Grooming Guide

Biaga in full flight

When people first see a fully coated, mature Bergamasco,
their initial reaction usually is, “How do you take care of that coat?” or “do you really sit there and weave the hair to make it look like that?” please read on…….

Before we can discuss each stage of the coat development, one must first understand the formation of the coat. The coat is actually made up of three types of hair, not fur, and is non-shedding viz:

1. The undercoat – is fine, dense and oily (but not greasy) to the touch and forms a waterproof, protective layer.
2. The goat hair – which looks like thin grey strands, is strong and harsh, and similar to the coat of a goat.
3. The woolly top coat – which is finer and softer to the touch.

The combination of the woolly hair mixed with the goat hair weave together to create the flock. We need to make it clear that the Bergamasco hair does not cord (cording is the twisting of hairs together to create a spiral strand)..

The Bergamasco coat is unique in that one coat grows down and the undercoat grows across, thus forming, about an inch from the skin, the flat felts. These felts often go by other names e.g. “flocks” or “maps” and once matured and weather- worn, they do closely resemble felted wool.

The Early Months

Actually, the Bergamasco coat requires very little care in the first year, except for brushing and the occasional bath. The coat is forever changing, from the smooth, glossy, short coat at birth, then growing swiftly through to the adorable, soft, fluffy, puppy coat during his first year to the beginning of the matting/felting stage which may start as early as 8-9 months to one year old.

During this first year, it is very important you brush your dog regularly, all over, using a good quality bristle or pin brush which will, at this stage, remove tangles and debris. The other important reason for this regular brushing is so that your dog gets used to being handled, gets used to having his face brushed and begins to feel comfortable with being groomed. Your dog will come to enjoy it but be firm with him as you need cooperation from him when the matting stage starts and the felts begin to emerge.

It is a good idea to get him used to sitting on a table (a grooming table, or kitchen table), partly because it will most certainly help your back and also so that he recognises that this particular function is happening and knows to sit still. Many dogs learn to jump up onto the grooming table when asked as despite any protestations, it is a pleasant feeling for the dog when being groomed!

Each dog develops at its own rate depending on the dog’s genetics. Whether you have a grey or black-coated puppy, coat care is still the same. It is okay to wash your puppy once in a while or when the need arises, however, frequent bathing will dry out your puppy’s skin and coat by removing the protective essential oils that keep the skin healthy and the coat clean. It is also important to keep your puppy free of any tangles or matting, especially in the first 8/9 months or longer, until the changeover occurs.

The Next Stage

Between 8-15 months of age, you will notice the coat ‘clumping’ – this is the beginning of the adult coat. What we mean by ‘noticing’ is that when you run your hands thru the coat you will feel the beginnings of matted hair, almost at skin level. The hair goes into clumps and is extremely reluctant to be brushed out. Sometimes you feel it first on their chest, sometimes around the back of the head, over the shoulders at the beginning of the spine, sometimes around their ears – it varies. It will be like nothing you have felt before – which means it is time to stop brushing and to let nature take its course for a few months – the adult coat is starting to form!

A one year old female ‘in transitional you see in the mature dog. The outside looks fairy smooth but is clumpy and matted to the touch.

This is when first time owners begin to worry – please don’t – what is happening is natural to the breed. This is the age the coat begins to get thicker, especially around the base of the tail. You will begin to notice thin smooth strands of grey hair along the back and base of the dog.
This is what we call the goat hair, which together with the undercoat and the woolly coat, comes together to form shapeless clumps. As this new undercoat comes through, simultaneously the early puppy coat begins to moult – small tufts of down-like fluff. This fine puppy hair must be gently removed by hand, particularly if it is starting to matt as this is not part of the newly emerging coat. Now the beginning stages of felting can occur. When the felting starts, it feels to the touch a solid matt but as this develops, the coat takes on the appearance which you see in the mature dog.

When the felt begins to take shape, you will see that the base of the felt is not woven, but is straight strands of hair. This naturally creates a space between the dog’s skin and the beginning formation of the felt, so as not to pull the skin and to also allow air to the dog’s skin. These straight strands can be anything between 1cm to 3 cm in length from the skin and actually vary depending on the location on the dog. This is the reason the Bergamasco is not plagued with skin problems. It is also important to note that at this stage, until the felts are fully formed, one must limit bathing to necessity only as when the coat gets wet, the hair will become tighter and tighter to the skin, almost like a wool sweater shrinking.

During this felt formation period – which can take up to 3-6 months, you should not brush your dog. However, very superficial ‘loose’ brushing on the surface may be necessary to remove leaves etc. In addition, some people like to keep the muzzle and/or beard hair as non-matted hair, if this is the case for you, then continue to brush the muzzle and beard areas gently. Almost to the second year of age, your Bergamasco will look ‘unkempt’ and you may hear some unpleasant comments such as “Why don’t they groom their dogs?” Just smile sweetly, with a knowing look – this is nature working her magic!

The Emergence of the Adult Coat

A Bergamasco with a thick woolly coat can be a quite an adventure, constantly splitting and re-splitting the coat to help set up the initial felts. However, help is available for those with new Bergamascos. There are several of us at BCUK, plus your Breeder, who will happily teach and assist you in how to set these felts and also guide you in the follow-on care required. When the coat is about 3 inches in length, partings will appear across the body, down the front legs from the shoulders and also down the hind legs. The coat almost parts itself, the parting lines will be clearly visible. At this stage it may be possible to feel a natural indent across the parted hair – if not, wait for the hair to grow a little more. This is where the coat is torn with the hands to form a ‘felt’.

Note the rows of parted hair running from Timmy’s shoulders down towards the tail.

Setting the Coat

This is the period when the dog’s felts begin to appear separated, will have a flat fan-like appearance in shape and are visibly noticeable on the top line, although short in length.

The hair which has not matted ie the hair which is on the outside rather than part of the matting, should be cut off – and saved if you wish to spin or otherwise. Once the loose hair has been cut away, you will clearly see the fan-like matts.

One must watch carefully for the felts not to become too thick or wide or too thin. If the felts become too wide it is important to separate them into the chosen width using the method of tearing from the loose top end, down to the skin. The splitting of the too large felts should always be done by the hands, however, if need be, scissors will work as an extreme last resort. Often loose hair at the end of the felts is cut off to make the coat look tidy.

It is better to have larger width felts than smaller ones because as the Bergamasco felts get longer with age, the sheer weight of a too thin felt will cause it to break off or it can also be pulled off through typical dog play.

On a typical Bergamasco’s body you will notice the distribution of various types of hair is not consistent. On the base of the tail, rear section of the trunk and the limbs, there is a vast amount of woolly hair. You will generally notice woolly hair throughout the dog’s coat with the exception of the shoulders to the thorax where there is only goat hair and the hair in this region has a smoother texture.

Grey/merle coat

Black coat

There are slight difference between the coats – black coated dogs have less goat hair and in general, have softer coats than merle dogs. Note above the ‘clear’ single strands leading from the skin to where the matting starts. The Bergamasco’s skin will (and should) always be clear.

In some black coated dogs, you will notice over time that the top of the coat has a burnished orange glow to it – this is known as ‘rust’ and is the reaction of the sun onto the wool.

Enzo and his rust!

Three Years and On….

After the adjustment period, the coat requires very little care except for maintaining that the flocks stay separated. Flocks that are too wide can be further divided if needed and the coat can be washed if necessary. At this point, skin should be visible around each well separated flock. The ends of each flock can either be trimmed as a rounded edge, as a straight edge or left ’feathered’ and the goats hairs will be visible throughout the coat.

Additional Information

Checking the Body: Generally speaking, when the Bergamasco is starting to felt, check throughout the body, down to the skin, by separating the hair with your hands to make a visual inspection. During the first year, large matts can develop behind and underneath the ears and need to be torn into smaller felts by hand. The limbs and chest need to be watched carefully as well. Also, check underneath at the front and back armpits to make sure there aren’t any matts pulling the skin. The same method applies – tear any too-large groupings into thinner felts by hand.

Ears: The ears of the Bergamasco must also be checked regularly and any mats forming from inside the ear must be plucked out. Eyebrow tweezers are easy and effective to use and if you pull gently, a few strands at a time, it will not hurt your dog.

Paws: You should regularly inspect the centre of the pads underneath your dog’s paws and cut out any matting in there.  When the mats from the lower leg and feet actually extend below the bottom of the paw when it is on the ground, then trim off the excess – this is important for two reasons, one so the dog won’t be walking on his own hair and secondly, the hair will absorb mud and water and will be difficult for the dog to clean itself. If you stand your dog, just trim around the hair so it is level with the ground (or whatever he is standing on).

Bathing: Bathing is not required more than 1-3 times a year and in fact some people never fully bathe their dog, they ‘spot’ bathe relevant areas ie beards, feet, rear ends etc. If you do wish to bathe your dog, then use a mild shampoo – a minimal amount as you do not want to destroy the natural oils of the dog’s coat and then ensure you dry the dog as quickly as possible. Hairdryers are not recommended as the heat can harm the coat but a crate surrounded by box fans does an excellent job of drying, and fortunately, Bergamascos love wind! Some dogs will also tolerate wet and dry vacuum cleaners to suck out the water. Really scrunch drying with towels will remove a lot of the excess too.

Equipment: The three main things you need are:- a decent, steel, pinhead brush; a good pair of dog- grooming scissors which can be regularly re-sharpened as the years roll on; and if possible, an adjustable height grooming table.

Mauro’s first outing onto the grooming table

The Purpose of the coat: Many people who are allergic to other dogs find they are not bothered by the Bergamasco’s coat. It is striking and unusual in appearance but it is actually a very efficient protection system for the dog. The matts protect from the cold and wet – the Bergamasco can tolerate freezing cold without becoming uncomfortable – but it is also a thermo regulator, keeping the dogs cooler in the heat of summer and protecting them from sunburn. In addition, the coat can protect them from attacking bites from wolves and other dogs and also offers protection against insect bites and some ticks (not all!).

The eyes have extremely long eyelashes which stop the overhanging hair going into the eyes and which shield the dog’s eyes from the glare of the sun and/or the snow. They see very well, even though you may not be able to see their eyes.

Finally:  Please do not be frightened of the coat – you cannot hurt it – it grows quickly!