About the Bergamasco Sheepdog
The Bergamasco Sheepdog (Cane Da Pastore Bergamasco) originated in the Alpine arch from a more broadly distributed European stock dog. According to a 2018 genetic study on Italian herding breeds there have been observed signatures of haplotype sharing between the Bergamasco Shepherd and the Briard and Bernese Mountain Dog, the Lupino del Gigante and Leonberger, and the Cane Paratore and Boxer. These patterns of haplotype sharing between breed pairs indicate that each Italian herding population diverged from the others through its individual introgression with outside breeds and that they are not merely geographically separate populations of the same breed. This means that these all shared a common ancestor, however the difference between them is that they have since mixed with other breeds. A shared signature is present at high levels in all Cane Paratore, Pastore della Lessinia e del Lagorai, and the non-Italian Standard and Miniature Xoloitzcuintle, Peruvian Inca Orchid, and Catahoula Leopard Dog. Interestingly, the shared signature is also present in approximately half of the Bergamasco, Pastore d’Oropa, and Lupino del Gigante dogs, suggesting that those breeds demonstrate less cohesion than most well-established breeds. This type of sheepdog was widespread throughout the Alps and the name “Pastore del Alphi” would have been more appropriate since the dogs were found throughout the mountainous regions of Switzerland and Italy.
The Bergamini herdsmen who travelled the Bergamo Valley in the Alps and Lombardy region began the stricter selection of their dogs for the ability to handle the difficult and almost inaccessible mountainous terrain, while performing the dangerous task of guiding cattle to grazing lands by working from the head to the tail of the herd. The Bergamascos kept the large herds of cattle together, guiding them through hazards and protecting them during the night from predators.
As agricultural need changed, the Bergamasco became associated with guiding flocks of sheep in the same tending style as it did with cattle. Primarily though this breed was a cattle dog and not a “sheep” dog as commonly believed.
After the second world war, the breed was nearly decimated. Thanks to a few dedicated people, some specimens were found in the mountains that were suitable to begin breeding for homogeneity. The original breed standard was drafted in 1958 based in part on Alpino Di Valle Imagna, one of the first Bergamascos to enter the Italian beauty championships. Some of the first and very important contributors to the breed were Pietro Rota (Kennel Valle Imagna 1945), Annibale Guidobono Calvachini (Kennel Valle Scrivia 1949), Carla Mariani (Kennel dei Lupercali 1954), Mario Chignoli (Kennel dell'Idro 1959), Dr. Cantini (Kennel Grigrastro 1966) and Dr. Maria Andreoli (Kennel dell'Albera 1966). Most of today's Bergamascos come from the dogs of these foundation kennels, some of which are still breeding today.
In the United States, the first Bergamascos were imported by Mr. Ernie Byfield and his wife Mrs. Contessa Diana Masieri. The Byfields lived in New York, but the Contessa was from northern Italy and had known of the Pastore Bergamasco. She suggested the breed for them and they imported their first black male, Marcopai dei Lupercali (Marco) from Carla Mariani and two years later returned for a merle female, Farnax dei Lupercali Sabrina (Sabrina). Both imports shared Alpino Valle Imagna three generations back in their pedigrees. In 1981 they bred the first litter in the U.S.A producing 6 puppies. During this time they moved to Virginia. They also participated in rare breed shows and enjoyed promoting this extremely rare breed at that time. They produced a second litter of 10 puppies from the same parents in 1984. These litters were registered with FCI but not in the United States. The first US registered litter was not until the mid 1990s out of Gae dell'Albera and Fauno dell'Albera bred by Donna DeFalcis.
In a series of letter correspondences written by the Byfields, there was a mention of an article featuring their dogs and the Bergamasco in the 1986 February issue of Dog World Magazine. With a little bit of searching, we were able to find an original copy of the article. Click here to download a copy.
Image of Sabrina with her some of her first litter (Photo courtesy of Lenore Sarasan)
I want to extend a huge thank you to those who have helped me piece some of this history together. Lenore Sarasan has been instrumental in her help with piecing together the origins of the Bergamasco breed in this country. She was lucky enough to have a puppy from each of the two original litters bred here so long ago (Sasha and Wimsey). Many thanks also to William Harris of Adelaide, South Australia, Bergamasco Wikipedia page contributor and expert on the natural history of dogs and the evolution of the wolf.
The Bergamasco is a complex being. Because it is a sheepdog by nature, it has developed critical thinking skills which has allowed the Bergamasco to work both with it's master and independently. It was able to understand what it's human Shepherd wanted it to do and it was also able to conform to the situation to make important choices in moving sheep across the mountains. The Bergamasco is categorized as a "flock protector". They were responsible for keeping the wolves and other threats away from the flock. Intimidating once aroused, but non-aggressive, the Bergamasco is always on alert and ready to protect that which it calls it's own. This is not to be confused with a Livestock Guardian Dog whose sole purpose is to live with and protect it's flock.
The Bergamasco is still on alert today in the home as a domestic pet. Nothing gets past our Bergamascos. Their level-headedness balances their protective nature and thus we have a dog that will bark and alert you of changes or intruders but is not aggressive and not an attack dog.
The Bergamasco responds to everyone differently and does not choose one member of the household. Instead they create different relationships with different people, as we do. Bergamascos love to be with you. They thrive on human companionship and are not a breed to be left outdoors to fend for self.
A note about children and Bergamascos:
Bergamascos are generally excellent with children if raised in the home with them. They tend to form special bonds with them. Because children can be high-pitched, and quick moving, it can bring out the herding instinct in a herding breed. Bergamascos may tend to try to herd children at play. Caution should be taken with any breed of dog and no child under 12 years of age should be left with a dog unsupervised.
The Bergamasco Coat
The Bergamasco is a medium sized dog, strong and compact. It's thick "flocked" coat gives the Bergamasco it's distinctive appearance. The coat is made up of three types of hair: the undercoat, goat hair, and the wooly coat (top coat). These three hairs are distributed in different ratios on different parts of the dog's body. The three types form an interwoven matrix which creates the "flocks" as they are called. They are not referred to as "cords" in this breed, as they are with the Puli and Komondor. The difference is that flocks are larger, flatter and can be irregular in shape due to the abundance of goat hair mixed with the wooly hair.
During puppy-hood, only the soft puppy coat is present. This requires regular brushing as would any other dog. The coat begins to mat anytime from 7-12 months. There are variations to this time frame. The puppy hair moults during this time. This is the most critical period for coat care. The clumps that begin to form at this time must be separated by hand by ripping the clumps into segments of 2-3 finger widths. This ripping must be reinforced often until the flocks are fully formed and no longer re-clumping together. Once fully formed, the flocks will continue to grow for the life of the dog. Because the head, face and front of the neck and upper chest should be primarily “goat hair” there should be less flocking in this area but in a wooly coat this is not always the case. Keeping the face and head brushed and free of flocks is more sanitary for the dog.
The adult coat requires little care and can be maintained with occasional brushing of the flocks with a stiff wire brush to remove surface dirt. The saddle should be brushed often. Frequent are not detrimental to the coat of the Bergamasco, as long as soaps and detergents are not used which can dry out the coat and wash away protective oils which aid in keeping the coat weather resistant. Drying out the coat can cause the flocks to become brittle and break off. They key is to dry the dog completely in a very timely manner to prevent it from mildewing. It is advised that Bergamascos be bathed only when they are really dirty and during periods of warm, dry weather so that flocks can dry appropriately. It is OK to spot bath your dog on specific areas that need cleaning.
Over the years we have experimented and discovered effective methods for cleaning the coat. We are here to help our puppy families during the flocking process and beyond. I am also available by appointment to help with Bergamasco grooming for families in New England.
Deciphering the way the coat should look as per AKC standard is not always clear. Here is a breakdown of what it means and how it is the same as the FCI standard regarding coat.This is the proper Bergamasco coat as it should be and what we should all strive for as breeders even if it is rare to see.
Notes on the coat:
I want to clarify why dogs in the show ring this way are not "over-groomed", they are correct. They stand out as wrong or over-groomed because it is so rare to see and they are typically the odd one out. It also does not correlate at all with the illustrated breed standard which makes it even more confusing. This is what is referred to as "doppio pelo" or double coat. This is also confusing because we know the Bergamasco has a triple coat. The triple coat is referring to the three types of hair and doppio pelo is referring to the fact that the coat is different in the front and the back. There is a lot of confusion about the Bergamasco coat. Obviously we see two types. You may hear that the Bergamasco standard regarding the coat is different in AKC vs. FCI. This is not so, but the problem is that the description is open to interpretation because when it was translated from Italian, it was not a clear translation. The AKC standard reads: Coat: The Bergamasco coat is made up of three types of hair: Undercoat, "goat hair," and outer coat. The undercoat is short, dense, and of fine texture. It is oily to the touch and forms a waterproof layer against the skin. The "goat hair" is long, straight, and rough in texture. The outer coat is woolly and somewhat finer in texture than the "goat hair." The "goat hair" and outer coat are not distributed evenly over the dog and it is this pattern of distribution that is responsible for the formation of the characteristic flocks (strands of hair weaved together creating flat layers of felted hair). Each flock of hair ranges in width anywhere from inch and half to three inches wide. The coat from the withers down to the midpoint of the body is mostly "goat hair" which forms a smooth saddle in that region. On the back of the body and the legs, the woolly outer coat is abundant and mingles with the reduced quantity of "goat hair" in that region to form the flocks. The flocks are larger at the base than the end, flat, irregular in shape, and may sometimes open in a fan-shape. The hair on the legs also hangs in flocks rather than feathering. The flocks are never combed out. The hair on the head is mostly "goat hair" but is somewhat less rough in texture and hangs over the eyes. I have marked in this photo of a traditional coat where these points are and what it is describing. When you see it visually, the description becomes clear. This is why you would not have flocking on this part of the dog in a correct coat. So why don't they all look this way? It is because in a breed this rare, coat selection for breeding does not take priority. Should it be considered and should we be paying attention to this as breeders, yes absolutely. We need to breed for correct coats but when you are dealing with genetic bottlenecking and health issues, selecting for this goes on the back burner. Now that we are testing more and more and our dogs are getting healthier in some of our programs, we can start to really pay attention to this detail. Why is it even important? Basically because it's what is true to the breed and this detail, although seemingly unimportant, is what allows the breed to work tirelessly by not being weighted down by a heavy wooly coat all over the body while herding sheep. We always have to look at the original function of this breed. Yes, a big show coat looks magnificent but is it practical? Clearly, this breed could not have worked in that coat in a real application. The coats were shorn with the sheep and then allowed to grow back until the next shearing. This kept the coats light and shorter and the front of the dog remained unobstructed. You will often see a lot of dogs that look this way because they are groomed this way. Although this is good for the dog, it is not the same as breeding this coat naturally. Out of my 10 litters I have bred maybe 5 dogs with this coat ever. It doesn't make coats that are not like this wrong, but it is something for breeders to consider going forward. This photo was taken from the ENCI and SAB website.