Introduction to Bernese Mountain Dogs
Few dog breeds can match the stunning appearance of the Bernese Mountain Dog with his satiny black long coat accented by patches and snippets of white and rust, and few can equal his quiet work ethic and easy-going temperament. Neither a scrapper nor a workaholic, the Bernese pursues his dual career as family companion and helpmate with skill, friendly assurance, and devotion.
One of a quartet of Swiss breeds known as mountain dogs, the Bernese developed as a cattle drover and cart dog in Alpine villages. He was a farm dog extraordinaire, herding cattle, hauling milk and other products to market, and watching over the family. But though his ancestors entered Switzerland with the Romans and he served his masters well, the Bernese Mountain Dog nearly died out as a breed early in the 20th Century. But for the dedication of a handful of fanciers, we would not know the breed today.
Like the Newfoundland, Great Pyrenees, and St. Bernard, the Berner’s roots go back to the Molosser dogs of the Romans, large mastiff-type dogs that drove and guarded the cattle herds of the invading armies and protected outposts. Also known as the Berner Sennenhund in Switzerland, he takes his name from Berne, the canton of his development; senner, the stockman he worked for, and hund, the German word for dog. Each summer, the senner and his hund drove the cattle to the Alpine meadows to graze and watched over the animals until time to return to the valley for fall and winter.
The Berner in the US
Like so many breeds that still work in their native lands, the Bernese Mountain Dog is a pampered pet in the US. His beauty and his affinity for children make him a popular choice as a family pet for those who can afford the time and money to locate and purchase a well-bred puppy.
The Berner came to the US in 1926 and gained AKC recognition in 1937. In 1997, the AKC registered 2022 individuals and 458 litters; five years later, 2567 dogs and 715 litters were added to the stud book. The Berner moved from 62nd to 51st in individual registrations and from 72nd to 63rd during that period in sharp contrast to declining registrations in most breeds.
While it is still rare to see a Bernese Mountain Dog on the streets of US cities and suburbs and relatively rare to see them in the show ring, the breed is obviously becoming more popular. The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America keeps close watch on breed health and breeding trends; those who are looking for a Berner should go directly to the BMDCA or a regional breed club for a breeder referral list.
The Berner’s outstanding physical feature is its coat, a jet black, thick, luxurious coat with bright white and rich rust markings. Straight or slightly wavy, the coat has a natural sheen that adds to its beauty. Although the breed is always black, rust, and white, the extent of the markings can vary somewhat.
The white markings are on the chest, paws, face, and tip of the tail. The white on the chest extends from the chin and broadens between the legs to form an inverted cross; the white on the face is a blaze that runs down the skull between the eyes and broadens across the muzzle. Rust markings appear above the eyes, on the cheeks, on the sides of the chest, on the legs, and under the tail.
Once the coat catches the eye, the next obvious thought is that this is a sturdy, dog, well-suited for heavy work. He has a muscular neck, deep chest for heart and lung capacity, and a strong hindquarters for stamina. Balancing his body is a large head with intelligent expression, dark brown eyes, and medium-sized hanging ears.
The Berner male stands 25-27.5 inches at the withers and tips the scale at 80-115 pounds. Females range from 23-26 inches and 65-95 pounds; large females may outweigh small males.
Temperament and training
The Berner’s temperament shines as brightly as his coat. This is a people-loving dog who is also a willing worker. With gentle but firm and consistent training, he can pull a cart, compete in obedience or tracking, do search and rescue work, become a therapy dog, or participate in agility trials.
Although he does not have the Type A personality of the Border Collie or Australian Shepherd, the Berner does need to be kept busy. Without attention to his working character, he can become destructive. Therefore, daily walks of an hour or more and some sort of playtime or competition training are a must.
Because he is so willing to please, the Berner responds to the gentlest of training methods. No yelling or yanking or scolding needed – just show him what to do, reward when he does it, and practice to make the behavior an ingrained pattern.
Breeders emphasize socialization that can be helped along by enrollment in a puppy kindergarten class. Be sure to choose a class that is low-key; the idea is to accustom the puppy to new experiences and to introduce him to obedience lessons, not to train him for precision competition at an early age. The Berner is slow to mature and needs gradual introduction to competition-level obedience training.
Owners should not be fooled at the breed’s gentle demeanor, however; an untrained Berner weighing 80 pounds or more can be a menace, not because he is likely to be domineering or aggressive, but because he behaves like a bull in a china shop.
Care and feeding
The Berner is time-consuming to own. Although baths are rarely needed unless the dog rolls in mud or dead things, his thick coat needs twice weekly brushing and he sheds profusely. Berners may suffer in hot climates; dogs spending time outdoors in summer must have shade cover and access to fresh water at all times. Summer exercise should be limited to early morning and late evening hours to prevent overheating.
A premium diet that agrees with the dog’s digestive system and keeps his coat shiny is sufficient for nourishment, and feedings should be given twice a day to lessen the chances of bloat. To avoid undue stress on growing joints, puppies should not be allowed to gain weight too rapidly; a switch to adult food by four months of age will help keep growth within bounds.
As noted above, daily care should include a long walk and some active playtime or work with a purpose. Feeding the Berner a portion of his meal in a Buster cube will give him a goal to pursue on days when time or weather conditions prevent outdoor play.
Average life span of the Berner is only seven years, a major consideration for any family considering the addition of a dog to the household. The Berner is also susceptible to several health problems, so veterinary bills can be high. He is vulnerable to hip and elbow dysplasia, bloat, several types of cancer, autoimmune diseases, and kidney problems. Progressive retinal atrophy, an eye disease that causes blindness, is becoming a problem as well.
Bernese Mountain Dog breeders are working to solve these problems through a code of ethics that discourages breeding dogs that have or carry genetic diseases and through the Berner-Garde Foundation, a breeder-sponsored data base that records information about every dog submitted and makes that information available to breeders and buyers.
The Berner-Garde Foundation stores and organizes information submitted by breeders and owners of Bernese Mountain Dogs. Breeders file forms on each litter they produce and owners follow-up when the dogs are spayed or neutered, have health problems, earn performance titles, are bred, etc. Breeders can use the data base to build profiles of the dogs they intend to breed and can avoid using dogs from families with a history of genetic diseases.
A fly in the ointment
The stunning appearance and gentle demeanor of the Berner contributes to a growing popularity in spite of the breed’s short life span and potential health problems. However, ethical breeders produce few puppies each year, leaving the market open to dogs of dubious background such as those imported from foreign countries that have few if any laws governing dog care or kennel conditions. These imported dogs from Eastern European countries such as Russia, Poland, and Yugoslavia are sold at auctions, and they and their offspring are dispersed to commercial dealers and retail outlets without detailed health histories.
The appearance of commercially-bred imported dogs in the US has put a fly in the ointment for several breeds and made it imperative that potential buyers seek out responsible, ethical breeders when choosing a breed and a puppy.