and Puli apparently already possessed corded coats when they arrived in Hungary from Eastern Europe. There is dispute among Hungarian fanciers as to whether these dogs arrived with the Magyars in 896 or the Cumans in the 1200’s. Either date would be around 1,000 years too late, and barring new genetic studies, possible connections between the Bergamasco and the two Hungarian breeds have been largely discounted.
It is now widely believed that the Bergamasco was first introduced to Italy during the Roman Empire as a result of trade. The Romans were a major part of an Ancient trade network extending from Spain to Korea, and they had many dealings with the various incarnations of the Persian Empire and a number of disparate Eastern European and Caucasian tribes. At the time, vast herds of sheep were imported into Italy to feed and clothe the mighty Legions and the insatiable appetites of the Roman populace. It was common practice at the time to sell the sheepherding dogs at the same time as their flocks. Supposedly, the ancestors of the Bergamasco first arrived in Italy in this manner. Most sources claim that the ancestors of the Bergamasco were from Persia, known in modern times as Iran. Persia has been a major producer of sheep and related products such as wool and mutton for millennia and had major trading relationship with Rome. However, if the ancestors of the Bergamasco did arrive via trade, it could have been from virtually anywhere in the Ancient World. Even if the dog did arrive from Persia, it does not necessarily mean that it originated in what is now Iran. The Persian Empire was once much bigger than the modern nation state of Iran, and at various points extended from Egypt in the west to India in the east and from Arabia in the south to Russia in the north. Included in the Persian Empire were vast tracts of Eastern European and Central Asian Steppe, seemingly endless plains inhabited primarily by nomadic pastoralists until the last few centuries. It was from these same steppes that the Magyars and Cumans migrated to Hungary. The presence of the ancient corded-coated herding dogs in both Italy and Hungary may be evidence that such dogs were once common throughout the steppes, and were exported to Europe on multiple occasions.
Although rarely mentioned, it is very possible that the Bergamasco was developed by Italian shepherds with little influence from outside dogs. Sheepherding dogs have probably been found in the area since the introduction of agriculture many thousands of years ago. It is very possible that at some point a mutation occurred in a local dog that caused its hair to cord. The corded coat would have provided additional protection from the elements and predators, just as it does on the modern breed. By selectively breeding dogs with that trait, farmers could have eventually developed the Bergamasco. It has also been suggested that the Bergamasco could be descended from long-haired sheepdogs introduced to Italy by the Phoenicians, but there is seemingly no evidence for this theory.
However and whenever the Bergamasco’s ancestors first arrived in Northern Italy, they became highly valued by local shepherds. The breed was one of the few capable of working in the region. Life in the Alps can be quite difficult, especially before the introduction of modern technology. Temperatures get well-below freezing, worsening in the winter. The mountainous terrain is often difficult to cross and frequently changes due to landslides and avalanches. The foliage of the region is often very thick and protected by sharp leaves or spiky thorns. Strong winds and torrential downpours strike the region, sometimes with little warning. In the search for fresh grazing, flocks would sometimes have to travel for miles, leaving shepherd and dog alike stranded in the elements for days at a time. Although much rarer now, the Alps were once home to large populations of wolves, bears, feral dogs, and bands of thieves. To operate in the region, a sheepdog has to be able to tolerate extremes of temperature, inclement weather, traverse the diverse terrain found in the Alpine peaks and valleys, and fight off attacks by wild and human predators. The Bergamasco’s unusual coat provided the dog with plenty of protection from both the elements and other creatures, allowing it to survive in an often unforgiving world.
It is old and simple logic that the more sheep that a shepherd owns, the wealthier and more secure he can become. More sheep need more land to graze, and one farmer can only cover so much land. In order to help them cover as much ground as possible, and therefore own as many sheep as possible, Northern Italian shepherds bred only the Bergamascos that were most capable of working independently. Bergamascos were often left unsupervised for hours at a time, during which they were responsible for keeping their flocks together and safe from danger without the aid of their masters. The breed developed into an expert and intelligent problem solver, capable of doing its duty no matter what situation arose.
Even the most well-connected parts of the Alps, such as those around Bergamo, are relatively isolated. Travel is so difficult that it discourages all but those with the greatest need or desire. As a result, the dogs of the area tend to remain very stable and unchanged for long periods of time. Such was the case with the Bergamasco, which remained virtually identical until well into the 20th Century. However, change does come to the Alps, albeit somewhat slowly. The introduction of modern technology in the late 19th and early 20th Century reduced the need for sheep dogs. The industrialization of Northern Italy combined with a number of other factors such as the growth of the Australian and New Zeeland sheep industries caused a severe reduction in sheep herding in Bergamo. New dog breeds were introduced to the region from across the world. These changes meant that fewer and fewer Bergamascos were being kept by local farmers, and many of those that remained were crossed with other breeds. World War II was devastating to the Italian populace and economy. During the War, dog breeding was almost completely abandoned and a large number of shepherds were recruited into the Italian military. By the time that fighting had ceased, the Bergamasco was nearly extinct and many, perhaps most, of the dogs which had survived were not pure blooded.
Luckily for the Bergamasco, a small number of local shepherds had continued to maintain the breed through the worst of times. The reasons that they did so are unclear, but it was likely a combination of necessity and desire. Dr. Maria Andreoli became concerned that a valuable and ancient part of rural Italian life would be lost forever, and took it upon herself to rescue the breed. Dr. Andreoli began to collect the last surviving Bergamascos and brought them to her Dell’ Albera Kennel. A renowned geneticist, Dr. Andreoli was uniquely suited for the development of varied and healthy lines of Bergamasco, and the modern breed exists in its present quality and standardization almost entirely due to her efforts. Dr. Andreoli got increasing numbers of breeders throughout Europe interested in the breed, and helped spread the Bergamasco across Italy and Western Europe.
In the mid-1990’s, Donna and Stephen DeFalcis, a couple living in America, became interested in the Bergamasco, at a time when the breed was known primarily as the Bergamasco Sheepdog. The DeFalcis’s worked very closely with Dr. Andreoli to found the Bergamasco Sheepdog Club of America (BSCA). The DeFalcis’s began to import Bergamascos from across Europe. Assisted by Dr. Andreoli, they were able to select and acquire the finest examples available in Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, and England. The goal was to create as large of a gene pool in America as possible in order to avoid the genetic bottlenecks experienced by a number of other rare breeds. Almost immediately upon acquiring their first Bergamasco, the DeFalcis’s travelled repeatedly across America, exhibiting their dogs at rare breed shows and other canine exhibitions. At the same time, they operated their own kennel which produced a number of very high quality dogs. The DeFalcis’s and their dogs introduced a large number of Americans to the breed, and they attracted a number of fanciers.
Largely dedicated to working dogs, the United Kennel Club granted full recognition to the Bergamasco in 1995, at a time when there were very few breed members in the United States. The BSCA worked to responsibly but steadily increase the breed’s population in the United States, and there are currently over 600 Bergamascos living in the U.S. The BSCA itself has grown and now has a fully-functioning board and over 100 members. The ultimate goal of the BSCA is to have the Bergamasco achieve full recognition with the American Kennel Club (AKC). The Bergamasco was entered in the AKC’s Foundation Stock Service (AKC-FSS), the first step towards full recognition. In February of 2010, the AKC selected the BSCA as the official parent club for the breed with the AKC. At the same time, the AKC determined that the Bergamasco Sheepdog met enough criteria be entered into the Miscellaneous Class, into which the breed was officially entered January 1st, 2011. Membership in the Miscellaneous Class allows for Bergamascos to compete in almost all AKC events other than conformation showing. Once the AKC determines that enough criteria have been met, the Bergamasco will be granted full recognition as a member of the herding group.
The Bergamasco is a very unique looking breed, and is one of a very few that possess a corded coat. This breed is medium to large in size, with males typically standing between 22½ and 24½ inches tall at the shoulder and females typically standing between 21 and 23 inches tall. The Bergamasco is a heavily-boned and relatively thick breed. Males usually weigh between 70 and 84 pounds while females usually weigh between 57 and 71 pounds. Most of the Bergamasco is obscured by its coat, but underneath is a muscular and athletic sheepdog. As a working dog, the Bergamasco should not have any feature exaggerated to the extent that it impairs the breed’s working abilities. Although generally well-proportioned, most Bergamascos are slightly longer than they are tall, usually around 5% to 6% longer. The tail of the Bergamasco is long and tapering. When the dog is at rest, the tail is carried low with an upwards curve in the last third. When the dog is in motion, the tail is carried like a flag.
The head of the Bergamasco is roughly proportional to the size of the dog. It is clearly distinct from the muzzle although the two do blend in relatively smoothly. The muzzle itself is approximately the same length as the skull and runs parallel to the top of the head. Relatively blunt, the muzzle taper only very slightly from base to end. The muzzle of this breed is relatively broad and deep when compared to most other herding dogs, but is not nearly as powerful in appearance as that of a Molosser. The eyes of most Bergamascos are hidden behind cords of hair, but they are in fact quite large and oval-shaped. The eyes are dark chestnut, but the shade varies depending on the color of the dog’s coat. The ears of the Bergamasco are thin and relatively small. Usually folding down close to the sides of the head, the top two-thirds of the ears raise slightly to become semi-prick when the dog is at attention.
The coat of the Bergamasco is easily the breed’s most important feature. For the first year of a Bergamasco’s life, its coat is very similar to that of the Old English Sheepdog. Gradually, the hair starts to form, “wool,” and the coat must be ripped to form the cords. The cords are comprised of three types of hair, the undercoat, “goat hair,” and the outer coat. The undercoat is soft, dense, fine, and oily to the touch, making it water resistant. The, “goat hair,” is long, straight, and rough to the touch. The outer coat is wooly and somewhat finer than the, “goat hair.” The interaction between the three types of hair is what forms the unique cords, which are essentially mats. The, “goat hair,” and the outer coat are not evenly distributed, which causes the coat to grow in a certain way. “Goat hair,” is thickest from the withers down to the midpoint of the body, forming a smooth saddle.
On the back of the body and the legs, the outer coat predominates and mingles with the reduced, “goat hair,” to form the cords, usually described as flocks. The flocks are normally widest at the base, but sometimes spread out at the end into a fan shape. The flocks take time to grow to full length, typically reaching the ground when the dog is five or six years old. The Bergamasco comes in one color, grey. The grey may be of any shade from near white to solid black, provided that the black is not shiny or lustrous. Most Bergamascos have white markings, but in order to be eligible in the show ring they must not cover more than 20% of the dog’s coat. Many Bergamascos have spots and markings of a different shade of grey or black on their bodies. Sometimes a Bergamasco is born solid white or with white markings covering more than 20% of its coat. These dogs are just as suited for life as a pet or in the field, but cannot be entered in the show ring.
The Bergamasco has a similar temperament to many other herding breeds, but is substantially more independent than most. The Bergamasco is very dedicated and loyal to its family, with whom it forms very intense bonds. These dogs are generally not very openly affectionate, and this breed is not particularly “licky.” This is a breed that prefers to be in the presence of its family, rather than on top of them. The Bergamasco was bred to work independently, almost as a partner to the shepherd rather than a servant or assistant. This has led to a dog that is highly intuitive and excellent at reading the attitudes and moods of its family. Because the breed is so good at reading people, it interacts differently with each member of a family. It is commonly said that this breed, “does not want a master,” and the Bergamasco is not a one-person dog. Most fanciers consider the Bergamasco to be the ultimate family dog, as this breed usually gets along very well with children. Bergamascos which have been properly socialized with children tend to form very close bonds with them, and this breed is usually very gentle and understanding. Many Bergamascos actually seem to prefer the company of children and often actively seek out their company, especially for play or affection.
Bergamascos are somewhat variable on their opinion of strangers, with some being more outgoing than others. As a guardian of sheep, most Bergamascos view new people with a fair amount of suspicion. However, well-socialized Bergamascos are very rarely fearful or aggressive, and are usually polite albeit uninterested and aloof. This breed is very discerning and most will quickly determine whether a stranger poses a threat. Once the dog has decided that its new acquaintance is no danger, it is generally willing to become friends. Bergamascos are highly alert, and make excellent watch dogs. Though the breed usually provides a warning bark, that is generally the extent of a Bergamasco’s protection drive. The Bergamasco lacks the aggression and territoriality to make an effective guard dog, although this dog would surely intervene if it determined a member of its family was in physical danger.
Traditionally working in concert with other sheep dogs, this breed usually doesn’t have major issues with other dogs. When properly socialized, most Bergamascos will get along fine with other dogs, particularly those with which they are familiar. Naturally protective and suspicious, many Bergamascos are slow to make friends with other dogs, although most eventually do. This breed does tend to be dominant, and generally prefers that other canines take a lower position on the pecking order, which may cause issues. Bred to herd sheep, the Bergamasco is usually accepting of other animals. These dogs do have a strong instinct to chase, and many bother household cats. Breed members that have not been socialized around non-canine animals may see them as a potential threat to be driven off.
Bred to work independently, the Bergamasco is a highly intelligent and creative problem solver. However, this breed does pose some training difficulties. The Bergamasco prefers to do things its own way, and it is said that this dog does not blindly follow orders. This breed is excellent at livestock work, and takes to it almost naturally. However, it is less suited to tasks that require regularly following orders. A Bergamasco bores very easily, especially with repetitive training tasks. Although not a breed that constantly challenges for dominance, the Bergamasco prefers to be treated with mutual respect and responds much better to owners who maintain a calm but firm position leadership. That being said, this breed is generally willing to please (if not greatly desiring too) and once trained makes a dependable and obedient dog. Breed members are also known for being extremely responsive and intuitive. Often highly sensitive, this dog responds much better to rewards-based training methods than those that focus on correction.
Capable of working for long hours, the Bergamasco requires a substantial amount of exercise to stay happy. This dog needs a very long daily walk at the very least, but would prefer a regular run or jog. The Bergamasco is happiest when it is allowed to wander a large area for an extended period of time throughout the day, preferring to get most of its exercise on its own terms. Although it is possible to keep a Bergamasco in an apartment, it is very challenging, and this dog does best with a large yard. This dog also loves a regular opportunity to play a game, especially with children. It is imperative that a Bergamasco get the activity that it needs, otherwise it will likely develop behavioral issues such as destructiveness, hyper activity, and excessive barking. All that being said, the Bergamasco tends to be less energetic than many other herding breeds and will generally not drive a committed and dedicated family to exhaustion in the same way that a dog such as a Border Collie will. The Bergamasco has a very active mind, and greatly prefers activities such as running through an agility course that allow it to think. However, this dog is not nearly as driven to have a job as most herding dogs. This breed wants to be in its master’s company as much as possible, and absolutely loves to explore the world. A Bergamasco would jump at any opportunity to join its family on any adventure, and makes an excellent companion for those who love to hike, mountain climb, or engage in other vigorous activities.
The Bergamasco was bred to look into its shepherd’s eyes, in order to receive orders and commands. This dog constantly looks at its family for guidance or instruction. This staring is so constant that Bergamasco owners often swear that their dog is looking at them while they sleep. Some even say that they miss the constant stare when their dogs are not around, and that they find themselves looking around to see if their dog is still gazing at them.
On first glance, most assume that the coat of the Bergamasco is very high maintenance. Somewhat surprisingly, most Bergamasco owners are amazed at how low-maintenance the coat is when mature. The Bergamasco’s coat starts out fluffy, much like that of the Old English Sheepdog. At about one year of age, “goat hairs,” and “wool,” start to appear. Shortly after this occurs, the coat must be ripped to separate the cords. Because almost no professional groomers have any experience with this breed, owners will likely have to learn to do this themselves. This process is somewhat challenging, and relatively time consuming. It takes at least a few hours, and must sometimes be spread over the course of a few days. After the first ripping, the coat must be checked once or twice a week for the next six months or so to make sure it is not growing back together. After that, the coat stays separate for the dog’s entire life and needs very little maintenance.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the coat never needs to be groomed. The cords are so dense that very little enters them, and this breed only needs to be bathed at most three times a year, and sometimes only once or twice. Drying this dog can be quite a challenge, but its coat is so water resistant that it really only needs to be done after a bath or a swim. The only real way to dry a Bergamasco is to place it in a crate surrounded by fans, but most breed members greatly enjoy this as they love the wind. Because of the interaction between oily skin and hair, the Bergamasco should not be shaved except for surgical procedures (and even then the cords will probably never grow back). Some owners choose to keep the cords shorter, between 4 and 5 inches rather than to the ground, but they must make their choice carefully as they grow so slowly that the dog may never have the full coat again.
Bergamascos shed very, very little. They do leave occasional hairs around the home, but to no greater extent than a human being does. As a short shake gets almost all of the debris off of the coat, the low-shedding coat makes this breed a surprisingly ideal choice for the very fastidious. Although there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog (people are allergic to skin flaking off rather than hair), allergy sufferers are frequently less bothered by the Bergamasco than many other dogs.
There is almost no health information on the Bergamasco, and the only health survey seems to have been conducted by the Kennel Club in the United Kingdom. As that survey only included 10 living dogs, it is virtually impossible to draw any conclusions. However, this dog is apparently a very healthy breed. This breed was bred almost exclusively as a working dog in some very harsh conditions for thousands of years. Any potential defects would have been eliminated by natural or artificial selection. As a very ancient breed, the gene pool of the Bergamasco was at one point quite large, although it went through a recent bottleneck. Because the breed’s primary savior, Dr. Andreoli, was a geneticist, she was able to create a breeding program that would maintain as wide a genetic base as possible. Bergamascos are among the longest-lived of all breeds of this size, with an average life expectancy of between 13 and 15 years. Due to its general good health, the Bergamasco often is quite active well into its early teens.
Bergamascos were bred to work in the Alps which often have frigid conditions. Although the unique coat of the Bergamasco makes the breed surprisingly tolerant of the heat, this dog is still somewhat vulnerable to heat related conditions. The Bergamasco overheats and dies of heat exhaustion both quicker and at lower temperatures than many other breeds. Owners should protect their Bergamascos from the heat, ideally keeping them inside when the temperature gets too hot and only exercising them when it cools down.
Although the Bergamasco suffers from low rates of genetic issues, the breed may still suffer from those which are common to all domestic dogs, including: