The Bernese Mountain Dog, called in Swiss German the Berner Sennenhund, is a large breed of dog, one of the four breeds of Sennenhund-type dogs from the Swiss Alps. They accompanied the alpine herders and dairymen. Originally kept as general farm dogs, large Sennenhunds in the past were also used as draft animals, pulling carts.
The Bernese Mountain Dog is a large, sturdy worker who can stand over 27 inches at the shoulder. The thick, silky, and moderately long coat is tricolored: jet black, clear white, and rust. The distinctive markings on the coat and face are breed hallmarks and, combined with the intelligent gleam in the dark eyes, add to the Berner’s aura of majestic nobility. A hardy dog who thrives in cold weather, the Berner’s brain and brawn helped him multitask on the farms and pastures of Switzerland. Berners get along with the entire family and are particularly gentle with children, but they will often become more attached to one lucky human. Berners are imposing but not threatening, and they maintain an aloof dignity with strangers.
The Bernese Mountain Dog is one of four mountain-dog breeds who were long at home in the canton of Bern, a vast agricultural region vital to the dairy production required for two of Switzerland’s most profitable exports: chocolate and cheese. Even today, Bern’s website tells us, “Over 12,000 farms are spread over the canton’s valleys, hills, and mountain areas.” Berners earned their keep by droving cattle, guarding farmyards from predators, and serving as gentle companions when the hard work of the day was done. Perhaps their greatest claim to working-dog fame is their ability to pull many times their own weight as drafting dogs, with their broad and muscular hindquarters generating immense strength. Despite the breed’s great utility in the days before mechanized farming and ranching, by the late 1800s the Berner’s numbers were dwindling and the quality of the surviving dogs left something to be desired. A painstaking effort was begun by Swiss fanciers to reverse the breed’s decline. In 1907, a Swiss breed club was formed under the leadership of Professor Albert Heim, perhaps the most respected European dog man of his generation. Before long, Berners were once again a favored farm dog, and they also caught on as companions with Swiss householders. The breed’s American history began in 1926, when a Kansas farmer imported a pair as all-around farm dogs. They caught on quickly, and the AKC registered its first Berner in 1937. Today, the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America sponsors drafting and carting events that test the working ability of these majestic mountaineers.
The Bernese Mountain Dog is a striking. tri-colored, large dog. He is sturdy and balanced. He is intelligent, strong and agile enough to do the draft and droving work for which he was used in the mountainous regions of his origin. Male dogs appear masculine, while bitches are distinctly feminine.
The Bernese Mountain Dog should do well on a high-quality dog food, whether commercially manufactured or home-prepared with your veterinarian’s supervision and approval. Any diet should be appropriate to the dog’s age (puppy, adult, or senior). Some dogs are prone to getting overweight, so watch your dog’s calorie consumption and weight level. Treats can be an important aid in training, but giving too many can cause obesity. Learn about which human foods are safe for dogs, and which are not. Check with your vet if you have any concerns about your dog’s weight or diet. Clean, fresh water should be available at all times.
The Bernese Mountain Dog has a double coat, with a longer outer coat and a wooly undercoat. Berners shed a fair amount, even more so during shedding season, which occurs twice a year. Weekly brushing—daily during shedding season—will help to remove loose hair and keep the dog looking his best. Any tangles can be worked out with a slicker brush or metal comb. As with all breeds, the nails should be trimmed regularly, as overly long nails can cause the dog pain and structural problems.
Bernese Mountain Dogs need at least a half-hour of moderate exercise every day to stay healthy and happy. While they are definitely meant to live indoors with their human family, Berners enjoy outdoor activities and make great companions on long walks or hikes. Outdoorsy owners often take their canine companions camping and backpacking. Berners enjoy pulling young children in a cart, and some even participate in carting and drafting competitions. Other canine sports in which Berners participate and excel include agility, herding, obedience, rally, and tracking.
Early socialization and obedience training are important for all dogs, but especially so for breeds as large as the Bernese Mountain Dog. Berners are intelligent and eager to please, so they are usually easy to train. They are also affectionate and openhearted; their feelings are easily hurt, and so they don’t respond well to harsh corrections or training methods. A Berner wants to be with his family, and undesirable behaviors can result if he is regularly left alone for long periods of time.
Berners are generally healthy dogs, and responsible breeders will screen their breeding stock for health conditions such as hip and elbow dysplasia, blood disorders, some cancers, and progressive retinal atrophy. All large breeds are susceptible to bloat, a sudden, life-threatening stomach condition. Berner owners should learn what signs to look out for, and what to do should they occur. As with all breeds, a Berner’s ears should be checked regularly for signs of infection, and the teeth should be brushed often, using a toothpaste designed for dogs.