The Bernese Mountain Dog — What to Expect of This Dog Breed

The name Bernese Mountain Dog is a rough translation of the German “Berner Sennenhund,” which literally means Bernese Alpine Herdsman’s Dog. The breed’s original name was Durrbachler, after an inn where these farm dogs were bought and sold. The modern breed was developed from dogs found in the countryside around Bern, Switzerland and is only one of several Swiss breeds.

The original Berner Sennenhund was an all-around farm dog, used to guard the farm, drive the cows to and from their mountain pastures, and pull carts loaded with milk cans to the dairy; modern Berners retain some, although not necessarily all, of these instincts. The breed was rescued from near extinction by Professor Albert Heim around the turn of the century and has developed slowly since then. In 1948 there was a significant outcrossing to a Newfoundland dog, with a resulting improvement in temperament and increase in size.

Berners are known to have first come to America in 1926, and possibly even earlier, but the breed was not recognized by the AKC even after intervention by the Swiss Kennel Club. A decade later, two more were imported from Switzerland; these dogs became the first of the breed to be registered with the AKC, in 1937.

By the 1960s, a small group of loyal Berner owners and breeders was developing in the United States. During 1994 there were 1594 Berners registered with the AKC, making the breed the 68th most popular out of 137 AKC-recognized breeds. The breed’s popularity has been rising steadily and is now at the point where “backyard breeding” is a problem.

Summary

Temperament and behavior

  • needs lots of human companionship; must be a full member of the family; a dog that must be allowed inside the house
  • gentle, calm, affectionate, and faithful to their owners
  • very good with children and other animals
  • intelligent, but needs patient, consistent training
  • seldom nuisance barkers
  • good watch dogs but not guard dogs
  • reserved around strangers but not shy or fearful if given proper socialization when young
  • moderate activity level, a fine walking companion but lacking the endurance of lighter boned breeds
  • a working breed that was originally used for draft work and light duty cattle herding

Expenses

  • purchase cost varies widely around the country
  • males and females should cost the same
  • $120 for first year routine vet care
  • $50 per year for routine adult vet care
  • $120 per year for miscellaneous vet care
  • $20 to $30 per month in food
  • $180 for 20 hours of basic puppy and obedience classes
  • home and yard improvements such as fencing or a run

Health and fitness

  • the median life span is 6 to 7 years, however, for dogs that enter adulthood in good health the typical life span is around 9 years
  • cancers are a serious problem and common cause of early death
  • joint problems are common
  • serious autoimmune problems and kidney problems are known
  • the Berner-Garde data base tracks many health problems and can be accessed by breeders and potential owners.

Miscellaneous

  • 65 to 95 pounds for females; 80 to 115 pounds for males
  • males 25-27-1/2 inches at the withers, bitches 23-26 inches
  • heavy shedding once or twice a year and for some dogs throughout the year
  • coat naturally repels dirt; regular brushing but only occasional bathing is required.
  • very few are prone to drooling
  • not a natural retriever
  • not naturally inclined to hunting, though some chase squirrels, etc.
  • not naturally a water dog but some take to swimming for fun
  • some have a tendency to dig holes
  • fun to travel with if properly trained

Hips and Elbows

Hip and elbow dysplasias are common conditions in Bernese Mountain Dogs. These are structural defects in the joints that can cause mild to crippling arthritis. Dysplasia is inherited, but many genes are involved.

It is possible for normal parents to produce dysplastic puppies; however, the chance of a particular puppy’s having dysplasia is reduced if both parents are normal, and even more greatly reduced if other close relatives (parents’ parents, parents’ littermates, and other puppies produced by the parents) are also free from dysplasia.

Environmental factors- overly rapid puppy growth, improper diet, and strenuous exercise- do not cause dysplasia but may act to worsen it.

X-rays of mature dogs are the definitive way to diagnose dysplasia. X-rays may be done of younger dogs who are exhibiting clinical symptoms (e.g., lameness), but they may not accurately predict how bad the final effects will be. Because both hip and elbow dysplasias often are not apparent at birth but develop over time, mild or moderate dysplasia often cannot be diagnosed in young dogs.

The Institute for Genetic Disease Control in Animals (GDC) evaluates dogs at 1 year of age by X-ray. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) evaluates dogs at 2 years of age by X-ray. Dogs found to be free of dysplasia are issued a certificate and a registration number.

Of all the breeds evaluated by the OFA, Bernese have the eighth highest incidence of hip dysplasia. 28% of the Berners whose hip X-rays are submitted are rated as dysplastic, but in reality the overall incidence in the breed is probably considerably higher, since many owners do not submit the X-rays if dysplasia is suspected.

Surgery to correct dysplasia in puppies can be helpful but costs $400.00 to $1,800.00 per joint. Hip surgery is usually more successful than elbow surgery.

Recommendations

Both the GDC and OFA recommend that:

  • breeding dogs be free of dysplasia
  • breeding dogs’ parents and grandparents be free of dysplasia
  • 75% or more of any siblings or half siblings of breeding dogs be free of dysplasia

Cancer

Cancers are a serious problem in the Bernese. An ongoing study of these diseases in the breed, sponsored by the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, indicates the following:
Approximately 9.7% of Berners get cancer. The average age at which cancer is diagnosed is 6.21 years; however, this varies widely.

The most common types of cancer found in Berners are:

  • histiocytosis (24.0% of cases): these tumors are inherited, but probably through the action of many genes (polygenic) acting together
  • mastocytoma: also inherited
  • lymphosarcoma: not inherited
  • fibrosarcoma: not inherited
  • osteosarcoma: no conclusions yet as to heritability.

A tumor registry has been established which is continuing to collect and analyze tissue samples from affected dogs. It is hoped that additional data will enable researchers to reach further conclusions about the incidence and heritability of other types of cancer in the Bernese Mountain Dog. In addition The GDC has established a registry for histiocytosis and mastocytoma since these are known to be inherited.

Working

Coming from a working background, Berners enjoy the challenges of learning new things. Most Berners are eager to please their owners and can be trained quite readily in a variety of areas. Because of the breed’s eventual large size, it is to the owner’s advantage to begin obedience training (household manners and basic obedience commands) at a young age. However, since Berners as a breed are slow to mature, both physically and mentally, owners should not push puppies in training too rapidly; these dogs are definitely not obedience “child prodigies.”

The training of a Berner puppy requires firmness, consistency, and lots of patience, and is most successfully accomplished with many brief, fun training sessions. Despite their large size, the majority of Berners are “soft” dogs and do not do well with harsh corrections. To avoid the possibility of orthopedic injury, a Berner should not be asked to jump or pull loads before the age of two.

A hundred years ago, Bernese Mountain Dogs worked at guarding the farm, herding cattle, and hauling milk cans to the dairy. The guarding ability is greatly diminished these days (although Berners still make good watch dogs), but the herding instinct and draft capabilities remain intact in many dogs. Although at this time Berners are not permitted to compete in AKC herding events, the majority of Bernese will pass a herding instinct certification test, and some owners actively train their dogs in this area.

Berners are eligible to compete in trials offered by the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) and the American Herding Breed Association. However, it is draft work that receives the most attention The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, the national breed club, offers two titles in draft work: NDD (Novice Draft Dog) and DD (Draft Dog). The trials for these titles require a dog to demonstrate both control of the cart and strength and endurance to pull a load. Many Berners participate in AKC obedience and tracking tests, as well as agility competition. They have also been quite successful as therapy dogs and, to a limited extent, as search and rescue dogs.

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