It seems most every dog fanciers’ group gives its hero a nickname, and this dog’s is “Berner.” His full name is Berner Sennenhund, meaning “Bernese Alpine Herdsman’s Dog” in German and “Bernese Mountain Dog” in America.
This breed has seen a recent surge in popularity as a family dog in the U.S., but he’s not for everyone. Berner fanciers want to be sure people know what they’re taking on when they bring one home. His long, flowing coat sheds constantly, so with a Berner in the house the amount of time you spend with your vacuum cleaner may rise dramatically.
The Berner, as you might have guessed, hails from Bern, Switzerland and is one of several Swiss breeds that have long helped out around the farm by driving cows to and from mountain pastures; pulling milk carts to the dairy; and just generally guarding the property.
The dog began to be exhibited in Germany early in the 20th century. By 1907, a breed club was formed and had written a standard for judging. The Berner first arrived in the U.S. sometime around 1926. He was accepted for AKC registration in 1937.
In addition to their newly-acquired popularity in the U.S., Berners continue to be a favorite in German-speaking countries.
When you’re considering a Berner, the subject of size needs to be raised. This is a “puppy” that weighs 15 to 20 pounds at 8 weeks; 50 or so pounds shortly thereafter; and very possibly 100 pounds by one year. As much as the Berner loves children, a potential owner needs to consider that the family puppy could outweigh all the family children within a year. The Berner is patient with childhood behavior, but his sheer size could be frightening to the very young, and dogs in general don’t enjoy being screamed at. Children who are verbal and old enough to learn and understand how the dog behaves and what he needs will enjoy him more as a playmate.
The male Berner stands 24 to 28 inches at the withers, while the female measures 22 to 26 inches. Weight ranges when fully grown are 80 to 110 pounds for both males and females.
Ideal coloring, per the breed standard, is a tricolor mix of black, white and tan. Typically the dog is black with a white chest and rust-colored markings about his face, mouth and chest, and white about the chest.
Berners who are socialized early in life blossom into loving and giving family pets. They do well in large families where there are plenty of people to take on their exercise requirements; they need vigorous daily activity, which could be herding trials or just simple walks or runs with family members. The Berner definitely prefers a cooler climate and likes being outdoors, although he’s also comfortable being inside with the family. He likes having a large yard where he can romp, play and guard the perimeter of the property.
Basic obedience training will help your dog become a good canine citizen. He is not as quick to learn as some herding breeds and will require both patience and positive reinforcement. Give him the benefit of basic obedience training, so he can bond with you and be the good dog he wants to be.
The saddest fact of Berner ownership is that the dogs are not especially long-lived. A Berner’s average life expectancy is a mere seven to eight years. Like the devotees of many breeds, Berner fanciers have established a health database for the breed that should provide data for further study. One thing we do know is that, in general, larger-boned dogs generally do not live as long as small- or medium-sized breeds.
More specifically, Berners are more prone to cancers than many dogs. Malignant histiocytosis, mast cell tumor, lymphosarcoma, fibrosarcoma, histiocytic sarcoma, and osteosarcoma all have been known to shorten their lives. Surveys conducted in both the U.S./Canada and in the U.K. show that nearly half of Berners die of some form of cancer, compared to 27% for the entire dog population.
The familiar culprits arthritis, hip dysplasia, and cruciate ligament rupture have also factored into Berner mortality.
Don’t let these statistics discourage you if you have researched the breed and want to own one anyway. Many owners report that their dogs have lived between 10 and 13 years. And if you do decide to bring a Berner into your life, health insurance purchased early in the dog’s life is an investment that can be a difference-maker if you need to make difficult decisions down the road.
As we’ve mentioned, Berners shed year-round. A weekly brushing may lessen the time you have to spend on floor care. They can be bathed as little as three times yearly.
The Berner’s ears should be watched closely; they can trap bacteria, dirt and moisture, making the dog uncomfortable and heightening the risk of an ear infection. Ask your veterinarian about a cleanser that prevents infections if used regularly.
The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America (http://www.bmdca.org) includes a Rescue page on its web site. They can help with both rescue and rehoming, and they may be able to refer you to a club in your region.