Greater Swiss mountain dogs—or "Swissies," as their adoring fans call them—were bred as a working breed, strong enough to pull heavy carts and agile enough to corral cattle on mountainous farms. Jovial and affectionate, modern-day Swissies make for great family pets. But because performing duties around the homestead is hardwired in their DNA, these dogs only consider themselves to be semi-retired. That means your alert and perceptive Greater Swiss mountain dog will proudly assume watchdog duties, alerting his owners with a loud bark if something seems amiss.
With a muscular build and weight that tops 100 pounds, Swissies are gentle giants. (Just look to their soft, sweet expression and big brown eyes for confirmation!)
"This large breed is sweet and active," says Nicole Ellis, CPDT-KA. "They are confident, observant dogs that are loyal and loving."
Due to their large size and their energy, Greater Swiss mountain dogs tend to do best in a home with a yard they can romp around in, Ellis says, and they're a good match for an active family. But as much as these dogs love to exercise (and do so in short bursts), they also enjoy napping and relaxing in the company of their humans.
It's no surprise that a dog with the descriptor "Greater" in his name looms large. But did you know these pups weigh as much as some humans? Male Swissies can reach 115–140 pounds, while females are 85–110 pounds. Bred as herders and drafters, Greater Swiss mountain dogs are heavy-boned and muscular. These mighty dogs also have broad heads, often with a white blaze striping their muzzle and running up between their animated, almond-shaped brown eyes. Swissies wear a gentle expression, and they have triangle-shaped ears and a thick tail that never stops wagging.
Swissies are commonly tri-colored, a term that means their coat has a trio of unique colors. Greater Swiss mountain dog breeders' standards call for a short black coat with white and red markings, but they may also come in blue, white, and tan tri-color, according to the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America. Swissies can also have a two-toned (or "bi-color") coat in red and white.
So what's the difference between a Greater Swiss mountain dog and the Bernese mountain dog? Both are big breeds, hail from Switzerland, and sport similar black, white, and tan coats, but there are differences potential owners should know. Swissies tend to be bigger—with males often outweighing male Bernese mountain dogs by roughly 30 pounds. The Bernese also has medium-length fur, shaggier than the Swissie. And although both dogs are good-natured, family-oriented pets, the Swissie is a bit more alert and watchful, while the Bernese is calmer and more likely to greet strangers like they're part of his own family.
"However, they may also be prone to chasing smaller animals, so you should be wary of letting them near the neighbor's cat," she says.
The amicable and dependable nature of the breed make Greater Swiss mountain dogs good family pets who can live happily with children, other dogs, and family cats. But keep an eye on your Swissie around any smaller kiddos—their size means they can inadvertently knock them over while playing, Garner says, so they may fit in better in a family that has older kids.
"Swissies are a friendly breed, meaning that they may struggle with extended periods of time alone, particularly when they are young," she says. "This, combined with their intelligence, also means they love to play. And making sure that Swissies have plenty of mental stimulation is a good way to keep them happy."
A Greater Swiss mountain dog isn't a couch potato that enjoys lazing around his home most of the day. Because of his working breed background, he truly loves having a job or purpose and is most content and confident when he's in the company of his family.
A typical Swissie is happy to go on hikes, run around a ranch, or even do some agility exercises, Ellis says. Like with many large dog breeds, Greater Swiss mountain dog puppies need to avoid frequent high-impact exercise because it can interfere with bone and joint growth. Talk with your veterinarian about properly exercising your young pup, and keep an eye out for signs he's getting too much exercise. And take note: Swissies don't handle heat very well, and they prefer to be inside with the AC blasting during those sizzling hot summer days.
Because they are big dogs, the Greater Swiss mountain dog also needs space to stretch their muscular legs, Garner says, so they are best suited in homes with large, fenced-in yards and with families who can take them for regular walks. Keeping him on a leash and within a fenced space is important: Because of his high prey drive from his history on Swiss farms, he can have a tendency to take off after unsuspecting squirrels.
The Greater Swiss mountain dog has a short coat that's overall easy to care for with brushing and occasional baths, especially in the spring and fall when they have heavier bouts of shedding.
While exercise needs vary among individual dogs, Swissies tend to be happy with a daily walk and romp in the yard. This breed is better suited as a hiking companion than a marathon training partner, so you shouldn't be running around the neighborhood with him.
Though they may pick up cues and tricks easily, Swissies can be a challenge to leash train, according to the GSMDC. The Greater Swiss mountain dog, thanks to his drafting lineage, is strong and capable of pulling carts loaded with 3,000 pounds or more. This strength means these dogs require training from an early age so they can learn to not let their pulling tendencies take over. As with any dog, use positive reinforcement training for a happy and productive training session. Swissies do love training treats and their human's praise.
The Swissie lifespan is 8–11 years, and, as with all breeds, they are prone to certain health problems—including the orthopedic issues that commonly affect larger breeds. Hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia are common among Greater Swiss mountain dogs, Garner says.
"These are conditions where the hips or elbows develop abnormally, which can cause pain and mobility issues once the dog reaches maturity," she says. "These are hereditary problems, which makes it all the more important to ensure that you are getting your Swissie from a reputable breeder."
These issues require corrective surgery, she says, but keeping dogs at a healthy weight and using joint supplements can help to minimize joint pain if this condition is diagnosed. According to the GSMDCA, other potential health concerns include epilepsy, excessive bleeding during surgery or after an injury, and eye issues such as cataracts and entropion (when the eyelid rolls inward).
Another common issue among Greater Swiss mountain dogs is bloat and gastric torsion, an abnormal twisting of the stomach, Garner says. "This is where the dog's stomach fills with gas and becomes twisted, cutting off blood flow to parts of the stomach," she says.
Signs of bloat that Swissie owners should look out for include restlessness, a swollen belly, attempting to vomit, and any other signs of stomach pain. Bloat strikes suddenly and can be life-threatening, so getting the affected dog to a vet as soon as possible is vital to giving them the best possible chance of recovery.
It's important to talk with your vet about how you can minimize your pup's risk of bloat. And before bringing home your dog, make sure your Greater Swiss mountain dog breeder completes the health tests recommended by the OFA.
Several legends surround the origins of the Greater Swiss mountain dog and other Swiss sennenhund breeds. The most popular tale states they descended from the Mollasian, a large mastiff-type of dog that once accompanied the Roman legions on their invasion of the Alps back in the first century, according to the GSMDCA. Another possibility, according to breed historians, is that these Roman dogs were bred with a large breed that was indigenous to central Europe during the Neolithic period (10,000 B.C.–3,000 B.C.).
Swissies worked in remote mountain passes where they specialized in hauling loads of meat and dairy with dog carts and assumed roles like herding dogs to move dairy cattle. They were also used as watchdogs and family companions, a role they dutifully serve to this day. In 1968, J. Frederick and Patricia Hoffman imported the first Swissies to the U.S. These majestic mountain dogs became a fully recognized breed by the American Kennel Club in 1995.
- Greater Swiss mountain dogs performed duties for farmers and butchers during the 19th century in central Europe, pulling produce and meat to the market. They were nicknamed Metzgerhunde, or "Butcher's Dogs."
- The Greater Swiss mountain dog is currently ranked by the AKC as the 74th most popular breed in the U.S.