HISTORY OF THE GREATER SWISS MOUNTAIN DOG By Anna Wallace
T he ancestors of the mod- ern day Greater Swiss Mountain Dog are inter- woven in the history of Switzerland. Easier to keep and more purpose- ful than the horse in mountain terrain, these dogs were critical in the daily life of the working man, helping with the chores and workload of the butchers, cattlemen, manual workers and farmers. Drafting, droving, guarding and working alongside their master were their primary purpose. Th ough breed- ing programs did not really exist at the time, work duties selected for a big, heavy dog with a sturdy appearance, calm, steady tempera- ment, bold and confident, yet non-aggressive and non-hunting. Coat length was largely immaterial, though the shorter weather resis- tant coat with heavy undercoat seemed to hold preference. Dogs had to be able to do the work of the day while able to be main- tained on relatively little food, primarily left- overs from the family table. Dogs that did not make the grade in terms of temperament or working ability were typically butchered and added to the soup pot. Color in the working dog was primarily immaterial, typically red, yellow, or black and tan, all with or without white markings, though there did seem to develop a preference for red and white dogs in the late 1800s, likely due to the growing world notice of the Saint Bernard. Before the late 1800s, the breed was a “type” rather than a breed. As the red/white St. Bernard type preference developed in the cities, the black-tri colored dogs were typically left in the hands of the farmers and herdsmen, thus forming the foundation of the Bernese Mountain Dog where the long coat with its truer, more striking col- ors came into favor. Long coat bred to long coat produces long coated puppies, thus the foundation for developing a breed. 1908 brought the 25th anniversary show of the Swiss Kennel Club where Franz Schertenleib, a well-known Berner breeder,
brought a heavy bodied, short coated “Ber- nese” to the show. He had seen this dog in a remote area and bought him as an oddity, and brought him to the show to see what well respected judge, Professor Albert Heim would say about this “short-haired Berner.” Any other judge might have dismissed this dog as undesirable for breeding, or perhaps even the development of long and short coated Bernese, but Professor Heim remem- bered seeing such dogs in the 1860s and declared him a marvelous example of the old-type Sennenhund breed, and with that started a country wide search for other dogs of the type to save them from extinction. Th e search brought fourth 21 examples of the breed and the “Grosser Schweitzer Sen- nenhund” (Greater Swiss Mountain Dog) was developed as an individual breed. Only 7 of those first 21 dogs registered are found in the pedigrees of the modern GSMD. Common issues seen in the development of the breed were the lack of clear colors and the di ffi culty finding quality bitches. Bitches tended to be too “fine” and the color of undercoat (typically tending from light gray to yellow) tended to “muddy” the black coloring, detracting from the striking black-tri color preference. For many years long haired puppies would appear in breed- ings, a trait which is still occasionally seen today. Th e use of local studs and chance breedings rather than a strategical plan hampered development. Indeed the GSMD of the 1970s could be traced back to tight inbreeding in very few generations. Cross- breeding to Berners in the 1950s resulted in short haired puppies with clearer colors with darker undercoat and deeper red color, but also produced poor gait, bad bites and ner- vousness and shyness which then turned the focus back toward purebred stock and away from crossbred “improvement.” Development of the breed proceeded forward with an e ff ort toward standard- ization. Preference selected for a harmoni- ous combination of height, power, agility,
strong muscles and solid structure. Broad, thick body with little abdomen tuck-up and a “cow-dog” head, with a flatter top skull to distinctly distinguish away from the rounder head of the Saint Bernard, and a preference for a tight eyelid, slight stop and away from heavy hanging lips. Short coat was to be rough and weather resistant, more rough than smooth, often lacking luster. In the words of M. Magron, “It may be less beautiful than the sparkling long coat of the Berner Sennenhund, but the GSSH is a dog for the weekdays, not for Sunday. And at the time being, we have six weekdays and but one Sunday.” Th e original dogs ranged from 23 ½ "-28" and bitches from 21.2"-26.2" with weights for males from 83-143 lbs and females from 81.4-138 lbs. It’s said that females were typi- cally as heavy as the males due to being lon- ger in body and heavier in pelvis. General ratio of length to height of the original dogs was 10:9. In 1971, males seldom reached 27" and females seldom reached 25.8". Development of the breed was quite slow with several setbacks in war torn Europe, and in 1967, there were only 46 GSMD reg- istered with the Swiss club. In 1968, Patricia and Frederick Ho ff man of Indiana brought the first GSMD to the United States, and the first 20 years of development in the US was primarily done by Dr. Howard and Mrs. Gretel Summons under the kennel name Sennenhof. Th e Greater Swiss Moun- tain Dog Club of America was formed in 1971, the registry started, and the breed has quite literally taken o ff since that time. Th e GSMD gained full recognition in the AKC working group in 1995. Th e development of the GSMD in the United States has been steady and while they have modest recognition in group level competition, the quality of the breed as a whole continues to improve. Th eir striking appearance, suitability as a great family pet and general good health has endeared them with a popularity that continues to grow.
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