I discovered the Bergamasco back in 1999 from a picture in a dog encyclopedia. I had been looking for a non shedding breed, since my dog at that time, though she had a wonderful personality, threw a coat twice a year. When she did, it was everywhere: on my toothbrush, on my plate, in my coffee. And all over my clothes. When I got to the office in the morning, I looked like a human hairball.
So I was determined that the next one would not shed. I was thinking of some easy-to-manage coat with hair, not fur, and a nice personality. I was leaning toward the Portuguese Water Dog when I saw the encyclopedia picture of a Bergamasco and I was hooked—I’ve always liked things that are different, and I had never seen such an interesting coat. It looked vaguely like dreadlocks, but the cords weren’t round, they were flat. The description said they had wool in the coat. What? I had to find out more.
I found Donna DeFalcis on the internet. She and her husband Stephen had brought over the first US Bergamascos from an experienced breeder in Italy, and the breeder was helping them establish the breed in the United States. Donna and I talked for over an hour on the phone and I knew I had found the right breed—intelligent, gentle, independent, but not stubborn, friendly, but not all over you. Basically they sounded like the same wonderful personality my Border Collie/Lab mix had, minus the coat-throwing part.
I had to wait six months, but it was worth it! Denali, as I named her (couldn’t think of an Italian name I liked, but I figured at least Denali ended in a vowel) turned out to be the best dog I ever had. She was sweet, gentle and kind. She loved everybody and everybody loved her.
I took her to puppy class, but I never had to train her after that because she trained herself. She’d see what I wanted her to do (or not do) and would act accordingly. I couldn’t believe it.
I started to realize that I didn’t think of her as a dog. With all my other dogs, when they would do something bad, or dumb, I’d think, “Well don’t get upset; they’re just a dog.” But I noticed after a while that I never thought that about Denali. She was never “just a dog”; she was my friend. I thought of her as my equal and she thought of me as her equal—it was funny. There was no master/dog relationship, there were just two beings, one hairy and one not, who were best friends. Equal intelligence, equal emotional sensibilities, equal abilities to detect “vibes” of people or places. It really was like having a best friend you are so attuned with that you don’t need to talk. You both just know what the other is thinking and feeling.
Denali was from the second litter born in the USA. When my Border Collie/Lab mix died two years later, Denali was bereft. She had kept Chloe company every day. Chloe at that point was 16 and couldn’t’ see very well and didn’t wander around much. She liked to just sit in a shady area of the lawn and enjoy the weather. Denali, even though she was a playful, energetic puppy, would sit with Chloe for hours, keeping her company, never leaving her side.
When Chloe went, Denali was very sad—she moped around the house, wondering where her friend had gone. I called Donna to ask about another puppy, and it turned out someone had given up a female from the third US litter because she was too rambunctious. What? This seemed hard to believe of a Bergamasco, since Denali was the very picture of calm.
Well, it turns out Bergamascos are not all the same! They all have the great qualities I described above, but some are more active and a little more independent-minded. That was Emma. She reminded me of the tough girls in middle school who got into fistfights at recess. She was a wild one! But Denali loved her and she loved Denali. I think Denali calmed Emma down a little bit, while Emma encouraged Denali to be more adventurous.
And I was learning something—Bergamascos are like crack cocaine: once you try them, you’re hooked. It wasn’t long before I had four—two boys and two girls. They got along well and we were a happy family.
Then one day, I got a sad call. A lovely woman who had a female from the first Bergamasco litter had a family emergency where she could not take care of her animals, at least for a year or two. So she was looking for temporary homes for her two Bergamascos—a male named Nepo and a female named Custoda.
I agreed to take Custoda. She was a half-sister to Denali and they were both large, but very gentle. Unlike Emma, who was small and about as gentle as Rocky Balboa. I figured Custoda would feel at home with these fellow Bergamascos.
I drove to meet Custoda and her mom (whom I will call Sarah) at a rest area on the Mass Pike. She and I had become quite friendly at dog shows over the years. Back then it was a small group, and we were all quite close, sharing our passionate love for these wonderful, rare dogs. Dog shows were like pleasant family reunions for us. We brought food and spent the whole day, while the dogs played.
Sarah was waiting as I pulled in next to her. She and I both had pick-up trucks, and we took all kinds of things she was giving me to help—food, leashes, collars, ex-pens and a nice whelping box—out of the back of her truck and put them in mine. She had made a big pork roast and cut it into chunks for “Toady” as she called her to have for nibbles on the five hour drive to my house.
When it came time to part, my heart went up in my throat. Custoda was sitting in the passenger seat in my truck, and got upset as we started pulling out. She looked over at Sarah, as if to say, “Where are you going? Why are you leaving me?”
Sarah looked at Custoda with so much love, and so much pain, I started crying. I couldn’t imagine how much pain Sarah was going through—not only saying goodbye to Custoda, but not being able to explain why she had to, that it was for her own good. And that maybe they would be together again someday. She just had to look at Custoda, knowing Custoda was thinking she was abandoning her. It was the most heartbreaking look I’d ever seen.
Custoda had a very hard time adjusting to life at my house. She missed her mother so much. I would take all the dogs down to the shore and throw tennis balls for them. They loved chasing the balls, especially if they landed in the water. But Custoda would just sit and watch. She never joined in. She would stay close to me, probably hoping I would take her back to her mother soon.
Up at the house, if we were outside, Custoda would run up the hill of the driveway, then turn around to me and bark, as if to say “Come on! Let’s go find my Mom!” I felt so bad and didn’t know what to do. Finally, I sat down and thought, these dogs are like humans—so intelligent and emotionally sensitive—what would a human kid need if she was separated from her mother?
And the answer was: Lots of Love. So from then on, I hugged Custoda dozens of times a day, always whispering comforting words. “Your Mommy loves you. And I love you. Everything will be ok.” She slept right next to me in the bed. I made sure to take plenty of alone time with her outside, where we could walk and play, just the two of us, without the others horsing around.
Eventually, she pulled out of her sadness. In time, she started joining in with the other dogs at playtime, and as time went by, seemed to feel that she was a member of the family. At last! I was so glad she was finally feeling better.
Over the next three years, I fell totally in love with this sweet being. When happy, she had such a joyful personality, it was almost as if she had a sense of humor and was laughing when we all were playing. A friend would come over and put a handkerchief on her head like a babushka, and add sunglasses. She seemed to enjoy the fun of it all—she was a bit of a prima donna and liked to be in the spotlight. She would turn her head and show it off, purposely clowning.
She had adjusted, finally. We all slept in the bedroom together, and she was good buds with Denali and the others.
Then one day, the phone call came. Sarah’s family emergency was finally over, and she was ready to start the rest of her life. And she wanted Custoda back. The family who took Nepo were giving him back to her, would I give Custoda back, too, so the three of them could be reunited and start their family life again?
Now it was my turn to be heartbroken. I loved Custoda as much as I loved any of my other dogs. She and Denali were like twins—such similar personalities and they got along so well. I did not want to lose her. Sarah made it clear that I didn’t have to. She was so appreciative I’d given “Toady” a home, she wasn’t going to demand her back if it would be too hard for me.
But I thought back on that look Sarah gave Custoda when we were pulling out of that rest area three years earlier, the saddest thing I’d ever seen. And I knew I had to give her back. No matter how much it hurt me, it would be so good for Sarah, and Custoda, and Nepo.
When Sarah came, Custoda was beside herself. Sarah had brought Nepo too, and when he and Custoda saw each other, they went crazy with joy. As Sarah and I talked, Custoda didn’t know what to do. We were sitting on facing couches. Custoda would hop up on one couch and sit next to Sarah for a while as we talked, smiling and wagging her tail. Then she’d run over and hop up next to me and smile at me. It was clear she loved us both and didn’t want us to feel she was playing favorites. But I could see she was going to be so happy being reunited with her original family.
Sarah slept in the guest room and left very early the next morning with Custoda, by agreement not waking me. I didn’t want to get up and say goodbye because I knew I would burst into tears. And I wanted Custoda to be happy to go. So I said goodnight the night before, giving Custoda a final hug, telling her how much I loved her, and went to bed.
When I got up, they were gone. I looked out the kitchen window at the driveway hill, where Custoda had sat so many times, barking and urging me to take her to find her Mom. Finally she had got her wish. And now she, and her Mom and her brother Nepo were all off on a big adventure driving across the country to their new home. I cried, missing her, but they were also tears of joy for her.
I never saw Custoda again. Sarah was very good about keeping in touch, describing their new life and how happy Custoda and Nepo were.
And then one day, she had bad news. The day we all dread when we love our dogs more than anything else in this world. It was devastating for both of us to lose such a bright and loving spirit, but we were so glad Custoda had ended up having a nice long life. It had some hard adjustments for her, but it turned out with a happy ending. So now she is gone, and Sarah and I both look forward to being with Custoda again when it’s our turn to go.
By Rob Laffin