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Sally Anne Thompson, Animal Photography
This easygoing, gentle giant was bred to guard and herd livestock. Although he won't reach maturity until he’s four or five years old, the confident Swissy is a born watchdog.
In Switzerland, the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog is known as the Grosser Schweizer Sennenhund, which means “large dog of the Alpine pastures.”
Switzerland has four varieties of farm dogs, and the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog (often nicknamed the Swissy), is the largest. On the farm, his jobs included guarding and herding livestock and pulling carts loaded with milk and cheeses. This is a giant breed, with males weighing in at 105 to 140 pounds and females at 85 to 110 pounds.
These days, the Greater Swiss is primarily a family companion or show dog, beloved for his gentle, easygoing temperament. He has many good qualities, including an alert nature that makes him an excellent watchdog. But, like any breed, he’s not right for everyone. If you want a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, be prepared to do a lot of homework to find him and to put in plenty of effort training and socializing once you bring him home.
Like any dog, Swissy puppies are inveterate chewers and because of their size can potentially do more damage than puppies of other breeds. They are prone to ingesting items such as socks and dish towels, resulting in veterinary visits or even surgery for intestinal blockages.
The Swissy has moderate exercise needs and is adaptable to his family’s lifestyle. In general, plan to give him a long walk daily or several short walks throughout the day, avoiding strenuous exercise when it’s hot outside. He’s a great hiking companion and can excel in activities such as agility, drafting (pulling a cart or wagon), herding, obedience, rally or tracking. Greater Swiss also make excellent therapy dogs, with a gentle, mellow temperament.
Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs have a short, easy care coat. Weekly brushing — more often during shedding season — will help to keep loose hair under control. Clean the ears and trim the nails as needed, and bathe the Swissy when he’s dirty to keep his tricolor coat gleaming.
While you might think of him as an outdoor dog, nothing could be farther from the truth. Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs love people and will pine without human companionship. They should have access to a securely fenced yard, but when the family is home the Swissy should be with them. It’s also important to remember that the Swissy does not tolerate heat well, so during hot weather he needs to stay in a cool, shady place with ready access to fresh water.
When the Romans invaded Switzerland some 2,000 years ago, they brought their mastiff-type dogs with them. Those dogs conducted their own invasion of the local canine gene pool, and one of the results was the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, a large, shorthaired farm dog used for herding flocks, guarding the property, and pulling carts.
With the advent of industrialization, though, the Swissy was headed for the dustbin of history. The breed nearly disappeared as farmers and shopkeepers began using motorized vehicles and other labor-saving devices that didn’t require a dog. One of the dogs was seen at a dog show in 1908, however, and the judge urged breeders not to let the breed die out. By 1910, the Swissy was recognized by the Swiss Kennel Club, and a breed club was formed.
The Swissy remained a European breed until 1968, when some were imported to the United States. The American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1995. Today the Swissy ranks 88th among the dogs registered by the AKC.
When he has been appropriately socialized and trained, the adult Greater Swiss Mountain Dog is calm and devoted to his family. He doesn’t reach maturity until he’s four or five years old, though, and the long puppyhood of a large breed can be trying.
Puppies are highly active, mouthy, and rambunctious, so purchasing a Swissy puppy may not be the best decision for a family with young children. The long march to maturity also means that the Swissy does not housetrain as quickly as some breeds. Be patient, be consistent in scheduling potty times, and provide plenty of supervision until you’re sure he’s reliable in the house.
Because of their heritage as a working breed, Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs are confident, even in the face of unusual situations or the presence of people they don’t know. They should not be shy or aggressive toward strangers or other dogs. They may, however, chase cats or other animals, and their herding instinct can kick in around children as well. Teach them that bumping, chasing, and tackling children is not OK.
Begin training as soon as you bring your Swissy puppy home, while he is still at a manageable size. He likes having a leader and will learn quickly if you teach him to look to you for guidance. Use positive reinforcement training techniques such as praise, play and food rewards.
Start training your puppy the day you bring him home. Even at eight weeks old, he is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. Don't wait until he is six months old to begin training, or you will have a more headstrong dog to deal with. Get him to puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks old, so you can start building a strong working relationship, and socialize, socialize, socialize. However, be aware that many puppy training classes require certain vaccines (like kennel cough) to be up to date, and many veterinarians recommend limited exposure to other dogs and public places until puppy vaccines (including rabies, distemper and parvovirus) have been completed. In lieu of formal training, you can begin training your puppy at home and socializing him among family and friends until puppy vaccines are completed.
Talk to the breeder, describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog, and ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see the puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know your lifestyle and personality. Whatever you want from a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, look for one whose parents have nice personalities and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.
All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit disease. Run from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed has no known problems, or who keeps puppies isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur.
Health problems that have been seen in Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs include hip and elbow dysplasia; other orthopedic problems such as panosteitis and osteochondritis dissecans of the shoulder; an eye disease called distichiasis; and gastric torsion.
Not every Swissy will get all or even any of these conditions, but knowing about them beforehand will help you in your search for a breeder. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines.
The Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America, which is the American Kennel Club parent organization for the breed in the United States, participates in the Canine Health Information Center Program. For a Swissy to achieve CHIC certification, he must have evaluations from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for hips and elbows and an eye clearance from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation. An optional test is an OFA shoulder evaluation. Breeders must agree to have all test results -- positive or negative -- published in the CHIC database. You can check CHIC’s website to see if a breeder’s dogs have these certifications.
Do not purchase a puppy from a breeder who cannot provide you with written documentation that the parents were cleared of health problems that affect the breed. Having the dogs "vet checked" is not a substitute for genetic health testing.
Not every Swissie visit to the vet is for a genetic problem. Swissies are notorious for eating socks, dish towels, and other items that can cause intestinal blockages. Some have undergone surgery more than once to remove objects.
They are also one of the breeds prone to bloat, also known as gastric torsion or gastric dilatation volvulus. Dogs bloat when the stomach distends with gas and can twist on itself (called gastric torsion), cutting off blood flow. Bloat and torsion strikes very suddenly, and a dog who was fine one minute can be dead a few hours later. Watch for symptoms like restlessness and pacing, drooling, pale gums, lip licking, trying unsuccessfully to vomit, and signs of pain. Bloat requires immediate veterinary intervention, and surgery is necessary in many cases. Unfortunately, dogs that have bloated can bloat again, so most veterinarians offer a procedure known as gastropexy or "stomach tacking," which anchors the stomach to the body wall to help keep it from twisting in the future. This procedure can also be done as a preventive measure.
Swissies don’t do well in hot, humid weather. Any time they are outside, they need access to plenty of shade and fresh, cool water.
Remember that after you’ve taken a new puppy into your home, you have the power to protect him from one of the most common health problems: obesity. Keeping a Swissie at an appropriate weight is one of the easiest ways to extend his life. Make the most of your preventive abilities to help ensure a healthier dog for life.
The Swissy has a short, thick double coat that is easy to groom. Brush it weekly with a rubber curry brush or hound glove to remove dead hair and distribute skin oils to keep the coat gleaming.
While lots of mastiff-type dogs are known for drooling, the Swissy isn’t one of them. He does shed, however. He’ll lose some hair year-round and go through a heavier shed in the spring and fall. A shedding blade will come in handy to remove the shedding hair, and additional brushing during that time will help keep loose hairs off your floor, furniture, and clothing.
The rest is basic care. Trim the nails as needed, usually every week or two. Brush the teeth frequently with a vet-approved pet toothpaste for good overall health and fresh breath.
Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.
Finding a quality breeder is a great way to find the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy, and will have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out as many problems as possible. He or she is more interested in placing pups in the right homes than making big bucks. Be wary of breeders who only tell you the good things about the breed or who promote the dogs as being “good with kids.”
Reputable breeders will welcome your questions about temperament, health clearances, and what the dogs are like to live with. They will come right back at you with questions of their own about what you’re looking for in a dog and what kind of life you plan to provide. A good breeder can tell you about the history of the breed, explain why one puppy is considered pet quality while another is not, and discuss what health problems affect the breed and the steps were taken to avoid them. A breeder should want to be a resource for you throughout your dog’s life.
Look for more information about the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog and start your search for a good breeder at the website of the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America. Choose a breeder who has agreed to abide by the GSMDCA’s breeder guidelines, which prohibit the sale of puppies to or through pet stores and call for the breeder to obtain recommended health clearances on dogs before breeding them.
Avoid breeders who only seem interested in how quickly they can unload a puppy on you and whether your credit card will clear. Breeders who offer puppies at one price “with papers” and at a lower price “without papers” are unethical. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from websites that offer to ship your dog to you immediately can be a risky venture, as it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected. Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.
Lots of reputable breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags include over availability, multiple litters on the premises, a choice of any puppy, and the ability to pay online with a credit card. Those things are convenient, but they are almost never associated with reputable breeders.
Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies.
The cost of a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog puppy varies depending on the breeder’s locale, whether the pup is male or female, what titles his parents have, and whether he is best suited for the show ring or a pet home. The puppy you buy should have been raised in a clean home environment, from parents with health clearances and conformation (show), and, ideally, working titles to prove that they are good specimens of the breed. Puppies should be temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life. Swissies can have issues with shyness and sometimes aggression, so temperament testing and meeting at least one of the parents as well as the breeder’s other dogs is a must.
Before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult Greater Swiss Mountain Dog might better suit your needs and lifestyle. Puppies are loads of fun, but they require a lot of time and effort. An adult may already have some training and will probably be less active, destructive, and demanding than a puppy. With an adult, you know more about what you’re getting in terms of personality and health and you can find adults through breeders or shelters. If you are interested in acquiring an older dog through breeders, ask them about purchasing a retired show dog or if they know of an adult dog who needs a new home. If you want to adopt a dog, read the advice below on how to do that.
There are many great options available if you want to adopt a dog from an animal shelter or breed rescue organization. Here is how to get started.
1. Use the Web
Sites like Petfinder.com and Adopt-a-Pet.com can have you searching for a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog in your area in no time flat, although keep in mind that this breed is not found in rescues as often as many other breeds. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.
Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.
2. Reach Out to Local Experts
Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.
3. Talk to Breed Rescue
Most people who love Swissies love all Swissies. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America’s Rescue Network can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other Swissy rescues in your area.
The great thing about breed rescue groups is that they tend to be very upfront about any health conditions the dogs may have and are a valuable resource for advice. They also often offer fostering opportunities so, with training, you could bring a Swissy home with you to see what the experience is like.
4. Key Questions to Ask
You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a dog. These include:
What is his energy level?
How is he around other animals?
How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors, and children?
What is his personality like?
What is his age?
Is he housetrained?
Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?
Are there any known health issues?
Wherever you acquire your Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. Petfinder offers an Adopters Bill of Rights that helps you understand what you can consider normal and appropriate when you get a dog from a shelter. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Puppy or adult, take your Swissy to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
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