Vital Stats:Dog Breed Group: Working Dogs
Height: 1 foot, 11 inches to 2 feet, 4 inches tall at the shoulder
Weight: 85 to 140 pounds
Life Span: 7 to 9 years
The handsome, alert, and powerful Greater Swiss Mountain Dog — or Swissy, as his fans call him — is relatively unknown outside of a group of dedicated enthusiasts. But if you own one of these large, striking dogs, be prepared to turn plenty of heads. Owners of the breed are often asked, "What kind of dog is that?"
Topping out at well over 100 pounds, the Swissy's size, paired with his deep, loud bark make him a good watchdog. But he's a gentle fellow at heart, devoted to his family and loving with kids. Although he needs room to stretch his legs — this isn't an apartment dog — he needs only a moderate amount of exercise.
Originally bred to herd cattle, pull carts, and serve as a watchdog, the modern Swissy likes to have jobs to do. He excels in obedience, agility, and conformation competitions, and does well in drafting, weight pulling, herding, pack hiking, and versatility. The Swissy has also served as a therapy dog and search and rescue dog.
Since he's so large when fully grown, it's important to start early with obedience training and socialization — teaching the dog to be friendly with other dogs and people. And be prepared for a long puppyhood: the Swissy is slow to mature, both physically and mentally, and can stay puppyish until he's three years old.
While the Swissy isn't the right breed for everyone, those who are willing to love, train, and care for this large dog will enjoy wonderful companionship.
- Due to his large size, the Swissy is not suited for apartment or condo living. A home with a fenced yard is ideal.
- The Swissy was bred to work and likes to have a job to do. Obedience training can give him the mental stimulation he needs, and is essential for handling a dog of this size.
- Although he's generally good with kids, the Swissy is a large dog who can accidentally knock over a small child.
- The Swissy is prone to overheating. Keep him inside in air conditioning or in front of fans when the weather's hot, and wait until it cools off to exercise him.
- Some Swiss Mountain Dogs will chase small animals. To keep the neighbor's cat safe — as well as your dog — make sure the yard is securely fenced, and keep him on leash when you're out and about.
- To get a healthy dog, never buy a puppy from an irresponsible breeder, puppy mill, or pet store. Look for a reputable breeder who tests her breeding dogs to make sure they're free of genetic diseases that they might pass onto the puppies, and that they have sound temperaments.
The Greater Swiss Mountain Dog is considered one of Switzerland's oldest dog breeds. There are several theories as to the Swissy's origins. The most popular is that he's descended from large, Mastiff-like dogs that were brought to the Alps by invading Roman Legions.
The Swissy's ancestors served as herding, guard, and draft dogs. At one time the Swissy is thought to have been one of the most popular breeds in Switzerland. By the 1900s however, their numbers dwindled, probably because their traditional jobs on Swiss farms were taken over by other dog breeds or machines.
In 1908, a canine researcher named Albert Heim spotted two dogs at a Swiss Kennel Club jubilee, listed as "short-haired Bernese Mountain Dogs." Heim recognized the dogs as being large members of the Sennenhund type, a family of four breeds that includes the Swissy.
Heim lobbied to get the dogs recognized as a separate breed and, in 1909, the Swiss Kennel Club listed the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog (Grosser Schweizer Sennenhund) in the Swiss Stud Book.
Since then, the breed's popularity has grown slowly, but steadily. In 1968 the first Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs were brought to the U.S., and soon after, the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America formed. The Swissy was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1995, as a member of the Working Group.
Males stand 25.5 to 28.5 inches tall and weigh 105 to 140 pounds. Females stand 23.5 to 27 inches tall and weigh 85 to 110 pounds.
The Swissy's personality is gentle, alert, and fun loving. These aren't easygoing, pushover dogs, however; they're confident canines with their own ideas, and they can be stubborn at times. Because of their bold personality, Swissy dogs do best with owners who can be kind, yet confident, leaders.
This breed is alert and observant, always on the lookout for something amiss. That, plus his loud bark to alert you when he spies something out of the ordinary, makes him a good watchdog, though he's typically not aggressive.
Temperament is affected by a number of factors, including heredity, training, and socialization. Puppies with nice temperaments are curious and playful, willing to approach people and be held by them. Choose the middle-of-the-road puppy, not the one who's beating up his littermates or the one who's hiding in the corner.
Always meet at least one of the parents — usually the mother is the one who's available — to ensure that they have nice temperaments that you're comfortable with. Meeting siblings or other relatives of the parents is also helpful for evaluating what a puppy will be like when he grows up.
Like every dog, the Swissy needs early socialization — exposure to many different people, sights, sounds, and experiences — when they're young. Socialization helps ensure that your Swissy puppy grows up to be a well-rounded dog.
Enrolling him in a puppy kindergarten class is a great start. Inviting visitors over regularly, and taking him to busy parks, stores that allow dogs, and on leisurely strolls to meet neighbors will also help him polish his social skills.
Swissy dogs are generally healthy, but like all breeds, they're prone to certain health conditions. Not all Swissy dogs will get any or all of these diseases, but it's important to be aware of them if you're considering this breed.
If you're buying a puppy, find a good breeder who will show you health clearances for both your puppy's parents. Health clearances prove that a dog has been tested for and cleared of a particular condition.
In Swissy dogs, you should expect to see health clearances from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for hip dysplasia (with a score of fair or better), elbow dysplasia, hypothyroidism, and von Willebrand's disease; from Auburn University for thrombopathia; and from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) certifying that eyes are normal. You can confirm health clearances by checking the OFA web site (offa.org).
- Hip Dysplasia: This is an inherited condition in which the thighbone doesn't fit snugly into the hip joint. Some dogs show pain and lameness on one or both rear legs, but others don't display outward signs of discomfort. (X-ray screening is the most certain way to diagnose the problem.) Either way, arthritis can develop as the dog ages. Dogs with hip dysplasia should not be bred — so if you're buying a puppy, ask the breeder for proof that the parents have been tested for hip dysplasia and are free of problems.
- Elbow Dysplasia: Similar to hip dysplasia, this is also a degenerative disease. It's believed to be caused by abnormal growth and development, which results in a malformed and weakened joint. The disease varies in severity: the dog could simply develop arthritis, or he could become lame. Treatment includes surgery, weight management, medical management, and anti-inflammatory medication.
- Osteochondrosis Dissecans (OCD): This orthopedic condition, caused by improper growth of cartilage in the joints, usually occurs in the elbows, but it has been seen in the shoulders as well. It causes a painful stiffening of the joint, to the point that the dog is unable to bend his elbow. It can be detected in dogs as early as four to nine months of age. Overfeeding of "growth formula" puppy foods or high-protein foods may contribute to its development.
- Patellar Luxation: Also known as slipped stifles. The patella is the kneecap. Luxation means dislocation of an anatomical part (as a bone at a joint). Patellar luxation is when the knee joint (often of a hind leg) slides in and out of place, causing pain. This can be crippling, although many dogs lead relatively normal lives with this condition.
- Gastric Torsion: Also called bloat, this is a life-threatening condition that can affect large, deep-chested dogs such as the Swissy. This is especially true if they are fed one large meal a day, eat rapidly, drink large volumes of water after eating, and exercise vigorously after eating. Bloat is more common among older dogs. GDV occurs when the stomach is distended with gas or air and then twists (torsion). The dog is unable to belch or vomit to rid himself of the excess air in the stomach, and the normal return of blood to the heart is impeded. Blood pressure drops and the dog goes into shock. Without immediate medical attention, the dog can die. Suspect bloat if your dog has a distended abdomen and is salivating excessively and retching without throwing up. He also may be restless, depressed, lethargic, and weak, with a rapid heart rate. It's important to get your dog to the vet as soon as possible if you see these signs.
- Splenic Torsion: This condition occurs when the spleen rotates, causing it to expand and become engorged with blood. The symptoms are not always obvious, but can include vomiting, fever, pale gums, and tenderness. Splenic torsion requires immediate veterinarian care and the surgical removal of the spleen is necessary.
- Cataracts: Cataracts cause opacity on the lens of the eye, resulting in poor vision. The dog's eye(s) will have a cloudy appearance. Cataracts usually occur in old age and sometimes can be surgically removed to improve vision.
- Distichiasis: This is a condition in which extra eyelashes (cilia) grow from the glands of the upper or lower eyelid. A hair follicle develops deep within the glands rather than on the skin surface. As the hair grows, it follows the duct of the gland and exits from the gland opening along the smooth surface of the eyelid margin. In many cases, these eyelashes rub on the cornea, causing irritation and tearing, and occasionally corneal abrasions.
- Entropion: Entropion is an inward rolling of the eyelid. It usually affects the lower eyelid of both eyes, causing irritation and vision loss. It generally occurs before a dog turns a year old; surgery to correct the problem is usually held off until the dog reaches adulthood.
- Panosteitis: Commonly called Pano, this condition causes self-limiting lameness. At about five to 12 months of age, the dog may limp on one leg, then another, then it stops. There are usually no long-term effects. Rest and restricted activity may be necessary for a while if the dog's in pain.
- Swissy Lick: This mysterious affliction causes the dog to start franticly licking or swallowing anything in sight. The cause is unknown, although it appears to be related to severe gastrointestinal pain. It's treated with gas and acid-reducing medications. Swissy lick is more common among young dogs, but seniors can get it as well.
The Swissy is not suited to apartment or condo life. Because he's a large, working dog, he needs room to roam — a home with a large, securely fenced yard is ideal. You won't need to sign up for a marathon, though; he needs just a moderate amount of exercise.
With his Swiss heritage, this breed is a natural fit for cold climates, and he loves to romp in the snow. The flips side is that he's prone to heatstroke. Don't let him exercise strenuously when it's hot; during hot spells, limit your outings to cool early mornings or evenings. During the heat of the day, keep him inside with fans or air conditioning. If he has to be outside, make sure he has shade and, of course, plenty of water.
You'll need to take special care if you're raising a Swissy puppy. Like many large breeds, the Swissy grows rapidly between the ages of four and seven months, making them susceptible to bone disorders and injury.
Keep your Swissy pup on a high-quality, low-calorie diet that keeps him from growing too fast. Don't let him run and play on hard surfaces such a pavement, do a lot of jumping, or pull weights until he is at least two years old and his joints are fully formed. Normal play on grass is fine, and so are puppy agility classes.
Like all dogs, the Swissy needs to be socialized — taught to be friendly to other dogs and people — beginning in puppyhood. Puppy kindergarten and obedience classes are a great way to socialize your Swissy and teach him good canine manners.
Now, as for housetraining: while every dog is different, Swissy fans say that the breed generally takes to housetraining slowly. The reason isn't exactly clear. But if you use crates and stick to a good housetraining routine, your Swissy will grasp the general concept of housetraining within a week or two of arriving at his new home. But don't count on him to be completely reliable in the house until many months later.
Recommended daily amount: 4 to 5 cups of high-quality dry food a day, divided into two meals.
Large-breed puppies such as the Swissy need slow, sustained growth to help prevent orthopedic problems, such as hip dysplasia. Raise them on a diet designed for large-breed dogs or food for adult dogs. Whatever diet you choose shouldn't overemphasize protein, fat, and calorie levels: 22 to 24 percent protein and 12 to 15 percent fat is recommended.
NOTE: How much your adult dog eats depends on his size, age, build, metabolism, and activity level. Dogs are individuals, just like people, and they don't all need the same amount of food. It almost goes without saying that a highly active dog will need more than a couch potato dog. The quality of dog food you buy also makes a difference — the better the dog food, the further it will go toward nourishing your dog and the less of it you'll need to shake into your dog's bowl.
Keep your Swissy in good shape by measuring his food and feeding him twice a day rather than leaving food out all the time. If you're unsure whether he's overweight, give him the eye test and the hands-on test.
First, look down at him. You should be able to see a waist. Then place your hands on his back, thumbs along the spine, with the fingers spread downward. You should be able to feel but not see his ribs without having to press hard. If you can't, he needs less food and more exercise.
For more on feeding your Swissy, see our guidelines for buying the right food, feeding your puppy, and feeding your adult dog.
Coat Color And Grooming
The Swissy has a dense outer coat, about one to two inches in length, and a thick undercoat. The breed sheds minimally most of the time, with the exception of twice-yearly "blow-outs," when the undercoat comes out. The color is distinct, with a black outer coat and rust and white markings on the face and body.
Grooming a Swissy isn't terribly complicated — the short coat is easy to care for and the breed is naturally clean. Brushing once or twice a week, plus a bath as needed (usually every month or so) with a mild dog shampoo is enough to keep the Swissy looking sharp.
Brush your Swissy's teeth at least two or three times a week to remove tartar buildup and the bacteria that lurk inside it. Daily brushing is even better if you want to prevent gum disease and bad breath.
Trim his nails once or twice a month if your dog doesn't wear them down naturally to prevent painful tears and other problems. If you can hear them clicking on the floor, they're too long. Dog toenails have blood vessels in them, and if you cut too far you can cause bleeding — and your dog may not cooperate the next time he sees the nail clippers come out. So, if you're not experienced trimming dog nails, ask a vet or groomer for pointers.
His ears should be checked weekly for redness or a bad odor, which can indicate an infection. When you check your dog's ears, wipe them out with a cotton ball dampened with gentle, pH-balanced ear cleaner to help prevent infections. Don't insert anything into the ear canal; just clean the outer ear.
Begin accustoming your Swissy to being brushed and examined when he's a puppy. Handle his paws frequently — dogs are touchy about their feet — and look inside his mouth. Make grooming a positive experience filled with praise and rewards, and you'll lay the groundwork for easy veterinary exams and other handling when he's an adult.
As you groom, check for sores, rashes, or signs of infection such as redness, tenderness, or inflammation on the skin, in the nose, mouth, and eyes, and on the feet. Eyes should be clear, with no redness or discharge. Your careful weekly exam will help you spot potential health problems early.
Children And Other Pets
The Swissy enjoys the attention and company of youngsters if he's given plenty of exposure to them beginning in puppyhood, and the kids are taught to treat the dog with care and respect. However, young children should never be left unsupervised with any dog. Even if the Swissy means well, this is a large, strong dog, and a Swissy can easily knock over a small child by accident.
As with every breed, you should always teach children how to approach and touch dogs, and always supervise any interactions between dogs and young children to prevent any biting or ear or tail pulling on the part of either party. Teach your child never to approach any dog while he's eating or sleeping or to try to take the dog's food away. No dog, no matter how friendly, should ever be left unsupervised with a child.
The good-natured Swissy generally enjoys the company of other dogs and loves to play rough and rambunctious. This is especially true if he has been properly socialized with other dogs at an early age. As in any breed, dogs of the same sex who haven't been spayed or neutered may not tolerate each another.
Swissy dogs vary in their prey drive: some will chase squirrels, cats, and other small animals, and some won't. As with any dog, you'll have a better shot at peace among the family pets if you expose your Swissy to other animals beginning at an early age, and are careful about the introductions.
The Swissy is often purchased without any clear understanding of what goes into owning one. There are many Swissy dogs in need of adoption and or fostering. There are a number of rescues that we have not listed. If you don't see a rescue listed for your area, contact the national breed club or a local breed club and they can point you toward a Swissy rescue.