by   David Hancock

I believe that the flock guarding 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 continued, 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 (so-called) "Mastiff".

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 (sometimes referred to as shepherds' mastiffs) 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 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 flock guarding breeds of dog. Researchers of the Swiss breeds, quoting from the German author Richard 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!

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. The transhumance dogs need great stamina, immense hardiness and physical robustness, combined with the fierceness to deal with wolves and the gentleness to care for sheep or goats. From such attributes did the St Bernard become a famed rescue dog.

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 Greater 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 over 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.

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 Greater 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. The role of each Alpine pastoral breed has determined their anatomy and needs to be respected.

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 and excessive facial wrinkle, 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 Alps is a testing terrain for any pastoral breed and to be perpetuated honestly each of the Alpine breeds needs to conform to its classic time-honoured form and not one dreamed up by misguided fanciers who wouldn't know a mountain pasture from a motorway! The Bernese Mountain Dog is one of the handsomest breeds of dog but is prone to a number of inheritable defects; the mania for pure-breeding may well preclude an out-cross to a similar breed, possibly an Entlebucher or even a Beauceron from France. Such a fine breed richly deserves our enlightened custodianship and the higher-level care expected of a national kennel club - but today's pet-market and show-ring thinking is unlikely to bring such a far-reaching but thoroughly-merited improvement, and more's the pity!