The Bergamasco is an ancient sheep herding dog breed with roots in the Middle East. Sheep and goats were first domesticated thousands of years ago near the Zagros Mountains, which straddle the present Iraq-Iran border. Herding dogs with long, thick coats worked alongside their masters to help move, guard and tend to those flocks. Eventually, some of these nomadic people moved west in search of greener pastures, settling in the foothills of the northern Italian Alps, near Milan, bringing their flocks and dogs with them. Probably the shaggiest breed in the world, the Bergamasco’s dense, disorderly coat protected it from the chilly alpine weather, and its natural herding and guarding instincts made it extremely valuable. Bergamascos were – and are - courageous and fiercely protective of their flocks, working closely with their shepherds but requiring little direction from them. With just one person, a few dogs and hundreds of sheep, nomadic shepherds needed their dogs to be independent thinkers and the Bergamasco was perfect for the job. It undoubtedly contributed to several other shaggy European working breeds, such as the Bouvier, Briard and Polish Lowland Sheepdog.
Bergamascos almost faced extinction extinct after World War II, when wool production fell off and there wasn’t as much need for large sheep-herding dogs. An Italian breeder and renowned geneticist, Dr. Maria Andreoli, was instrumental in saving the breed. She studied the genetic traits of the Bergamasco and produced many champions over more than 40 years of selective breeding. She is credited with establishing reliable bloodlines and introducing this unique dog more widely to dog fanciers throughout Europe and elsewhere. The Bergamasco Sheepdog Club of America was founded in 1996 by Donna and Stephen DeFalcis. The DeFalcis, working closely with Dr. Andreoli, imported the first Bergamascos to the United States in the mid-1990s. The Bergamasco population in this country is still small, but it is gradually growing. Dedicated enthusiasts in many other countries are also working on focused breeding programs.
Bergamascos still have efficient herding and guardian instincts. They occasionally serve as therapy dogs. They compete in assorted canine sporting events, including agility trials, obedience, herding and showmanship. The United Kennel Club formally recognized the breed in 1995, as a member of its Herding Group. The breed is not yet fully recognized by the American Kennel Club. However, it was brought into the AKC’s Foundation Stock Service in 1997 and is now a member of the Miscellaneous Class, with a Herding Group Designation.
As a relatively rare breed, the Bergamasco has not received the same genetic scrutiny as some others, making information about its health somewhat limited. Because this is a very old breed that hasn’t changed much over centuries, it is generally very healthy. Bergamascos reportedly are not prone to any specific disorders or diseases, major or minor. Their typical life expectancy is 12 to 15 years. Because of its dramatic dense coat, this breed does not thrive in hot or humid climates. Cutting or shaving the Bergamasco’s shaggy locks can cause irritation and predispose it to skin infections.