History of the Swiss Mountain Dog

Special thanks to Frank and Brigitte Rhinehart of Brush Creek Farms for the following information.

The Origins

The Great Swiss Mountain Dog is considered the oldest of the Swiss breeds. There are several theories regarding the ancient origins of the Swiss Sennenhund breeds.

The most popular theory states the dogs are descendants from the Mollosian, a large Mastiff-type dog that accompanied the Roman Legions on their conquest of vast areas of Central Europe in the 1st century B.C.

Another hypothesis is that a large canine breed was brought to Europe by the (about 1100 B.C.) when they settled down in Spain. It Supposedly, these dogs later migrated eastward and influenced the development of the Spanish Mastiff, Great Pyrenees, Dogue de Bordeaux, Great Dane, Rottweiler and others as well as eventually the large Swiss breeds such as the Saint Bernanrd and the Great Swiss and Berner Mountain Dogs.

Yet another speculation assumes that a large breed was already in existence at the time of the Roman invasion of the alpine regions of central Europe. The Roman dogs would have been crossed with indigenous dogs. In Switzerland, these cross breedings eventually would have led to the development of the Saint Bernard and the two large Sennenhunde breeds, the Swissy and the Berner.

Early History in Switzerland
(Summary from the book “Swiss Canine Breeds”)

Professor Albert Heim and the SKGThe ancestors of the Great Swiss Mountain Dog are of the type previously widely spread across Central Europe and frequently described as butchers’ or slaughterer’s dogs. They were strong, tricolor, sometimes black and tan or yellow dogs, popular with butchers, cattle dealers, manual workers and farmers, who used them as guards, droving or draught dogs and bred them as such.

On the occasion of the jubilee show to mark the 25 years of the founding of the «Schweizerische Kynologische Gesellschaft» (Swiss Kennel Club) SKG, held in 1908, two such dogs, called «short-haired Bernese Mountain Dogs», were for the first time presented to Professor Albert Heim, for his assessment. This great promoter of the «Swiss Mountain and Cattle dogs» recognized in them the old, vanishing, large Sennenhund (mountain dog) or butcher’s dog.

They were recognized as a definite breed by the SKG and entered as «Grosser Schweizer Sennenhund» in volume 12 (1909) of the Swiss Stud Book. In the canton of Berne, further exemplars were found which measured up to Heim’s description and were introduced systematically into pure breeding stock. In January 1912 the club for «Grosse Schweizer Sennenhunde» was founded, which from then on took over the care and promotion of this breed.

For a long period the breed reservoir remained small as it was particularly difficult to find suitable bitches. Only since 1933 could more than 50 dogs annually be entered into the SHSB (Swiss Stud Book). The Standard was first published by the FCI on February 5th, 1939. Recognition and wider distribution came along with the breed’s growing reputation as undemanding, dependable carrier or draught dogs in the service of the Swiss army during the second World War, so that by 1945 for the first time over 100 puppies could be registered, which was evidence of the existence of about 350-400 dogs. Today the breed is bred also in the adjacent countries and is appreciated universally for its calm, even temperament, especially as a family dog.

1945 to present day
In the 1950s, an attempt was made to improve structure, color and markings of the breed by crossing some Swissys with Berners. These crossbreedings brought the anticipated betterment of coat color and markings. However, this experiment did not improve the structure, in general the crossbred pups had poor gaits and often bad bites. It also had a detrimental effect on the temperament, nervous behavior and shyness replaced the steady and calm disposition of the GSMD. Most well-known Swiss breeders discontinued using the crossbred lines and concentrated onInka von der Houzbruegg purebred stock.

By the late sixties, the breeding population had decreased to the point that in 1967 only 43 Swissy pups were registered with the Swiss Kennel Club. The national Swiss Swissy club, the “Klub fuer Grosse Schweizer Sennehunde”, attributed this decline primarily to the fact that the

GSMD was always much less popular with the dog fanciers than the Berner, quite possibly because the Swissy is less flashy and eye catching than the Berner with its much more uniform color, markings and long coat.
The Swiss club began to work on spreading the image of the Swissy as a reliable, low maintenance family companion with excellent watch dog qualities.

King von KraehstallBy 1985, an average of about 20 litters were again registered annually. However, this increase in numbers had come at the expense of the overall health of the breed. Decades of inbreeding and close line breeding, coupled with the overuse of and dependency on a very small number of stud dogs, had led to increasing incidences of hereditary diseases such as Ostechondrosis in the shoulder joints and epilepsy. Many breeding animals showed clear signs of inbreeding depression such as low conception rates, whelping difficulties and small litter sizes in bitches and fertility and breeding performance problems in dogs. Alarmed by these developments, the Swiss club established a comprehensive breeding management program. This agenda includes a follow-up of every Swissy born in Switzerland from birth on during its entire life, a data bank of available stud dogs to assist breeders, mandatory screening for OCD in the shoulder, strict control of all line breeding and limiting the number of common ancestors in the first 3 generations of breeding pairs.

Note: Like with many Swiss pure breed clubs, Swissys can only be bred if they pass the mandatory breeding certification exam which consists of health, structure and temperament tests. Only the offspring of animals that have obtained their respective breed club’s breeding certification will be registered by the Swiss Kennel Club.

Today in Switzerland, the Swissy is still among the relatively rare breeds. However, the numbers of litters have remained quite steady with about 18 to 25 litters registered every year. And most importantly, thanks to the efforts of those concerned club members who recognized the dangerous situation the breed was facing in the mid-eighties, the overall health situation has improved considerably. The number of OCD and epilepsy cases and other hereditary diseases are decreasing steadily, the performance of stud dogs and brood bitches has and is constantly improving, and very rarely does a stud dog sire more than a couple of litters per year.

The Name
The Swiss named the breed “Grosser Schweizer Sennenhund” . “Grosser” translates into “big, large, great”. The word “Senn” cannot be translated directly. It stands for an age old agricultural occupation found in all alpine regions of Central Europe. A Senn is a seasonal alpine dairyman. “Schweizer” and “Hund” simply mean “Swiss” and “dog”, respectively.

Quite understandably, the founding members of the “Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America” could not name the breed “Seasonal alpine dairyman’s dog”. And since the precedent to translate satisfactorily at least a part of the name existed already with the translation of the “Berner Sennenhund” into “Bernese Mountain Dog”, it was reasonable to use this also for the Swissy.

Those early club members then translated “Grosser” into “Greater”. According to one of the members, Patricia Hoffman, the club chose “Greater” over “Great, Large, Big” to differentiate the breed from others with the adjective “Great” in their names, such as the Great Dane or the Great Pyrenees. While the good intentions of these GSMDCA members are not in question, their understanding of the historical and grammatical context remains doubtful. In addition, it is highly unlikely that any dog fancier would confound a Swissy with a Dane or a Pyrenees just because they have the same adjective in their names…
When the venerable Dr. Albert Heim gave the breed its name at that fateful dog show in Switzerland in 1908, the other three Sennehunde breeds had already been labeled as Berner, Appenzeller and Entlebucher Sennenhunde. Indeed, these breeds were named after the geographic regions in Switzerland where they originated from, i.e. the size was not the determining factor. And while the Swissy originally was more heavily represented in the canton of Bern, Dr. Heim did not choose to compare it to the other breeds based on geographic origins. Had he done so, he might have called it “Greater Bernese Mountain Dog”, or in German “Groesserer Berner Sennenhund”. He deliberately set the breed apart from the others and probably called it “Grosser” because it was a large Sennenhund of a type of dog commonly found in many rural areas of Switzerland outside of the canton of Bern.

Hence, the translation of “Gross, grosser, grosse” into “Greater” (“Groesserer” in German) is historically as well as grammatically incorrect. The “Federation Cynologique Internationale” (FCI), the umbrella organization for national kennel clubs world wide except the AKC and the British KC, calls the breed “Big Swiss Mountain Dog”. The Swiss Kennel Club, in its translation of the name, calls it “Great Swiss Mountain Dog”.

As a native German speaker from Switzerland, Brigitte has used the term “Great Swiss Mountain Dog” in all her own written and spoken communications since becoming a member of the GSMDCA in 1989. However, at this time, the AKC approved name for the breed remains “Greater Swiss Mountain Dog”.