He looks like a Muppet with dreadlocks, but in reality he’s a sweet, loyal sheepdog with a patient nature and an intelligent, independent spirit. And you can see that in his eyes, if you look for them!
You might look at this dog and think, “grooming nightmare.” Not so! The Bergamasco’s coat needs some prep work when he’s still a puppy, but after that, it’s smooth sailing. He wears his mats (or “dreads”) proudly, and once established they require almost no maintenance. Among adult dogs, little to no brushing is required, and bathing usually isn’t necessary more than one to three times a year. Experts advise that the dog never be shaved.
As sheep-herders, Bergamascos were bred to work independently and to problem-solve without a handler’s supervision or commands. This makes him somewhat different from other shepherd breeds. A strong, muscular dog with a considerable ability to endure long working hours and harsh elements, Bergamascos are believed to be descendants of ancient dogs that tended and herded flocks of sheep in mountainous Iran (then Persia) for their nomadic masters. Over time, some of these nomads settled and remained in the Italian Alps. It is there that the dog came to be known as the Bergamasco (for Bergamo, one of the first Italian towns where he worked tending sheep).
More recently (in the period immediately following World War II), Bergamascos nearly became extinct because of the drop in wool production and the corresponding drop in need for sheep and sheepdogs. A highly trained Italian scientist, Dr. Maria Andreoli, is credited with saving the breed by studying and observing its genetic traits. Over 40 years of careful breeding, Dr. Andreoli developed many lines of champion dogs at her Dell' Albera kennel. She is also credited with sharing knowledge that enabled the Bergamasco to be successfully introduced in the U.S.
Males should measure around 23½ inches tall; females, 22 inches. One inch above or below the standard is acceptable in the show ring. Males should weigh between 70 and 84 pounds, while 57 to 71 pounds is a healthy weight for females. They can be solid gray or merle, with shadings of fawn and a minimum of small white markings.
The Bergamasco is both loving and independent. Although strong in physique, he is gentle in spirit. A noteworthy trait is that he seems to share his love equally among all members, forming a strong bond with each person rather than doting exclusively on one. He is protective of the family and, as with most shepherd dogs, wary of strangers. He is an excellent guard dog.
Bergamascos are somewhat energetic, but unlike many shepherds, they enjoy playing games like fetch and Frisbee in addition to walking or running. They can also compete in herding trials, agility courses, and other athletic events.
As a rare breed, the Bergamasco has not been studied as extensively as other dogs, and he show no predisposition to any illness or bodily injury. Apparently Dr. Andreoli’s research in the 20th century did not uncover any health-related concerns, but further study of the breed is necessary.
Naturally, he is uncomfortable in warm and humid climates and happiest where it’s cool and/or windy.
Establishment of the matted coat begins in puppyhood. Bergamasco babies sport a soft coat initially, but around their first birthday the hair becomes rough and wooly. At this point you or your groomer need to separate the fur into mats. This process takes a few hours but needs to be done only once during your dog’s lifetime. Regularly checking of the mats over the next six months helps ensure that they are staying matted and that debris and dirt are not interfering. After this period, the mats generally stay dense and thick. The Bergamasco does not shed in the typical sense; he loses a hair here and there, but does not “blow coat,” and many people with dog allergies find they are not symptomatic in the presence of a Bergamasco.
The Bergamasco Sheepdog Club of America (http://bergamascousa.com) has a Rescue page on its site. Bergamascos in need of rescue are rare, but the club does occasionally know of one. You can also consult petfinder.com. Regional rescue groups might be helpful to anyone with a need to rehome a Bergamasco.