Bernese Mountain Dogs (“Berners”) are one of the 195 breeds currently recognized by the American Kennel Club. They are working dogs with origins in the farm areas of Switzerland and named for the Canton of Bern. Historically, Berners were used as general-purpose farm dogs for their large, hardy frames and their calm-natured, people-oriented temperaments made them ideal for driving cattle, pulling carts to market, watching the farm, and being farmers’ companions.
While Bernese Mountain Dogs are wonderful creatures with a long list of attributes, not all dogs exemplify the best the breed has to offer. This is not a breed for everyone and every dog possesses individual strengths and weaknesses. Before you decide to make a Berner part of your family thoroughly research the breed, talk to reputable breeders and knowledgeable owners, and get to know some of the dogs themselves.
The Bernese Mountain Dog is a striking, tri-colored, large dog. They are intelligent, strong, and agile enough to do the draft and droving work for which they were used. Measured at the withers, dogs are 25 to 27½ inches; bitches are 23 to 26 inches. In terms of weight, dogs and bitches generally range from 80-115 and 70-95 pounds respectively.
By nature, Berners are alert and affectionate dogs. With appropriate training that is essential for ownership of a large working breed, Berners are generally gentle, easygoing, and tolerant. They are also usually excellent with children. They are not prone to excessive barking unless left unattended for too long.
Behavior problems are likely to develop when a Berner is deprived of considerable interaction with people. The breed is protective but should not be aggressive unless provoked or threatened and may be aloof to strangers. While Berners should not be shy, this tendency can be found in some lines of the breed or in dogs that were not properly socialized as pups. Due to temperament concerns, it is very important to expose Bernese to a wide variety of people, places, and other animals, especially in their first year of life.
Berners need to live where you are and should be inside with the family. They do not do well as kennel dogs and should never be tied outside and left. Bernese are farm dogs by heritage and as such need exercise to stay fit mentally and physically. Small fenced yards should be viewed as a place of convenience and safety but not as a place for adequate exercise for this moderately active breed. A minimum of 30 minutes of moderately vigorous exercise daily plus several trips outside daily are adequate for some Bernese. To remain fit and pleasant to live with others require three times that amount of exercise.
As you would expect with their heavy coat and rugged appearance, Berners love the cold and snow. But both their size and heavy black coats make these dogs susceptible to heatstroke. Berners do best in a climate-controlled environment during hot weather, especially if not acclimated to warm temperatures. Activities during the hotter months should be confined to the coolest times of the day. Berners are not generally jumpers or climbers but do require a sturdy four or five-foot fence to keep them safely on your premises. Be advised that many breeders will not place a dog in a home that does not have suitable fencing. And, yes, some Berners do like to dig!
Berners are a highly versatile breed. Dogs and their human companions enjoy competing in conformation, obedience, agility, tracking, herding and carting. Berners also make wonderful therapy dogs bringing cheer to others. Individual dogs will be serviceable for these various activities depending on their aptitude, structure, character and temperament. Not every Berner will perform well in every event.
The Bernese Mountain Dog is a double-coated breed. Shedding is considerable. Berners cast off their coats seasonally with the exception of intact females that cast coat in conjunction with heat cycles. If hair in the home is a problem this breed is not for you. A Berner’s coat is relatively easy to maintain. A periodic bath and frequent brushing will maintain a neat appearance.
Basic training is a necessity for all dogs and especially large breeds such as the Bernese. It is recommended that youngsters attend a puppy kindergarten/socialization class between four and six months of age. This should be followed by a first-level obedience program before the dog reaches one. All training should utilize positive techniques. A well-mannered dog is a pleasure and the owner’s responsibility.
Sadly, every breed has its health issues and Berners are no different. The average life of a Berner is slightly more than seven years although some individuals are still going strong at ten and beyond. And while most Bernese breeders are working hard to improve the health and longevity of the breed, it is important for buyers to be aware of the potential problems, for they have both financial and emotional implications. Health issues impacting the breed include hip and elbow dysplasia, cancer, bloat, sub-aortic stenosis, autoimmune diseases, skin and coat problems, thyroid disorders, and eye disorders (progressive retinal atrophy, cataracts, ectropian, and entropion).
Males: Height at the withers is 24-28 in (61-71 cm) Weight is 85-110 lb (39-50 kg)
Females: Height at the withers is 23-27 in (58-69 cm) Weight is 80-105 lb (36-48 kg)
(Withers = the ridge between the shoulder bones)
It has been said that a Bernese Mountain Dog sheds once a year – it just happens to last 365 days. Because this is a double coated breed with long fur there will not a be a day that you don’t find their hair on the floor, gathered around, behind and under things, clinging to your clothing and face, and even in your food! The Bernese also “blow” their coats twice a year. With intact females this is in conjunction with the heat cycles while the rest will do so seasonally in the spring and fall. Blowing their coats is a truly amazing amount of hair to be brushed out on a daily or every other day basis. Being comfortable when it comes to dealing with this much loose fur on a year round basis is a big necessity!
The first time you see your dog or puppy blowing their coat it can be quite startling to notice the numerous tuffs of undercoat that are suddenly sticking out from their fur and falling on to your floor. You may also find at these times that you will end up covered in fur whenever you pet or hug them. Blowing their coat can take anywhere from a few weeks to more than a month and during this time you will want to brush them at least once every day or two. Brushing them frequently with a pin brush or undercoat rake will help to prevent the coat from getting matted. (This is a truly remarkable amount of fur so don’t be surprised that you are removing “bags of fur” at a time.) It can be helpful to start brushing your puppy before they need it so they get use to the process.
One way to tell if a BMD is the correct weight is to feel their ribs. At the proper weight the ribs should feel like the back of your knuckles when your hand is relaxed. To thin would be if the ribs feel like your knuckles when you make a fist and obese is if you can’t feel the ribs. Overweight would be the in between area of correct weight and obese. There are many good benefits to keeping our dogs the correct weight so you might want to feel the ribs on your dog every week. It is much easier to keep them at the correct weight then it is to get them to lose weight.
The average life expectancy for BMD’s is currently 7-9 years, however some dogs do live until 10 and beyond.
The Bernese Mountain Dog faces a variety of genetic and environmental issues that can directly affect how long they may live. The cancers are often aggressive, bloat is almost always fatal and there are numerous other diseases and health issues to be aware of when you are considering or living with the Bernese. It’s important to seek out breeders who are aware of the genetic health issues in the breed, and work to select breeding pairs with health in mind.