From the windswept mountain peaks of the Italian Alps to the grounds of the Roman Coliseum, Italian dogs were developed for countless reasons. Some, like the dainty and fashionable Italian Greyhound, were destined for luxury on the laps of royals. Others, like the Bergamasco Sheepdog, were working dogs at heart, braving cold winds and fierce predators to protect flocks of sheep. On our tour of Italy, we’ll visit a variety of regions and time periods to meet the dogs that ancient Italians worked so hard to create, breed, and preserve.
What would a tour of Italy be without exploring Italian cuisine? The thought of Italy’s rich culinary culture may conjure up the aromatic scents of pasta, herbs, bread, polenta, wine, and of course, truffles. This elusive and luxurious treat is what brings us to our first Italian dog breed: the Lagotto Romangolo.
Outside of their exuberant attitude, “everyone is my best friend” temperament, and iconic curls, the Lagotto Romangolo’s claim to fame is the fact that these dogs were bred exclusively to hunt for truffles. In fact, this special breed is the only dog ever developed for the sole purpose of sniffing out tasty fungi.
Originally bred to retrieve waterfowl for hunters, the Lagotto Romangolo takes naturally to the great outdoors and to bodies of water. But, at some point in the late 1800s, the dogs’ role began to shift exclusively toward truffle seeking. Hailing from Northeastern Italy, Lagotto Romangolos have an exceptional knack for using their nose- these dogs are still used for their unique roles today. Truffles are expensive and extremely difficult to grow, so these dogs’ unique talent is indispensable to their human caregivers.
From the rolling hills of Northern Italy comes a gun dog with a comically lovable face. Like many European breeds, here is a dog with both a unique build and a name that is quite fun to pronounce. The Bracco Italiano is arguably the oldest Pointer of European origin, dating back to the fourth or the fifth century B.C.
The Bracco Italiano is lovey-dovey and gentle at home, but a firecracker on the job. These highly driven dogs can work for hours in the field, all for the passion of what pointers love best: birds. Braccos are not only talented pointers; they’re also exceptionally inclined to make outrageously silly faces.
The Bracco Italiano was wildly popular during the Renaissance, and this is reaffirmed in the countless historical paintings and textiles the breed appears in. The lovable Italian canine was not only useful for everyday hunters; it was sought out by royals and nobles as a bird dog of choice.
The next time you envision Italian culture during Renaissance times, think beyond science, art, and literature; remember the Bracco Italiano!
To meet Italy’s next fascinating breed, we’ll have to travel back in time to the Roman Empire and encounter an ancient dog breed. Once a formidable gladiator and fearsome guardian, the Neapolitan Mastiff was known as a dog not to be meddled with.
Today, the wrinkly face of a Neapolitan Mastiff might conjure up feelings of warmth and nostalgia for some; it was this breed that played the role of “Fang” in the Harry Potter movies. Though Hagrid’s clumsy and loyal behemoth of a dog was described in the books as a Boarhound (which was an old-time umbrella term for any large breed used to hunt boars), those who enjoyed the Harry Potter movies likely still picture a Neapolitan Mastiff in this role.
As laid-back as “Fang” might have seemed, this powerful breed’s history must be considered by prospective guardians. Developed as watchdogs, they are prone to a vigilant nature and wariness of strangers. Unless you’re seeking a canine bodyguard for your backyard coliseum, this breed requires active, positive socialization from a young age. Neapolitan Mastiffs are known to be affectionate and docile amongst known friends and family, but caregivers must have a high tolerance for drool. These gentle giants are known for slobbering more often than other breeds!
Speaking of Renaissance dog breeds, our next breed is one that truly embodies the artistic and cultural shift that took place during this time period. Like the Neapolitan Mastiff, this breed hails from the Roman Empire. However, the Italian Greyhound’s critical role in Roman society was not one of function or service, but rather of entertainment and joy.
Evidence indicates that for nearly 2,000 years, the Italian Greyhound has been a source of beauty, laughter, and aesthetic enjoyment. Described by the American Kennel Club’s historical archives as being a “jester” in ancient times, these playful dogs have been making people smile since before sliced bread.
Italian Greyhounds are still true to their sighthound nature, and there are not many clear-cut temperament differences between this breed and its larger counterpart, the Greyhound. These spirited little creatures are incredible canine athletes––and they look fabulous at the same time.
For the last stop on our tour, we’ll venture far beyond the lap of luxury that the dainty Italian Greyhound is accustomed to. Our next (far more rugged breed) has called the craggy, wind-whipped Italian Alps home for many centuries. High in the mountains above the city of Milan lies a small town called Bergamo, where this oddity of a breed first found its modern name.
These wonderfully bizarre canines have been romping the mountains of Europe long before Julie Andrews in the “Sound of Music” made it popular!
The Bergamasco Sheepdog is classified as a herding breed, but interestingly enough, it took on a historic livestock guardian role as well. The dog’s thick “cords” of hair both provide insulation from the cold mountain air and protection from attacks by hungry predators. The unique hairdo isn’t a result of neglect; rather, these naturally-forming mats serve an important purpose. Many modern-day caregivers still opt to allow the Bergamasco’s hair to form mats, because maintenance of the coat without them is incredibly difficult.
In Italy and around the world, the Bergamasco Sheepdog is a rare dog today.