The Bernese Mountain Dog is an extremely versatile working dog from the farmlands of Switzerland. He was developed to herd cattle, pull carts, and be a watchdog and loyal companion. He is one of four types of Swiss Mountain Dogs, and the only one with long hair. The Bernese Mountain Dog comes from the canton of Bern, hence his name. He’s a large and sturdy breed, with a friendly and calm disposition, and he’s well suited to conformation, obedience, tracking, herding, and carting competitions.
The Bernese Mountain Dog, affectionately called the Berner (and known as the Berner Sennenhund in his Swiss homeland), is instantly recognizable with his flashy, tricolor coat and white “Swiss cross” on his chest. Underneath that beautiful coat is a sturdy dog well suited for heavy work: These beautiful, gentle dogs have been traditionally used in Switzerland as herders and draft dogs.
The Berner was originally a vital part of farm life, serving to drive cattle, protect his family, and pull carts loaded with goods to sell at nearby villages. Although he’s a good-mannered, hard worker, he nearly became extinct in the early 20th century, when other means of transportation became accessible to farmers. Fortunately, a handful of fanciers sought to preserve the breed.
In addition to being strikingly good-looking, the Berner has a wonderful temperament. He is known for being loyal, affectionate, eager to please, and intelligent. He’s easy to train, if you allow him time to analyze what you want him to do. Most of all, he has a happy-go-lucky attitude about life.
The Berner is calm but gregarious, and sometimes even a little goofy when he plays with his family. He does well with children of all ages and with adults, but he isn’t a good choice for people who live in apartments or don’t have a large, fenced yard for him to play in. The Berner needs to live with his family, rather than be relegated to an outdoor kennel. He’s happiest when he can participate in all family activities.
Since he was bred to be a working dog, the Berner likes to learn and can be easily trained. Since he is very large–about 100 pounds–when mature, early obedience training and socialization are recommended. Prospective owners should know that the Berner is slow to mature, both physically and mentally; he may remain puppyish for some time. Additionally, the Berner is known to have a “soft” personality; his feelings are easily hurt and he doesn’t respond well to harsh corrections.
Despite his beauty and excellent temperament–or perhaps because of these qualities–Berners are struggling to survive today. The breed has a small gene pool, which has resulted in numerous health problems related to inbreeding. As more people find out about the breed, many dogs with health problems are being bred with little or no regard to the effect this has on the breed as a whole.
Berners have numerous health problems due to their small genetic foundation, and perhaps due to other reasons yet undiscovered. Currently, the life span of a Bernese Mountain Dog is comparatively short, about six to eight years.
Because of the Berner’s popularity, some people have bred dogs of lesser quality in order to sell the puppies to unsuspecting buyers. Be especially careful about importing dogs from foreign countries that have few laws governing kennel conditions. Often these dogs are bought at auction and little is known about their health history.
Veterinary care can be costly because of the health problems in the breed.
Berners shed profusely, especially in the spring and fall. If shedding drives you crazy, this may not be the right breed for you.
The Berner likes to be with his family. He’s likely to develop annoying behavior problems, such as barking, digging, or chewing, if he’s isolated from people and their activities.
When Berners are mature, they are large dogs who like to have a job to do. For those reasons, it’s wise–and fun–to begin obedience training early.
Although they’re very gentle with children, Berners sometimes accidentally knock over a small child or toddler.
To get a healthy dog, never buy a puppy from an irresponsible breeder, puppy mill, or pet store. Look for a reputable breeder who tests her breeding dogs to make sure they’re free of genetic diseases that they might pass onto the puppies, and that they have sound temperaments.
One ancient breed, the Molosser, stands out as of the most versatile, well traveled, and influential in the development of a variety of Mastiff-type dogs, including Berners.
It’s thought that the four Swiss Sennenhund breeds (Appenzeller Sennenhund, Entlebucher Sennenhund, Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, and Berner Sennenhund) developed as crosses between farm dogs from the Swiss Alps and the Molosser or Mastiff-type dogs that the Romans brought with them when they invaded the Alps in the first century B.C.
It’s likely that the Berner has been working on Swiss farms for more than 2,000 years, quietly tucked away on small holdings in the Alps, where he’s been pulling carts, accompanying livestock, standing watch, and providing his owners with loyal companionship.
It is known that by 1888, only 36 percent of the Swiss population worked in agriculture, and need dwindled for a strong dog who could herd cattle and pull a cart filled with goods. In 1899, however, the Swiss became interested in preserving their native breeds and founded a dog club called Berna. Members included breeders of a variety of purebred dogs.
In 1902, the Swiss dog club sponsored a show at Ostermundigen that drew attention to the Swiss mountain breeds. Two years later, the breeds took a big step forward through several events: At an international dog show held in Bern, the Swiss dog club sponsored a class for Swiss “shepherd dogs,” which included the Mountain dogs. This was also the first year that these dogs were referred to as “Bernese.” And in that same year, the Swiss Kennel Club recognized the Bernese Mountain Dog as a breed.
During World War I, dog shows and breeding took a backseat to war efforts. But after the war, the first Bernese Mountain Dogs were exported, first to Holland and then to the United States–although the breed was not yet recognized by the American Kennel Club.
In 1936, two British breeders began importing Berners, and the first litter of Berner pups was born in England. Also in 1936, the Glen Shadow kennel in Louisiana imported a female and a male Berner from Switzerland. By early 1937, the AKC sent Glen Shadow a letter saying that the Bernese Mountain Dog had been accepted as a new breed in the Working Class.
World War II again interrupted the progress of the breed outside its native land, but after 1945, importation and registration resumed in the United States.
In 1968, the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America was founded, with 62 members and 43 registered Berners. Three years later, there were more than 100 members in the club. Meanwhile, the breed, which had died out in England during World War II, was reintroduced in Great Britain.
The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America became a member club of the AKC in 1981. In 1990, the AKC adopted its current Bernese Mountain Dog standard.