The Bernese Mountain Dog

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The Bernese Mountain Dog
The hearty Swiss working dog with a heart of gold

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He’s got it all: brains, beauty, and a great big personality. Known in his native Switzerland as the Berner Sennenhund, the dog we refer to as the Bernese Mountain Dog is one of four mountain dogs native to the Swiss region. It’s hard to imagine a greater international export.

How was this striking dog developed? As with so many of today’s biggest breeds, we look back to the days of the Roman Empire for answers on early origins. Then, soldiers brought giant Mastiff-type dogs along with them on their journey to conquer regions. One of those regions was today’s Switzerland. Areas such as the Canton (settlement) of Bern were under Roman rule for several hundred years, from roughly 58BC forward, a reign that allowed the herding and working dogs of the regions to interbreed with the Romans’ giant dogs. Over time, four distinct hard-working mountain dogs of Switzerland developed, one of which is what we know today as the Bernese Mountain Dog.

A strong and agile working breed used for drafting (pulling carts), driving cattle, and serving as a watchdog on farms, the useful Bernese thrived. But heading into the 1900s, the breed’s popularity declined so severely with the advent of technology—many working dogs were replaced by various vehicles and machinery—that the Bernese might have vanished entirely, were it not for a number of Swiss dog fanciers who intervened. Led by Franz Schertenleib, efforts began in the late 1800s to revive the breed and create an ideal standard for type and temperament.

By the early 1900s, those efforts had paid off, and in 1907, the Swiss Kennel Club recognized the Bernese Mountain Dog as a breed. Shortly after World War I, the first Bernese Mountain Dogs were exported to the United States and the AKC officially recognized the Bernese in 1937. The breed first made its appearance at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 1943—though the Bernese has yet to win the coveted Best in Show title. No matter, the Bernese is widely beloved as a family companion, currently ranking as the 29th most popular purebred in the United States. One can see why: the Bernese is an eye-catching dog—sturdy, large in stature, and possessing a stunning combination of a long, silky black coat with rust and white markings, along with perhaps the dog world’s most soul-piercingly sweet eyes. It’s hard to imagine anything cuter than a Berner puppy. As adults, Bernese can stop traffic with their good looks. When you consider the breed’s personality, it’s easy to understand why the Bernese has flourished and become so popular—he’s beautiful inside and out. His temperament is a dream. He’s alert and intelligent, but calm by nature. He’s not aggressive, he’s not overly shy… he’s just good-natured and relaxed. With his easygoing disposition, it’s no wonder that the Bernese is known for being notoriously good with children as well as other animals.

He’s a sensitive soul, though. Yes, he works hard but at his core he is (and always has been) a devoted companion animal. He’s a family pet and longs to be with his people. Yes, that thick fur coat means he can tolerate inclement weather, but he’s not an outside dog; he wants to be where his people are. An isolated or ignored Bernese Mountain Dog will not thrive, and may become destructive out of frustration.

Basic obedience training to raise a well-mannered dog should be a priority for every dog, but when it comes to large breeds, it’s particularly important. Start with puppy obedience classes and expect to dedicate basic training time every day. Sensitive souls like the Bernese will respond to consistent, positive training methods. Let your training and guidance be firm but kind, and he’ll thrive and impress you with his capabilities.

Speaking of capabilities, what can’t the Bernese do? He’s easily one of the most versatile breeds out there. Drafting and herding work come naturally to him, but that’s just the beginning. He’s hard-wired to work and please, and could excel at conformation, obedience, agility, tracking, therapy work… you name it, the Berner can do it.

Health-wise, like all purebreds, the Bernese is susceptible to some genetic disorders, and as a large breed he also has some challenges owing to his stature. What else might you want to know about this breed? Well, let’s start with the drooling. In fact, the Bernese is not meant to be a dog that drools a lot; however, some do. So, the drool is a maybe. The hair? Indisputable. If you want your house absolutely spic and span, and cleaning up on a daily basis isn’t for you, I’d say this breed isn’t a great fit. His double-coat is glorious, but it sheds. With occasional bathing and regular brushing, he’ll look great, but he’ll shed. Fanciers would tell you that sweeping and vacuuming up a bit of fur every day is a small price to pay when the trade-off is the luxury of sharing their homes and hearts with these gentle souls.

The Bernese Mountain Dog may or may not be the right dog for you or your lifestyle, but either way, you’ve got to admit, the Berner is nothing short of a head-turner.

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