On the History of the large Swiss Butcher / Cattle / Mountain Dogs
One of the best publications dealing with this issue is still the
work of Dr. Räber “Die Schweizer Hunderassen”. Unfortunately,
the book is now only available in antiquary context so I have summarised
here the most important points regarding the origins of the Greater
Swiss Mountain and the St. Bernard dogs. Occasionally I haven’t
agreed with Räber’s conclusions or I have included additional
information - mainly on the coat colour inheritance genetics for
Swiss Mountain Dogs. My own thoughts I have included in non-italic
The early days: cattle or cowherd dogs (Küherhunde)
There is evidence from early paintings and
written testimonies that large strong dogs were kept all over Europe but mainly in formerly celtic territory
to protect property, drive cattle, pull carts and could be used
to hunt wild boars, bulls and bears. These dogs were known as Matins
in France and Belgium, as Metzgerhunde or Hofhunde in the German
spoken countries and as Küherhunde (cowherd dogs) in rural Switzerland.
These dogs were present in many colours. In the beginning of the
years of pure dog breeding people spoke about black, red, yellow,
grey and white dogs, black and white, black and tan, and tigered
types. Some of them had markings in yellow or white.
In Switzerland, between 1550 and 1900, the so-called “Kühertum”
(approx. cow-herdom) was an important form of semi-nomadic cattle-keeping
connected with cheese making. The “Küher” drove large herds
of cattle from the properties of the mostly noble owners to the
pastures in the mountains to stay there over the summertime. This
lifestyle called for the help of sturdy dogs, having a natural cattle
driving instinct and a constitution strong enough to cope with the
stubborn cattle and to protect the herd and the property of the
“Küher” by night. Many skulls of these “Küher”-dogs are
preserved in the Albert Heim collection in the Museum of Natural
History in Berne. The “Kühertum” came to proud bloom
in the 18th century when many cowherdsmen emancipated to become
the prosperous owners of the cattle. However, they faced a steady
downfall after 1830 when the cheese-making in the lowland dairies
became more and more popular.
A comparison of the typical larger type cowherd
dog skulls with specimens from dogs from the St. Bernard Hospice
show little morphological difference, confirming the view
that a relatively uniform population of “farmdogs” was spread
over the main Alpine area.
Typical farm dogs
used for drawing a milk kart (Source: old postcard)
The dogs of the "Hospiz"
at St. Bernhard
In 1851 a certain Mr. Richardson wrote that the
Monastery in St. Bernard had imported British Mastiffs in 1660 and
kept them as watchdogs. This would explain to some extent the scattered
occurrence of a more mollosoid skull type seen in the Albert Heim
collection, but it is very doubtful where this information came
from. There is no such evidence in the records from the Hospice.
It is, however, believed that the first dogs were kept at the Hospice
between 1660 and 1670 and these first Hospice-dogs were used as
A painting from approximately 1690 shows two dogs,
red and white spotted, from the Hospice which are described as "Küherhunde"
! (cowherd's dogs) with slightly heavier heads. The first written
reference to dogs at the Hospice comes a few years later in 1703
describing using a dog to turn a meat skew in the Hospice kitchen.
Later, the dogs were used more and more to accompany monks and travellers
over the pass. A detailed history of the Dogs of the St. Bernard
dogs is given on the excellent homepage of the “Naturhistorische
Museum” Berne. www.nmbe.ch/deutsch/531_5_1.html
Around 1850 the public interest in St. Bernard
dogs suddenly increased. It was a master butcher close to Berne
who started to breed with the dogs from the hospice. He was targeting
for a type of dog close to the famous dog 'Barry' who saved many
lives during his years of duty at the hospice. Many photos show
that he was quite successful in his approach. But soon the public
interest showed more inclination towards the heavy-headed Mastiff-like
dogs as bred by others and strongly favoured by British fanciers.
Incredible prices were paid for good dogs. It is no wonder that
many red and white larger cowherd dogs have been sold as true St.
Bernards by their owners
A beautiful Schumacher
dog, Barry-type, around 1890 (Source: Räber: Schweizer Hunderassen,
Albert Müller Verlag)
.It was still not possible at that time to
distinguish between the St. Bernard dog and the large “Sennenhunde”
except for artificial definitions of colour of provenience.
(The same may also be true for the possibly extinct
Italian Cane Garouf found slightly south of the St. Bernard pass
and the vanished Austrian butcher dog of Linz.)
- Pictures and drawings of
early St. Bernards, including the famous preparation of 'Barry'
I found in the National Museum in Berne, often show typical
cowherd dog statures and heads (like today’s Greater Swiss
Mountain Dogs) and often they were black and white or even tricolour
As mentioned earlier,
there are many skulls in the collection of the Heim Stiftung
confirming this congruence of many early St. Bernards, Greater
Swiss Mountain Dogs and cowherd dogs.
Dogs from the
Schumacher kennel. Note the black and white "St. Bernhard"
The foundation of the Greater Swiss Mountain
Around 1910 many red and white farm dogs were
probably absorbed into the St. Bernard breed and among the remaining
farm and butchers dog population the tricolour colouring was without
doubt the most beautiful combination and fitted into the newly created
family of Swiss mountain dogs.
Tricoloured dogs were never very
common, and they were not exclusive to the Swiss countryside. They
could be found sparsely spread elsewhere in Europe as shown in old
paintings from Holland and elsewhere.
The picture shows a collage of
paintings collected from members of The gsshwwdb
forum (see link at the bottom) which are dated between 1620 and
the 19th century. Most of them are of Flemish and French origin
It was a somewhat 'by chance' decision to select
animals with the probably nicest colour combination and breed them
towards a unified appearance. Any other occurring colour could also
have been chosen but this was not the case.
Beyond its colour
the greater Swiss mountain dog has little in common with the two
smaller mountain dog breeds which seem to have inherited many characteristics
from the Spitz family of dogs.
When Professor Heim “rediscovered”
the dogs he remembered from his childhood, there weren't many tricolour
dogs to be found. He then established a breed standard for this
type of dog. More thoughts about this at the end of this article.
A different view is given in the dissertation
of Margrit Scheitlin. She follows the lines of early authors (Loens
(?), Goetz 1834) who express the the butcherdogs of northern and
mid-Germany were mostly black and tan with additional white markings.
The occurrence of multi-coloured dogs with an otherwise typical
GSMD appearance around 1900 as described by Heim and others is explained
with the hybridising with other, imported breeds being en vogue
during that time.
I do not favour this explanation. St. Bernard
dogs derive from the Swiss cowherd dogs. The earliest painting in
the hospice is showing as early as 1690 rend and white spotted dogs,
long before dog breeding was fashion.
The Development of the Breed
World War II saw a boom in the breeding of
GSMD'ss as they were used as draft dogs in the military service.
In the fifties obviously many dogs had insufficient
colour. The black was not pure and the brown markings were often
yellow. To improve their colouring crossbreeding with a Bernese
Mountain Dog (BMD) was performed.
Räber states that the offspring, although beautifully
coloured with short hair, lacked gait, bite and character. It was
for this reason that these dogs were avoided in the use of breeding
and so their genetic influence disappeared and the whole action
was considered a failure.This seems to be wrong, although it is
consistently repeated in many later books.
The mating of the BMD Dursli von der Holzmühle
with the GSSM bitch Berna von Birchacker resulted in the male Durs
von Birchacker. After 4 generations this hybrid already has more
than 60 descendants among them, for example, Zarass von Fryberg.
Zarass alone has, again 4 generations later, hundreds of dogs in
his posterity, among them some champions. So it would be hard to
find one dog today, that does not have the blood of this crossbreeding
in it's lineage ! Therefore, it seems the arguments against crossbreeding
can hardly be maintained based on these facts.
A problem that was later faced was the lack
of size. In the seventies many dogs were at the lower limit of the
standard. Räber proposes a cross breeding with symmetrically marked
St. Bernards - I don’t know if this
was ever tried.
Räber states that from the first 21 dogs in the
Swiss stud book only 7 have given their genes to the present GSMDs.
By browsing the Grosse Schweizer Sennenhunde - Greater Swiss Mountain
Dog World Wide Database (https://www.gsshwwdb.org/index2.html) I
found 8 unique dogs of unknown origin as founders of the breed being
traceable back from today’s dogs. But this gives us a wrong impression.
There are many more founders of the breed as can be seen in the
pedigree of Alex von Fryberg as given in the doctoral thesis of
Scheitlin. There I counted 19 dogs, many of them not registered
(probably not tricolour). Alex's line can be followed through, e.g.
over Oskar von Schwärtzenberg till the present populations.
What can also be seen is that there were many more dogs in the beginning,
some of them never bred, and others going into dead-end lines which
faded away after a few generations, probably due to colour or structure
I will try to research if at some point in its history
the breed went through an genetic bottleneck maybe around
1920 when the foot-and-mouth disease hit the Swiss country
A probably more severe habit is the custom to
use only champions as stud dogs. Thus very few male dogs are ancestors
to a multitude of pubs. Genetic diversity is in this case mostly
transmitted by the "mothers". But thid was not enough
! Today we are striving to use as many studs as possible and every
owner of a GSMD is encouraged to go through the "Ankörung",
the health and character test of the club.
The strict limitation of coat colour in itself
is no problem but it limited the number of usable dogs to found
the breed bringing us to the main problem for the future which is
the reduced gene pool, or better, gene puddle.
It is well known that inbred populations exhibit
certain traits that are not found in normal out bred populations.
This is because breeding among closely related individuals increases
the probability of matching up recessive alleles. (An allele is
any one of a number of alternative forms of the same gene occupying
a given locus (position) on a chromosome, from Wikipedia, the free
encyclopedia). In normal out breeding populations, these recessive
alleles, often deleterious, are masked by normal dominant alleles.
Inbreeding in laboratory populations is consistently used to uncover
unusual recessive traits that a population carries in its gene pool
but rarely expresses..." (Lester & Bohlin, 1989).
However, we all have thousands of different genes for many different
functions, and as long as these abnormalities are rare, the probability
that two unrelated individuals carrying the same abnormality will
meet (and mate) is low. In the case of a population passing an artificial
or natural bottleneck this possibility is dramatically increased.
This can mean that more negative dispositions
will be uncovered in the form of unwanted traits, organical misfunctions
and loss off overall vitality.
Inbreeding (including line-breeding)
gave us the many breeds of dog we enjoy today, but it's time has
passed. If purebred dogs are to remain viable into the next century
breeders need to rethink their strategy and work toward their goals
with more emphasis on over-all health and concerted efforts to reduce
the level of inbreeding in their dogs (C. A. Sharp, http://www.dogstuff.info/genetic_index.html)
For those genes that establish breed identity,
there will be markedly less variability within a breed than within
Canis familiaris as a whole. The tricky part is restricting variability
for those genes that make a breed distinctive without sacrificing
the variability/diversity that is necessary for good health and
long-term survival of the breed. In many cases, this has not been
achieved, and we are now paying the price in terms of high incidence
of specific genetic diseases and increased susceptibility to other
diseases, reduced litter sizes, reduced lifespan, inability to conceive
naturally, etc. (Prof. John Armstrong).
We should prepare now for the future.
Proposing the enlarging of the gene pool in a parallel stock
The following suggestion should by no means be
regarded as a substitute for our beloved breed. It should be regarded
as a pool from where, in future, tricolour dogs may be chosen with
a largely expanded gene-pool, if needed, and used to freshen up
My proposal is to re-establish the original variety
of Alpine farmdogs or cowherd dogs. This could be achieved by crossbreeding
GSMD’s with the breeds available today which are closest to the
present Swissies. Candidates are proposed in order of preference:
The Broholmer has an stature and a character very close to a GSMD
but is a bit larger. Occurs in black and red, with and without white
The Berger des Alpes which is smaller
than the Swissies (accounting for the oversized Broholmer) but having
the same origins and history of duty. Occurs in black and tan and
with tiger like markings. If considered helpful, maybe the following
breeds could be taken into account. The drawback with this two breeds
is that they are very rare.
The Mastin Espanol, the dog of the
Spanish cowherds is somewhat more mollosoid, bigger and heavier
and come in a lot of colours, among them many shades of grey. Only
athletic individuals should be chosen without excessive loose skin
and those that look physically really close to GSMD’s.
although maybe a bit less convenient, the Tosa Inu which as a breed
is quite heterogeneous but most have many characteristics of a Küherhund.
A drawback is their fighting image, although the un-bloody Japanese
dogfights have little in common with the fights we know from the
criminal millieu, and the dogs are known for having a good character.
The Rottweiler, another relative, might be less advantageous due
to character drawbacks and more quadratic stature. The St Bernard
dog, probably the closest relative, is today unfortunately a caricature
of the early dogs. If there is strand with maintained physical
functionality, well closing eyelids and flews, it would be a utmost
The target would be a dog with the approximate
physical features of a GSMD, all colours allowed except albinism.
Of first importance is a good character ! Even the healthiest dog
cannot exist in today’s society if it is considered a threat !
The next and also very important goal is health, followed by functionality
and then beauty. The main breeding stock should come out of GSMD’s.
Crossing with the other defined breeds should always be allowed
with all dogs being tested for character and health issues.
In the following section we will discuss some
coat colour genetics. It can be stated that even after the mentioned
cross-breeding, many offspring dogs will be still tricolour (homozygous!)
and could be used, if wished, to breed back into the GSMD breed.
There is no danger of loosing the white markings.
relatives of the GSMD showing the colours of the old "Küherhund":
Top left a Berger des Alpes, smaller, colours black and tan
(like the Rottweiler) and tigers, top middle, a Mastin espagnol,
a bit heavier, top right: extremely close to a red-white GSMD but
a bit larger, a Broholmer, bottom left a Tosa Inu, not very consistent
as a breed, this one is a bit lighter than a GSMD and another, grey
Coat Colour genetics of the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog
Räber dedicated one chapter to the coat colours
of all Swiss dog breeds discussing the different factors playing
a major role……
This first one is
the black and tan gene (Loh) and the Irish spotting gene (Räber
calls it Holländer Scheckung = Dutch piebald) which exhibits white
markings on nose, chest, paws and tail. One issue he recognised
is that the white markings may take over resulting in an ongoing
colour displacement by white, ending up with white dogs, having
colour spots only around the eyes, ears and tail. (More on coat colour genes later).
Generally colour in the skin and hair of any being
is determined by pigments, small particles which absorb, transmit
or reflect light depending on their size, shape and material. The
pigment is called melanin and exists in two different types, namely
the black eumelanin and the reddish phaeomelanin. The shape and
distribution of the pigment particles within a hair determines any
colours we know from solid black over all shades of brown, blue
and red to cream and white. These factors are determined by a genetic
code in a chromosome.
I recommend some basic reading about
dog colour inheritance as can be found following the links above.
Very briefly: Imagine a chromosome like a string
of pearls of different materials. A pearl of one given material
stands for a gene. Modifications of pearls of the same material,
say differing size, are called alleles. A locus is a defined and
fixed place on this string for one pearl, labelled with letters,
on which you can have different sizes of a pearl (gene and allele),
of one given
material, defining one characteristic of the dog. Say at one locus
you may choose between 3 different pearls made of wood, at the next
locus you may choose between 5 different pearls of coloured glass,
etc. The pearls (alleles) at one locus may therefore have different
sizes which manifest a ranking. Say, the biggest one is the most
dominant one, the smallest the most recessive one. The alleles are
labelled with the locus letter, mind the case and possibly a superscript,
In a mating the sires contribute each one string now, which is an
arbitrary mix of their own two strings. So one string from the father
and one from the mother form the code for the new pup, and, lets
say, the two strings lie next to each other.
From each string (chromosome) now the bigger (dominant)
pearl (allele) at one locus dictates the characteristic which will
show up in the pup. The situation is complicated by the fact that
some pearls at one locus dominate even pearls at an other locus,
such a gene is called epistatic. This means now that if an allele
is the most recessive on a locus, say the black and tan allele in
the A locus, then we know that in both chromosomes (strings) there
must be the black and tan allele (if it was only present in one,
it would be dominated by the other). This is called homozygous inheritance
and all future generation dogs will consistently show this characteristic.
On the other hand if say a dog carries the at allele but also the
more dominant ay allele, the dog will show the ay colour but will
inherit this colour heterozygous. This means if this dog one day
mates with another dog with the same recessive at allele, in some
pups two at alleles will end up in his pair of chromosomes and the
dog will exhibit the black and tan colour. Recessive genes can be
hidden for generations, however, when they do show up, they inherit
homozygous, which means: pure.
Genotypes and phenotypes
The proposed string of alleles = the ideal genotype
for all Swiss Mountain dogs having the correct colours = the phenotype,
is shown in the middle of the graph. The font colour green makes
alleles in their most recessive form, orange indicates an intermediate
form, black the top dominant type.
Concerning the coat colours
we have the first important gene which is the black and tan allele
at in the Agouti-locus A: This allele is showing up in all black
and tan breeds like Rottweiler and Berger des Alpes, also in some
Mastins. It is overwritten by the all black epistatic allele K and
by the other alleles in the A locus: aw wolf-colour, ay called sable (actually a red/yellow coat with some black
hairs which would substitute the black coat in a Swissie) and as
black saddle. As the most recessive allele in this group at
will consistently show in all future generations.
The other most typical gene is in the S locus
and is called Si
(Irish spotting) defining the white marks. This gene is present
in all mountain dogs and many others including the Broholmer. As
it is recessive to the solid colour allele S it will also consistently
show in all future generations. Therefore the two most important
coat colour characteristics will be easily selectable and be bred
in homozygous, that is pure stage.
At the S locus there are more recessive genes
postulated, e.g. the Sp allele which would cause the white markings to expand
to 50% coat area or even the Se allele resulting in white dogs with coloured spots around
the ears and the tail. I suggest the action of another, yet not
understood gene that steers the expansion of white when Si is present. Räber
describes a continuous coat colour dissolution in early St. Bernards
breeding, which suggests a gradual transition from Si to Sp to Se
hence giving rise to my proposal.
The alleles at loci B, C and D cause in their
recessive forms some alteration to the melanin pigments resulting
in colour changes towards lighter intensities. There is evidence
that they are present in the breed. From time to time blue Swissies
are born having a dd allele pair. Räber reports about a beautiful
havanna (brown) GSMD Fabian von Kleinroth. The havanna colour is
accepted for the Appenzell Mountain dog.
At the E locus, the most recessive allele would
be e, but ee is epistatic to K and A. (The existence of the K locus
is not unquestioned, dominant black K was earlier proposed to be
on top of the A Locus as As) This means that a dog having ee will not produce any
eumelanin pigment therefore no shades of black, havanna and blue
in this hair but only red and yellow phaeomelanin resulting in a red and white Swissy.
Two beautiful red Greater Swiss Moauntain Dogs Type "ee" seen at the National "Ausflug" 2005
Hidden K and M alleles cannot be present except when a mutation occurs or they are crossbred into the breed. K would
cause all black dogs, M the spotted merle coloured individuals.
Finally T would give rise to ticking within the white areas, a feature
we know from Swiss Hounds
Open questions in colour genetics
The allele Em dictates a fawn coat and a black mask. (Although the
placement of this allele is not undisputed; some authors place it
in an own super-extension locus). Obviously the spotting gene Si is stronger when we
see in St Bernards where the muzzle remains white and the black
mask shows up only in the eye region. Räber mentions that the black
dots, often found in the white around the muzzle are the remainders
of a black mask. The E locus is said to be epistatic to the A locus
therefore a combination of Em with at will result in a fawn coat with the black
mask. Therefore I suggest that the black skin spots in the white
area have a different origin. An early GSMD (tricolour) is reported
to have offspring with yellow coats and black masks. This seems
impossible to me if the bitch was also tricolour. The coat colour
of the bitch is not described therefore it must have been a dog
carrying the Em
A further point is the sometimes occurring blue
eyes with otherwise normal coloured tricolour dogs (no merle, no
dilution etc), I guess this comes from a different specific eye
In the future, molecular genetics will shed light
on the questions which have not been solved by classical genetics.
I guess we will end up with many more loci, genes and alleles and
many more chapters about inheritance to be rewritten.
http://www.bastian-net.com/mtdog.htm one of the best links from the US woodcarver
and GSSH fancier Jonathan Bastian
http://www.grosserguiden.dk/index.html the largest GSS related link collection
on the web
Research GSSH ancestors in this online database
German speaking Forum
original Swiss Breed club
The pictures on this
page are either self made or from my collection. I tried to find
the owners to ask for permission. Thanks to Doris Meier,
Mike Rossi and others I will soon quote here.If you see any picture
one this page you have the copyright for please contact me.Unfortunately
the publisher of Raeber's book does not exist anymore and I did
not find any declaration of who got the rights now.
The copyright of any content of this page is with
the author Dr. Joachim Schoelkopf. For emailing me please go to
www.pipidae.de there you will find links to email me directly.