161 Big Dogs of Switzerland

by   David Hancock

 In a country with sixty per cent of its land surface made up of  mountains, it is not surprising to find that Switzerland has more breeds of mountain dog than any other nation. We have known of the Mount St. Bernard dog for many centuries and the Bernese Mountain Dog increasingly over the last decade. But the other three 'Sennenhund' breeds, the Appenzeller, the Entlebucher and the Great Swiss Mountain Dog are not yet established in the United Kingdom. The latter breed, however, is making headway in the United States, where it was introduced in 1968. Now there are around 200 of them there, a slow but sensibly-paced increase based on a careful selection of imports and well-planned breeding to maintain the breed's sustained high level of physical soundness and excellent temperament.

 The four Swiss breeds of Sennenhund (strictly speaking, 'a dog of the Alpine dairy pasture' rather than 'Gebirgshund' or mountain dog) have been utilised in any variety of ways: herd-protector, drover's dog, butcher's dog and draught dog, and their physical strength, willingness to work and equable temperament reflect man's requirements of them.

 I believe that these pastoral dogs originated with the dogs of the Indo-European peoples (hunters then nomadic shepherds) who migrated south 3,000 years before Christ. The East Indo-Europeans moved from just north of the Caucasus mountains around the northern shores of the Black Sea to settle in Greece and Anatolia and south-west of the Black Sea into Turkey. Over the next two thousand years, this migration cotinued, to produce the settlements of the Slavs, Illyrians and Thracians in the west and similar civilizations east of the Caspian Sea, south-east to the Tibetan plateau and south to the Indus valley.

 Just look at the resultant distribution of such big herd-protectors: the Maremma of Italy, the Estrela Mountain Dog and Cao Rafeiro do Alentjo of Portugal, the Kuvasz of Hungary, the Anatolian Shepherd Dog, the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, the Hovawart of southern Germany, the Tatra Mountain Dog of Poland, the Rumanian sheepdog, the Sar Planina of Yugoslavia, the Transcaucasian Owtcharka and the Tibetan "mastiff".

 These modern breeds may have developed separately over the last thousand years but the similarities are all too obvious. Local preferences have manifested themselves, with black and tan dogs being favoured in northern Switzerland (rather as with the Beauceron in nearby France and the Rottweiler in neighbouring southern Germany) and the red and white of the St.Bernard in the south, more like the big dogs of the Pyrenees, the Abruzzi and the Greek and Yugoslavian mountain areas.

 Time and time again you will find writers on these breeds linking them with an origin from the Tibetan "mastiff". But I believe all such big mountain dogs or shepherd dogs share a common origin and came south with migrating people, ending up in the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Balkans and the foothills of the Himalayas. I can find no evidence of the Tibetan mastiff existing before the Kuvasz, for example.

 It disappoints me therefore to see the St. Bernard being bred more like a mastiff than a mountain dog. Historically, the hospice dogs were much more like the other mountain breeds and did not feature the massive head, loose lips and excessive dewlaps of the modern pedigree St. Bernard. I can never see the rationale in extolling the proud history of a breed and then perpetuating that breed in a different mould. Huge dogs have a magnanimity, a munificence and a majesty all of their own and simply don't need exaggeration to promote themselves or win our admiration.

 The other Swiss breeds show no signs of exaggeration. The Entlebucher, 16-19", tricolour and short-tailed, has survived bad times through the dedicated interest of people like Franz Schertenleib and the veterinary surgeon Dr. Kobler. Coming from the Entlebuch region in the Lucerne canton, mainly between the valleys of the Little Emme and the Enteln, they are alert, agile, sure-footed dogs, eager to work and make themselves useful, sharper and nimbler than their sister breeds.

 The Appenzeller, resembling the Rottweiler from further north, is a bigger, 19-23" and 48-55lb dog, also tricolour, with a short, thick, glossy coat and a full tail, curling over the back. Coming from the Toggenburg valley around St. Gall, it was once known as the Toggenburger or Toggenburg Triebhund (drover). Watchful, vigilant, full of vitality and more boisterous than the look-alike Entlebucher, it was used with sheep and cattle and as a draught dog.

 The bigger (25-28") Grosser Schweizer Sennenhund (or Great Swiss Dog of the Alpine high pastures) is more like a shorter-coated Bernese Mountain Dog and it surprises me that this breed isn't favoured in England. In America it is an outstanding obedience trialler and is considered an ideal family dog, sturdy, robust, friendly by nature but instinctively protective, gentle with children and easily managed.

 Professor Heim first proposed the generic name, sennenhund, for the four tricolour Swiss breeds but it was opposed by the early breed-devotees of the Bernese dog. The name is of course misleading for the Senn, the cattle herdsmen of the Alps, kept either small, fast, nimble dogs or none at all. The big dogs were employed in the valleys where the farmers wanted dogs that would not hunt or wander but instinctively guard the homestead. They wanted dogs impressive enough to deter ill-intentioned strangers yet be well-disposed towards the family.

 The big Bernese farm dogs came in different colours, tricolour, red, yellow and red with white. The old records show all these colours and they were not bred separately. From the middle of the last century, the cheeseries were built in the valleys and on the lower slopes and farmers began to use big draught  dogs to bring milk there by dog-cart. When the St. Bernards became fashionable after 1850, some of the bigger red and yellow dogs were actually sold as St. Bernards. The tricolour dogs fell out of favour except in a few isolated places like Schwarzenburg in the south of Berne. Here the people were less well off and had poor roads. They found big draught-dogs extremely useful to dairymen, butchers, basket-weavers, tool-makers and traders in garden produce. These dogs were bought and sold at an inn called Durrbach-Gasthaus and became known as Durrbach-dogs.

 It is simply absurd to claim that these breeds were known as such by the Romans or descended from Molossian dogs. The Roman armies would have found (rather than introduced) big guard dogs, and very ferocious ones too, in all the mountain areas they invaded. Such big dogs were found all over the mountainous areas of Europe at the time the Molossian dogs were being extolled by Greek and Roman intellectuals. Why pick out the big dogs found in Epirus so specifically? It is also incorrect to claim centuries of pure-breeding behind each of these big Swiss breeds of dog. Researchers quoting from the German author Strebel ('The German Dogs,1904) and Professor Heim, a geologist not a historian, need to exercise great care. Newfoundland fanciers are aware of some of Professor Heim's rather unusual theories on their breed.

 But fiction on the Swiss tricolour breeds compares almost favourably with the sheer nonsense written about the St. Bernard down the years. And what a pity that is, for the St. Bernard is a truly magnificent breed, full of virtue and worthy of our admiration. The St. Bernard really doesn't need wildly-exaggerated stories about its prowess in the snow-rescue field. The facts indicate that the role of the hospice-dog was to prevent travellers getting lost in deep snow, rather than rescue them with brandy and blankets. The monks had no fixed ideas on breeding, resorting to outside blood of other breeds and never having success in rearing puppies at the hospice, needing to send whelping bitches down to the valley.

 The monks sold or gave away the very large pups and those with long coats. Yet the short-coated variety has never had the acclaim of the longer-coated version. Wynn, in his "History of the Mastiff", states that at one stage the monks got dogs which were probably identical with those which defended flocks in the Abruzzi mountains. The legendary Barry was a medium-sized short-coated dog. Herr Schumacher has written that around 1830 the monks had to resort to Newfoundland and Great Dane bitches to produce more robust offspring.

 From 1835 to 1845, huge "Alpine mastiffs" were often recorded and even drawn by Landseer. A dog called L'Ami was exhibited in 1829 as the largest dog in England and as an Alpine mastiff but was probably a cropped-eared Great Dane. Many of the St.Bernards imported into Britain from 1860 were described as "coming from the Monastery of St. Bernard" but most of them were merely descendents of dogs which had been bred there years before. "Idstone" refers to an outcross to a Pyrenean 'wolfhound' when the hospice kennels were stricken with distemper.

 Looking at contemporary St. Bernards I suspect that the master-breeders who developed the breed in Britain towards the end of the last century resorted to mastiff blood to produce the desired massiveness and powerful head and obtain extra stature in the breed. This is perhaps now coming through in excess and the St. Bernard has become very different from every other breed of dog from the mountainous areas of the Western world.

 But whether true to their ancestor-breeds or not, the big dogs from Switzerland have captured our hearts with their massive grandeur, considerable handsomeness and long-acknowledged qualities as companion-dogs. We are indebted to the Swiss for giving us such widely-admired breeds. The quite remarkable feature of these big dogs is their tolerance, urbanity, restraint and self-discipline---an ideal model for any hefty young human; as Shakespeare once wrote:


          "O! It is excellent

     To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous

     To use it like a giant."