When you first see the rustic Bergamasco, a sheepdog hailing from the Alpine regions of northern Italy and southern Switzerland, you might think you’re looking at a small Komondor or a large Puli. But on closer examination, the matted coat will tell you this dog is unique.
Unlike the corded coat of the Puli or Komondor, the Bergamasco’s coat consists of flocks. Flocks are large, irregular dense mats of felted hair that are often flat in shape and can have a fanwise opening on the end. Each flock on the body can be from 1.5-half-inches-to-3-inches wide.
The Bergamasco is unique, as it has three kinds of hair in its coat. First there is a short, dense, and fine oily undercoat that forms a layer of waterproof protection for the dog. Second is the straight, long, and roughly-textured “goat hair.” And finally there is the woolly outer coat. The uneven pattern of distribution of the goat hair and outer coat across the dog’s body is responsible for the formation of the flocks.
Care of the Bergamasco’s coat is simpler than it looks, with no brushing required and only a few baths a year. In puppies, the hair is soft and short, but by the time the undercoat begins to grow, usually around one year of age, the felting process has begun. At this time, the coat needs to be “ripped” by the owner into mats. Although this can take several hours, it only needs to be done once in the dog’s life. Then for the next 6 months, weekly checks will ensure the mats have not grown back together. The now separate flocks continue to grow as the dog ages, and generally reach the ground by the time he is about five years old.
This unusual coat provides the dog with protection from predators and the elements. Traditionally, when tending sheep in the mountains, the dog's thick mats would shield him from harmful wolf bites during an attack. Nowadays, the mats can protect from the bites of insects or bullies at the dog park. The coat also guards the dog against cold and wet weather. In fact, Bergamascos can stay comfortable in freezing cold conditions and cool in the warm summer.
The Bergamasco is a member of the Herding Group, and the history of the breed goes back thousands of years to the harsh mountain climates of Persia (in the area that is now Iran). Nomadic shepherds and their resilient dogs tended and herded flocks of sheep throughout the area. Eventually some of these shepherds settled in the Italian Alps, and the dogs they brought with them became the Bergamasco.
After all those years of herding sheep in the mountains, the breed was nearly lost after World War II, when wool production decreased and there was no longer a high demand for shepherding dogs. Thankfully, before the breed became completely extinct, Dr. Maria Andreoli stepped in, re-establishing the Bergamasco through careful breeding and introducing it to the United States.
Traditionally, Bergamascos herded the flock independently from the shepherd, so expect them to be highly intelligent with a desire to please while also showing an ability to think for themselves. They tend to see themselves as your partner rather than your subordinate. Their family is their flock, and they will respond to each family member in a different way according to each person’s personality. They enjoy participating in everything going on around them and are also excellent with children, being protective, tolerant, and patient, and establishing a true friendship with them.