Did you know that there are more than 350 dog breeds recognized worldwide that originate from all over the globe? Every type of dog was bred for a purpose and placed into a breed group - be it for companionship, herding, guarding, hunting and beyond. Looking at Italy specifically, here are 17 Italian dog breeds, including the Italian Greyhound, Cane Corso and other dogs from Italy that you may not know of.
1. Bergamasco Shepherd (a.k.a. Bergamasco Sheepdog)
The Bergamasco Shepherd, also known as the Bergamasco Sheepdog, is an ancient and rare herding breed with a unique coat. Its exact origins are unknown, but it is believed to have existed for thousands of years, with roots tracing back to the mountainous regions of Persia (modern-day Iran). It's believed that the Phoenicians, Persian armies, and nomadic shepherds brought Bergamasco Shepherds to Italy. Eventually, they settled in Bergamo in Northern Italy and the Italian Alps, where their unique coat was particularly useful and became integral to the local shepherd communities. Interestingly, a 2018 study of DNA testing found that, prior to 1859, a widespread European herding dog appeared to be the ancestor of the German Shepherd, the Berger Picard, and the five Italian herding breeds, including the Bergamasco Shepherd and Pastore della Lessinia e del Lagorai.
Its distinctive coat, which comes from a specific genetic trait, is meant to protect the Bergamasco Shepherd from inclement weather, harsh environments, and predators. It consists of three types of hair (a soft undercoat, long harsher hairs, and unique flocks often referred to as dog fur, goat hair, and wool respectively) that naturally weave together to form flat, felt-like mats called "flocks" or "fleeces." Fun fact: the Bergamasco Shepherd has very long eyelashes, which serve to protect and keep snow out of its eyes.
The Bergamasco Shepherd population declined in the early 20th century, but it was revived by enthusiasts and shepherds. The breed was officially recognized by the Italian Kennel Club (ENCI) in 1959, and standardization began soon after. As its international recognition and popularity grew, the Bergamasco Shepherd was recognized by kennel clubs around the world, including the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI).
The Bolognese dog is a small, fluffy, white toy breed that is part of the Bichon family (which is why it's also known as the Bichon Bolognese). It has ancient origins in the Mediterranean region, particularly Italy, in the 11th century and shares ancestry with other Bichon toy dogs such as the Maltese, Havanese, and Bichon Frisé. The Bolognese breed's name comes from the Italian city of Bologna, where it's believed to have been a popular lap and companion dog for Italian nobles and aristocrats. This seems to be especially true during the Renaissance, as artwork from the period depicts small dogs with white coats that resemble the Bolognese.
The popularity of the Bolognese dog spread throughout Europe, as it was sought after by royalty and the upper class in France, England, and Spain. Over the centuries, the Bolognese breed was refined and standardized to maintain its small size, pure white coat and friendly temperament, among other characteristics.
Like many other breeds, the Bolognese faced a population decline during the early 20th century, but efforts by dedicated breed enthusiasts helped preserve and promote the breed. The FCI and ENCI officially recognized the Bolognese in 1955 and 1956, respectively, further establishing a breed standard. Nearly 50 years later, various international kennel clubs recognized the breed, including the United Kennel Club (UKC) and AKC.
3. Bracco Italiano
The Bracco Italiano (also called the Italian Pointer, Italian Pointing Dog, and Bracco) is one of the oldest pointing breeds and the oldest European pointer, dating back to the fourth or fifth century BC. These bird dogs were bred for hunting, specifically pointing and retrieving game. They first drove birds into nets and flushed game for falconers, then pointed and retrieved once guns were introduced.
While the exact origins are unknown, it's believed to have been developed from ancient pointing hound-like dogs, as well as through crossing the Segugio Italiano and the now-extinct Asiatic Mastiff. What is known is that it was developed in northern Italy with two varieties: the white-and-orange from the Piedmont region and the roan-and-brown from Lombardy. The Piedmont variety was lighter in build, used for work in the mountains with a jaunty gallop and a hunting style more similar to western European dogs and pointers. The Lombardy variety was heavier, used for hunting in marshy lowlands with a more trotting style. Both varieties, though, were skilled and versatile hunters that were tireless in the field.
The breed was well-established by the medieval period, after which it was exported across the Old World and peaked in popularity during the Renaissance, where it was a favorite among Italian nobility and aristocracy. It wasn't until the 20th century that the breed began its sharp decline, facing extinction by the end of the 1800s. Poor breeding and crossing resulted in more Braccos that were not healthy or were generally unfit for hunting.
Fortunately, breeders began to carefully rebuild the breed and combined the two variations in the 1920s to preserve genetic diversity. Once combined, the working standard was finally written, despite existing for more than a century, and it was officially recognized by the ENCI in 1949. In the late 1980s, the Bracco Italiano was brought to the U.K. and then the U.S. in 1994, where it is still used as a gun dog. The breed was accepted in the AKC in 2001, and the Bracco Italiano Club of America was established in 2007.
4. Cane Corso
The Cane Corso is a large Italian mastiff-type dog with ancient origins dating back to Roman times. It's believed that the breed likely descends from large mastiff-type dogs brought to Italy by the Phoenicians and later used as war dogs and working dogs. Valued for its large size, great strength, and intimidating (but beautiful, typically black) appearance, Cane Corsos had many roles in ancient Rome. They guarded property (from estates to farms), worked with livestock, hunted big game, and even participated in gladiator battles. In fact, its name can be translated to "guardian dog" in Latin.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and subsequent political instability, along with changes in agricultural practices and the aftermath of war, the population declined. By the 20th century, the Cane Corso was nearly extinct, with only a few surviving individuals in rural areas of southern Italy. However, in the 1970s, dedicated Italian breeders and enthusiasts revived these once popular working dogs and established a breed standard. The breed was officially recognized by the ENCI in 1994, the FCI in 1996, and the AKC in 2010.
5. Cirneco dell’Etna
The Cirneco dell'Etna is a rare and ancient small breed of sighthound that originated in Sicily, Italy, and is named after Mount Etna, an active volcano in the region. Its exact origins are unknown, but its name may provide some insight: Cirneco comes from a Greek word meaning "dog of Cyrene" (present-day Libya). This, along with the breed's resemblance to ancient Egyptian and Phoenician hounds, may indicate that the breed descended from dogs brought to Sicily by seafaring Phoenician traders. The breed also closely resembles today's Pharaoh Hound but is smaller in size. Additionally, dogs resembling the Cirneco dell'Etna appeared on Sicilian coins dating back as far as 500 BC.
The Cirneco dell'Etna was bred for hunting small game and critters (such as rabbits and hares) on the rugged terrain of the region. As such, it is well-adapted to working in harsh conditions and climates, despite its delicate appearance (these dogs can hunt for hours without food or water). Due to prolonged isolation, the Cirneco dell'Etna is one of the few ancient breeds that have remained relatively unchanged over the thousands of years it has existed (since 500 BC or so).
The Cirneco dell'Etna gained breed recognition by the ENCI in the 1930s, although the population had nearly gone extinct. Breed enthusiasts and aristocrats, however, revived the Cirneco dell'Etna. It was then recognized by the FCI in the 1950s and, much later, by the AKC in 2015.
6. Italian Greyhound
The Italian Greyhound, a relative of the standard Greyhound, is a small sighthound that has existed for thousands of years. It is believed to have ancient origins dating back to ancient Egypt and Greece. In fact, there is archaeological evidence to suggest that they were bred as companions to nobles 2,000 years ago during the Roman Empire in the areas that are now Greece and Turkey. These miniature Greyhounds were also believed to be small-game hunters during this time.
As the Roman Empire expanded across Europe, so did the Italian Greyhound. The breed gained popularity among royalty and aristocrats, eventually becoming cherished by European nobility during the Renaissance. In Italy, in particular, these little dogs became a status symbol for aristocrats and the wealthy. Italian Greyhounds continued to make their way to other nobles in Europe as well as Africa. The breed was nearly wiped out due to the obsession with miniaturizing dogs as well as the World Wars. However, breeders, particularly in America, ensured the survival of the Italian Greyhound. The modern standard for the Italian Greyhound was established in the late 19th century, and the breed was officially recognized by the AKC in 1886, and by the ENCI and FCI in the 1950s.
7. Lagotto Romagnolo
The Lagotto Romagnolo is a curly-coated Italian breed whose roots can be traced back to ancient times. Depictions of similar dogs have been found in the necropolis of the Etruscan city Spina, although there is no recorded or written evidence of the breed until the 1600s. The breed is believed to have originated in the Romagna region of northeast Italy and descended from ancient water dogs and retrievers. Initially, the Lagotto Romagnolo was used as a water dog, particularly to retrieve waterfowl, as its name suggests ("lago" comes from the Italian word for "lake," and "Lagotto" translates to "duck dog" from the local dialect). In fact, it is considered one of the oldest water dogs, and many experts believe it to be the founding breed for all water dogs.
However, over time, Romagna's marshlands were drained, and waterfowl populations declined. As the region's agricultural landscape evolved, so too did the Lagotto Romagnolo's role. It became a truffle-hunting dog, thanks to its keen sense of smell and natural searching abilities. (This also means that Lagotto Romagnolos tend to enjoy digging, though.) In fact, the Lagotto Romagnolo is the only current breed recognized around the world as a specialized truffle dog. Despite its ancient history, the breed was only officially recognized by the ENCI and FCI in 1995 and the AKC in 2015.
Pro Tip: Studies have shown Lagotto Romagnolos to be some of the most anxious dogs, particularly in terms of noise sensitivity (like thunder, fireworks, gunshots and even loud children and music). Because they are intelligent and bred to work, sufficient physical exercise and mental stimulation (like brain games) are important to provide proper outlets for their energy and reduce the likelihood of anxiety.
The Maltese is a small white dog that has been around for thousands of years, so its exact origins are unknown. Although evidence suggests that the Maltese originated in south-central Europe from spitz-like dogs, the breed is believed to have gotten its name from the city of Malta. Due to its location (Malta lies 60 miles south of Sicily in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea), it served as a crossroads and gateway for three continents. As a flourishing seaport, Malta became a hub for the exchange of goods and culture - including dogs - and was also a target of conquest. The Maltese was highly regarded by various civilizations, including the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.
Starting in 1500 B.C., Malta was conquered and occupied by the Phoenicians, who are believed to have introduced little white dogs to the island. When the Greeks arrived, they became enamored and depicted the "Melitaie Dog" in their art. During the Roman Empire, the Maltese became a status symbol and a fashion statement for aristocrats. Maltese dogs were cherished by royals, emperors, queens, and other nobility. It's believed these dogs were carried by their women owners in their bosoms or sleeves.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and during Europe's Dark Ages, Chinese breeders played a crucial role in ensuring the survival of the Maltese breed. They refined the breed by crossing them with native toy breeds and exported them back to Europe. Over time, breeders refined the Maltese and established a breed standard to ensure the preservation of the dog's most desirable traits (such as its silky, white coat). In the 19th century, kennel clubs began recognizing the breed, with the AKC doing so in 1884 and the ENCI and FCI in 1954.
9. Maremma Sheepdog
The Maremma Sheepdog (also known as the Maremmano-Abruzzese Sheepdog or Maremmano-Abruzzese Shepherd) is an ancient Italian breed known for its role as a livestock guardian. Its origins can be traced back thousands of years, to at least ancient Roman times, as dogs of Maremmano and Abruzzese shepherds appear in Roman literature over 2,000 years ago. It is believed the breed developed in the rugged Apennine Mountains of central Italy, specifically in the regions of Maremma in Tuscany and Abruzzo in southern Italy (hence the breed's names). The Maremma Sheepdog may descend from Tibetan Mastiffs, as they were bred to protect livestock - particularly sheep - from thieves and predators such as wolves and bears. The breed is tall, muscular, and solidly built and naturally protective, making them very effective in this role.
Because of their isolation, the breed evolved naturally as well as through regional development and selective breeding to meet the needs of local shepherds and farmers. Over generations, specific traits were enhanced and fortified, including appearance (such as its large size for guarding and thick white coat for cold weather), temperament (such as loyalty, gentle disposition to livestock, and affection), and working abilities (such as protective instincts, devotion, intelligence, and independence).
In the early 20th century, efforts were made for breed standardization of the Maremma Sheepdog. The ENCI officially recognized the breed in 1940, followed by the FCI in 1954. Despite crossbreeding throughout the years, the shepherd dog of the Abruzzi (Pastore Abruzzese) and shepherd of the Maremma (Pastore Maremmano) were considered separate breeds until 1958. The first Maremma Sheepdogs were brought to the U.S. in the 1970s as part of a 10-year study on effective livestock guardians. More than 1,000 dogs were placed in 37 states, and research concluded that their presence led to reduced livestock predation. The AKC eventually recognized the Maremma Sheepdog in 2010, and today, the breed is still used as a sheep guardian in its Italian regions of origin.
10. Neapolitan Mastiff
The Neapolitan Mastiff (often referred to as Mastino Napoletano) is an ancient breed that dates back to 700 BC, when they served as guard and war dogs for the Roman Empire. They also fought alongside gladiators in the arena. The breed evolved over centuries in the Naples region of Italy, eventually becoming guard dogs that protected farms and estates. Breeders in Southern Italy began selectively breeding Neapolitan Mastiffs to enhance characteristics for guarding - such as a large size, powerful build and loose skin - while eventually incorporating gentler temperaments.
The breed nearly became extinct after World War II but experienced a resurgence in the late 1940s, with recognition by the ENCI and FCI following in 1949. By the 1970s, the breed was well known in Europe and the U.S., and their breed standard was rewritten in 1971 to be more exact. The AKC recognized the Neapolitan Mastiff in 2004 as the 113th breed.
11. Pastore della Lessinia e del Lagorai
The Pastore della Lessinia e del Lagorai, also known as the Lessini-Lagorai Shepherd, is an ancient Italian sheepdog known for its herding abilities in the mountains. It originated in the Lessinia and Lagorai regions of the Italian Alps (as its name suggests) as a livestock herding and guarding dog. Because of the rugged terrain, the Pastore della Lessinia e del Lagorai needed specific traits and characteristics to effectively manage and protect herds - such as agility, strength, endurance, awareness, intelligence, adaptability, and a strong work ethic. Additionally, their distinct coat helps camouflage them among the rocks and landscape.
Exact origins are unknown, but a 2018 DNA study found that, prior to 1859, a widespread European herding dog appeared to be an ancestor of the German Shepherd, the Berger Picard, and the five Italian herding breeds, including the Pastore della Lessinia e del Lagorai and Bergamasco Shepherd.
While the Pastore della Lessinia e del Lagorai has been vital in its native region for centuries, formal recognition and standardization of the breed came at a later date. Today, the breed is still used as a working dog but is also gaining recognition beyond its native home as a companion and working dog, particularly in herding and dog sports. In fact, there is a project to protect the breed from extinction and gain official breed status, led by the Società Italiana Pastore della Lessinia e del Lagorai.
12. Saint Bernard
The Saint Bernard is more often associated with Switzerland, thanks to its prominence in the Swiss Alps. However, it originated in the western Alps between Italy and Switzerland, in a region known as the Great Saint Bernard Pass. The breed is named for the pass where it was developed, which was integral for travel between the two countries. At the pass, a hospice founded by St. Bernard of Menthon in the 11th century was a crucial center for travelers and housed dogs to assist in a variety of tasks, including guarding the grounds, providing companionship, and rescuing people trapped or injured in the mountain snow. These dogs served both sides of the Swiss and Italian borders.
Over time, the Saint Bernard breed was refined and enhanced for rescue tasks, such as a strong sense of smell and tracking abilities. These traits, along with its large size, powerful build, and insulating coat, enabled the Saint Bernard to excel in the Alps. In fact, Saint Bernards have a double coat that falls into one of two categories: short and long. Those with short coats have dense and smooth body fur, long and dense fur on the tail, and bushier fur on the thighs. Those with long coats have wavy fur with feathering on the legs and a thick, bushy tail. Either way, they are well-equipped to tolerate cold weather.
In the 18th century, the breed gained widespread recognition from tales and artwork explaining their heroics. The Saint Bernard was officially registered with the AKC in 1885, followed not long after by the FCI and ENCI. As the Saint Bernard's fame grew, so did their popularity. The breed's reach quickly spread beyond the Alps as they were increasingly considered great family dogs (which was only furthered by movies like Beethoven and Peter Pan).
13. Segugio Italiano
15. Spino degli Iblei
The Spino degli Iblei, also known as the Iblean Hound, is a rare and ancient dog originating from Sicily, specifically the Iblei Mountains. While the exact origins are unknown, it is believed to date back hundreds (if not thousands) of years and descended from ancient hounds brought to Sicily by Phoenician traders or ancient settlers. The Spino degli Iblei was bred to hunt small game and critters in the rugged and mountainous terrain of its native region. Over time, the breed evolved and adapted to the local climate and environment, with breeders selectively developing characteristics to help them excel in hunting in the region.
Because the Spino degli Iblei is so rare, efforts have been made by breeders and breed enthusiasts to preserve and protect them. Today, population numbers are limited and small, but the breed is still used as a hunting companion in Sicily and the Iblei mountains. And despite its historical significance and importance in Sicilian hunting, the breed is not yet officially recognized by major international kennel clubs. However, efforts to gain recognition and establish a breed standard are ongoing.
16. Spinone Italiano
The Spinone Italiano is one of the oldest Italian hunting dogs, although its exact origins are up for debate. It's believed that the breed comes from the Piedmont region of Italy during the 15th century, and its name derives from "pino," which are the thorny shrubs in Piedmont in which game would hide. Many believe it descended from the Spanish Pointer, the Russian Setter, or a cross of rough-coated Italian Setters with White Mastiffs and potentially French Griffons. Regardless of its exact descendants, it's widely considered to be one of the first hunting dogs.
The Spinone Italiano was bred to be a versatile all-around hunter with great endurance, a keen sense of smell, a soft mouth, and both pointing and retrieving skills. They can work both on land or in water and have the stamina to hunt for hours. The Spinone Italiano was built more for endurance than speed, as evidenced by its solid, muscular, and powerful build. In fact, many aspects of the breed's build and traits are a testament to their hunting abilities. For example, their coat protects them when hunting in harsh weather and environments, such as the aforementioned thorny underbrush. Also, they have large, rounded feet that help with stability when moving on rough terrain.
The Spinone Italiano was favored by Italian nobles, gaining popularity during the Renaissance (it was often depicted in art from the time). The breed was recognized by the ENCI in the 1920s but nearly went extinct during World War II. It was able to survive thanks to dedicated breeders and its role in the war—Spinone Italiano dogs were used to hunt, track soldiers, and keep people warm in winter. After the war, the breed was revived and officially recognized by the FCI in 1954 and the AKC in 2000. That being said, the breed isn't very popular in the U.S., unlike in Europe.
17. Volpino Italiano
The Volpino Italiano is a rare breed that originated in Italy thousands of years ago, with depictions in paintings from the 1400s-1500s. It may even have origins in the Etruscan civilization, which existed in Italy before the Roman Empire. The Volpino Italiano is related to, but not descended from, the German Spitz, as both share the same ancient European Spitz ancestor. Researchers believe that modern spitz breeds like the Pomeranian and American Eskimo Dog may have descended from the Volpino Italiano and other breeds (which could make sense with all of these dogs' distinct fluffy coats).
The breed gained significant popularity during the Italian Renaissance, where it became a favorite of nobles and the upper class. Then, during the 18th Century, Volpino Italianos were abundant in Tuscany and Latium. They served as companion dogs and watchdogs to many - from nobles to commoners, farmers to townsfolk and beyond. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Italian immigrants brought the Volpino Italiano to North America.
However, the breed's popularity sharply declined, and it ended up on the brink of extinction. In fact, it's believed that there were only five purebred dogs left in 1965. Breeders took notice and worked to revive the breed, which was recognized by the ENCI and the FCI in the 1950s. It gained popularity once again in Italy in the 1980s, but the breed remains extremely rare, with just 160 registrations per year in Italy from 2011-2019 and only a few thousand registered around the world.
Other Italian dogs not pictured:
Cane da Pastore della Sila (Pastore Silano)
Cane delle Alpi Apuane (Pastore Apuano)
Cane di Mannara
Cane d'Oropa (Pastore d'Oropa or Pastore Biellese)
Cane Lupino del Gigante Luvin
Dogo Sardesco (Dogo Sardo)
Sardinian Shepherd Dog (Cane Fonnese, Pastore Fonnese or Cane di Fonni)