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The Bernese Mountain Dog originated as a farm dog, but these days he’s most often a beloved companion. He has many good qualities, but the number of potentially serious health problems that can affect the breed as well as his heartbreakingly short lifespan may give you pause.
He’s not a Bernice Mountain Dog or a Burmese Mountain Dog. He takes his name from the Swiss canton of Bern, where he was a valued farm dog who excelled at pulling carts, driving livestock to fields or market, and serving as watchdogs.
This good-looking Swiss farm dog takes his name from the canton of Bern, where he likely originated. Berners helped farmers by pulling carts, driving livestock to fields or market, and serving as watchdogs. These days, the Berner is primarily a family companion or show dog, beloved for his calm and patient temperament. If you want a Bernese Mountain Dog, be prepared to do your due diligence to find him and put in plenty of effort training and socializing him once you bring him home.
This is a large breed. A Bernese puppy certainly looks snuggly and manageable, but he will quickly reach his adult weight of 70 to 120 pounds, more or less (be prepared for more).
The Berner, as he’s nicknamed, has moderate exercise needs. In general, plan to give him a walk of at least a half hour daily, plus several shorter trips outdoors throughout the day. Bernese are individuals, so the amount of exercise they desire can vary.
To keep your Bernese Mountain Dog’s mind and body active and healthy, involve him in dog sports. Depending on the individual dog’s build and temperament, Bernese can excel in activities such as agility, drafting (pulling a cart or wagon), herding, obedience, rally, or tracking. Organized sports not your thing? Take your Bernese hiking. He can carry his own water and treats in a canine backpack. Bernese also make excellent therapy dogs, having a gentle, mellow temperament as well as being the perfect height for standing at a bedside and being petted.
Though you might think of him as an outdoor dog, nothing could be further from the truth. Bernese Mountain Dogs love their people, especially children, and will pine without human companionship. They should certainly have access to a securely fenced yard, but when the family is home, the Bernese should be with them.
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The Bernese Mountain Dog, or Berner Sennenhund in his native Switzerland, was used as an all-around farm dog by Alpine herdsmen in the canton of Bern. The dogs drove cattle to pasture, pulled milk carts to the dairy, and acted as watchdogs on the farm. Generally, Berners hauled milk in pairs, so it was common to see two of them hooked to a cart.
Berners are thought to have descended from mastiff-type dogs who came to Switzerland along with Roman armies some 2,000 years ago. There they interbred with local dogs and were developed to help with farm work. With industrialization, however, the dogs almost disappeared. The breed was revived in the early 20th century to become a companion dog, although many still carried out their traditional farm duties as well.
The American Kennel Club recognized the Bernese Mountain Dog in 1937. He currently ranks 39th in AKC registrations, up from 58th a decade ago.
At his best, the Berner is a calm and patient dog. As befits his background as a working dog, he is self-confident and alert. He’s a great watchdog but should never be aggressive.
When he has been appropriately socialized and trained, the adult Bernese Mountain Dog is easygoing and tolerant. He doesn’t reach maturity until he’s 3 or 4 years old, though, and the long puppyhood of a large breed such as this definitely has its trying moments. Puppies are highly active, mouthy, and rambunctious, so adopting an adult Bernese may be a better decision for a family with young children. Berner pups can chase, nip, or bite in play, and that can be frightening for or dangerous to a young child, even though the dog doesn’t mean any harm.
Bernese are likely to get along with other pets if they are brought up with them, but some members of the breed have a stronger prey drive than others. Small, furry pets should beware.
Like any dog, Bernese puppies are inveterate chewers and because of their size can do more damage than puppies of other breeds. They are prone to ingesting items such as socks and dish towels, resulting in veterinary visits or even surgery for intestinal blockages.
Because of their heritage as a working breed, Bernese Mountain Dogs tend to be cautious, and that caution can tip over into shyness. Early, frequent socialization is essential to prevent them from becoming overly suspicious or fearful of anything new or different. Berners can also be sensitive to loud noises or shrill cries, so socialization to different sounds is important too. Purchase a Bernese puppy only from a breeder who raises the pups in the home and ensures that they are exposed to many different household sights and sounds, as well as people, before they go off to their new homes. Continue socializing your Bernese by taking him to puppy kindergarten class, visits to friends and neighbors, and outings to shops and businesses.
The perfect Berner doesn’t come ready-made from the breeder. Any dog, no matter how nice, can develop obnoxious levels of barking, digging, counter surfing, and other undesirable behaviors if he is bored, untrained, or unsupervised.
Start training your puppy the day you bring him home. Even at eight weeks old, he is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. Don’t wait until he is 6 months old to begin training or you will have a more headstrong dog to deal with. If possible, get him into puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks old, and socialize, socialize, socialize. However, be aware that many puppy training classes require certain vaccines (like kennel cough) to be up to date, and many veterinarians recommend limited exposure to other dogs and public places until puppy vaccines (including rabies, distemper and parvovirus) have been completed. In lieu of formal training, you can begin training your puppy at home and socializing him among family and friends until puppy vaccines are completed.
Talk to the breeder, describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog, and ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see their puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know something about your lifestyle and personality.
All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines.
In Bernese Mountain Dogs, health problems include hip and elbow dysplasia, as well as other orthopedic problems. Eye diseases or defects that can affect the Berner are progressive retinal atrophy, cataracts, entropion, and ectropion. Berners can develop a bleeding disorder called von Willebrand disease. Unfortunately, malignant histiocytosis, an often fatal type of cancer, is common in Bernese. This breed may also experience neurological problems associated with the degeneration or malformation of the part of the brain called the cerebellum.
Not all of these conditions are detectable in a growing puppy, and it is impossible to predict whether an animal will be free of these maladies, which is why you must find a reputable breeder who is committed to breeding the healthiest animals possible. They should be able to produce independent certification that the parents of the dog (and grandparents, etc.) have been screened for common defects and deemed healthy for breeding. That’s where health registries come in.
The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America participates in the Canine Health Information Center, a health database. Before individual Berners can be issued a CHIC number, breeders must submit hip, elbow, and heart evaluations from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA); an OFA evaluation for von Willebrand’s disease from VetGen; eye test results from the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF), and an AKC DNA profile. PennHip and Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) certification of hips are also acceptable. OFA certification of thyroid health would be a plus.
Breeders must agree to have all test results, positive or negative, published in the CHIC database. A dog need not receive good or even passing scores on the evaluations to obtain a CHIC number, so CHIC registration alone is not proof of soundness or absence of disease, but all test results are posted on the CHIC website and can be accessed by anyone who wants to check the health of a puppy’s parents. If the breeder tells you she doesn't need to do those tests because she's never had problems in her lines and her dogs have been vet checked, then you should go find a breeder who is more rigorous about genetic testing.
Careful breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic disease and breed only the healthiest and best-looking specimens, but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and a puppy develops one of these diseases despite good breeding practices. Advances in veterinary medicine mean that in most cases the dogs can still live good lives. If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder about the ages of the dogs in her lines and what they died of.
Unfortunately, there is no genetic testing for the cancers that claim many of these dogs, often as young as 4 years of age. No line of Berner is exempt from this sadness, and any owner of a Bernese Mountain Dog is urged to take every sign of illness or lameness, and every lump and bump seriously. Early veterinary intervention can extend a high-quality life.
Bernese Mountain Dog breeders are making strong efforts to improve their breed’s health, including setting up the Berner-Garde Foundation to collect and share information about genetic diseases that affect the breed. The information is available online at no charge and can be used by breeders, puppy buyers, owners, and veterinarians. The Berner-Garde Foundation also supports research that will help reduce the breed’s health problems.
Not every Berner visit to the veterinarian is for a genetic problem. Berners are notorious for eating socks, dish towels, and other items that can cause intestinal blockages. Some have undergone surgery more than once to remove objects.
Berners are one of the breeds prone to bloat and gastric torsion, also known as gastric dilatation volvulus. A bloat occurs when the stomach expands with air. It becomes the more serious condition, gastric torsion when the stomach twists on itself, cutting off blood flow. Gastric torsion strikes suddenly, and a dog who was fine one minute can be dead a few hours later. Watch for symptoms like restlessness and pacing, drooling, pale gums and lip licking, trying to throw up but without bringing anything up, and signs of pain. Gastric torsion requires immediate veterinary surgery, and most dogs who have bloated once will bloat again. That means it’s wise to opt for the procedure known as stomach tacking, which will keep the stomach from twisting in the future. This procedure can also be done as a preventive measure.
Berners don’t do well in hot, humid weather. Any time they are outside, they need access to plenty of shade and fresh, cool water.
Remember that after you’ve taken a new puppy into your home, you have the power to protect him from one of the most common health problems: obesity. Keeping a Berner at an appropriate weight is one of the easiest ways to extend his life. Make the most of diet and exercise to help ensure a healthier dog for life.
Bernese Mountain Dogs have a thick, moderately long double coat that can be straight or slightly wavy. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this coat sheds heavily, but frequent brushing will help to keep loose hair under control. The best tools for grooming a Berner’s coat are a stainless steel pin brush, a slicker brush, and a stainless steel comb with fine and coarse teeth.
Bathe the Bernese when he’s dirty to keep his tricolor coat gleaming. With regular brushing, the coat sheds dirt easily, so a bath isn’t needed too frequently. Usually, four or five times a year is plenty.
The rest is basic care. Keep the ears dry so the dog doesn’t get infections, and trim the nails as needed, usually every week or two. Brush the teeth for good overall health and fresh breath.
Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.
Finding a good breeder is the key to finding the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy, and will without question have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as is possible. He or she is more interested in placing pups in the right homes than making big bucks.
Good breeders will welcome your questions about temperament, health clearances, and what the dogs are like to live with and come right back at you with questions of their own about what you’re looking for in a dog and what kind of life you can provide for him. A good breeder can tell you about the history of the breed, explain why one puppy is considered pet quality while another is not, and discuss what health problems affect the breed and the steps she takes take to avoid those problems. A breeder should want to be a resource for you throughout your dog’s life.
Look for more information about the Berner and start your search for a good breeder on the website of the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America. Choose a breeder who has agreed to abide by the BMDCA’s code of conduct, which prohibits the sale of puppies to or through pet stores and calls for the breeder to obtain recommended health clearances on dogs before breeding them.
Avoid breeders who only seem interested in how quickly they can unload a puppy on you and whether your credit card will go through. Breeders who offer puppies at one price “with papers” and at a lower price “without papers” are unethical and should be reported to the American Kennel Club. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from websites that offer to ship your dog to you immediately can be a risky venture, as it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected. Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.
Many reputable breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags include puppies always being available, multiple litters on the premises, having your choice of any puppy, and the ability to pay online with a credit card. Those things are convenient, but they are almost never associated with reputable breeders.
Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies.
The cost of a Berner puppy varies depending on the breeder’s locale, whether the pup is male or female, what titles his parents have, and whether he is best suited for the show ring or a pet home. The puppy you buy should have been raised in a clean home environment, from parents with health clearances and conformation (show) and, ideally, working or versatility titles to prove that they are good specimens of the breed. Puppies should be temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life.
Before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult Berner might better suit your needs and lifestyle. A puppy is loads of fun, but will require a lot of time and effort before he grows up to become the dog of your dreams. An adult may already have some training and will probably be less active, destructive, and demanding than a puppy. With an adult, you know more about what you’re getting in terms of personality and health and you can find adults through breeders or shelters. If you are interested in acquiring an older dog through breeders, ask them about purchasing a retired show dog or if they know of an adult dog who needs a new home. If you want to adopt a dog, read the advice below on how to do that.
There are many great options available if you want to adopt a dog from an animal shelter or breed rescue organization. Here is how to get started.
1. Use the Web
Sites like Petfinder.com and Adopt-a-Pet.com can have you searching for a Bernese in your area in no time flat. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the Bernese available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter.org can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.
Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.
2. Reach Out to Local Experts
Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for a Berner. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.
3. Talk to Breed Rescue
Networking can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. Most people who love Bernese Mountain Dogs love all Bernese Mountain Dogs. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The BMDCA’s rescue network can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other Bernese rescues in your area.
The great thing about breed rescue groups is that they tend to be very upfront about any health conditions the dogs may have and are a valuable resource for advice. They also often offer fostering opportunities so, with training, you could bring a Bernese home with you to see what the experience is like.
4. Key Questions to Ask
You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a pup. These include:
What is his energy level?
How is he around other animals?
How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors and children?
What is his personality like?
What is his age?
Is he housetrained?
Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?
Are there any known health issues?
Wherever you acquire your Bernese, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter, or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. Petfinder offers an Adopters Bill of Rights that helps you understand what you can consider normal and appropriate when you get a dog from a shelter. In states with puppy lemon laws, be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Puppy or adult, take your Bernese to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
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