About the Breed
There are many wonderful places where you can learn about the Bernese Mountain Dog.
The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, www.BMDCA.org is a terrific place to start. The regional Bernese clubs, such as the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of Nashoba Valley, www.BMDCNV.org provide a wealth of information. The books listed below have also been a great resource for me. So read all about them and, if possible, get to know some in person before you decide to get one. And please bear in mind :
A Berner is for you ONLY if you love having a dog at your feet, or in your lap, or on your bed, or at your heels – all the time. Bernese adore their people, they are only truly happy when they are with their people. If you see a dog as simply an adjunct to your life, a nice creature to pet once in awhile who will amuse itself when you are busy and you are busy most of the time, a Berner is NOT for you. In fact, you should probably get a cat. Berners want to be a real member of your family, and that’s what they deserve to be. They need to live in your home, they need your companionship in a big way, they need to be included in your activities wherever possible.
A Berner is for you ONLY if you have the desire and means to socialize that Berner. Bernese were used to guard and protect their Swiss farms, and that instinct is still very strong in the breed. Consequently, they need to be taught early on to accept all types of people and all sorts of situations. They should be exposed to lots – and I mean lots - of different places and people throughout their lives, especially in their first year. A Berner who never sees anybody or never goes anywhere cannot be expected to behave well when they have to visit the vet, or when the UPS man shows up at the door. An unsocialized Berner can become shy, or even aggressive, so you must take steps to prevent that. Taking your Berner places will be lots of fun, though, and you will meet a ton of people who cannot resist petting these beautiful companions. Of course, you will have to be prepared at all times to talk about the breed in general, and your Berner in particular, because Berners grab plenty of attention wherever they go, as well they should. And don’t worry, if you should ever need your Berner to guard you, they still will, no matter how well socialized they are. They can sense when something’s wrong, and they will rise to that occasion. Years ago, I was walking my Nora, a sweet sensitive mush if there ever was one, in Prospect Park in Brooklyn around dusk. A sleazy-looking man suddenly jumped out from behind a bush and started toward us. In a heartbeat, Nora was in front of me, teeth bared, snarling and growling. I didn’t even recognize my lovey-dovey dog in that moment, but the man got her message loud and clear – he promptly ran away. Nora and I left the park and on the way home encountered a nice woman who smiled at us. In a flash, Nora was sitting on her foot, begging to be petted. Berners are very, very smart about people, and just about everything else.
A Berner is for you ONLY if you are willing to devote time and effort to training that Berner. As I just said, Berners are very, very smart. They can learn almost anything, which means that without the right guidance they can learn to take food off your counters and snack on your new pair of designer shoes. If they don’t learn good habits, they will learn bad ones, and it’s up to you to show them the difference. But, because they are smart, and sweet, and sensitive, you have to make training worth their while. Positive training with food and lots and lots of praise works, harshness and stern corrections do not. If you are sharp with a Berner your Berner will simply be upset and confused. If you try to force a Berner into anything, they are likely to dig in their heels and refuse to cooperate at all. But, if you make the training fun, they will see it as their special time with you, and they will do almost anything for you. They love training with you because it is deep in their genes to work one on one with their people. Which means your Berner should definitely have a job. Okay, so you don’t have a herd of cows in your back yard that they can drive up to the meadow and back. But look at the club websites above and you’ll see a myriad of activities to enjoy with your Bernese. Conformation, obedience, rally, drafting, tracking, agility, pet therapy, free style dance (yes, you can even dance with your Berner) are fun for you and nirvana for your Bernese. You can even compete in any of the above. You will prize the ribbons you win. But most of all you will prize the precious time with your dog which you will never forget.
A Berner is for you ONLY if you can accept and deal with any health problems you may encounter. Good breeders all over the country are doing their very best to eliminate those health problems, but troubles can arise with even a well-bred Berner. An OFA certified sire and dam can still produce a pup with hip or elbow dysplasia, since these are polygenic conditions (determined by a combination of lots of genes instead of just one) and tough to eliminate from the line. Other serious health problems are specified on the club websites above. Please read about them, and realize they could happen to your beloved dog.
In my experience, the main trouble with the breed seems to center in their immune systems, which tend to be over-reactive instead of the other way around. This means they are prone to auto-immune problems, and cancer of all kinds. Malignant histiocytosis, the cancer which takes far too many Berners well before their time, is actually immune system related. But there are things we can do to try to prevent these tragic diseases. It is critical that you do not over-immunize your dog. Yearly injections for distemper and parvo are not only NOT necessary, they can lead to terrible consequences. Berners should receive their puppy shots, but after that they should have yearly titers taken (a simple blood test), which will tell you if your Berner’s immunity to disease is still good. Odds are it will be. My Hope only needed 1 booster for parvo in the entire 10 and ½ years of her life. In my opinion, the Lyme shot is a huge culprit in auto-immune disease, and should NEVER be given. My Hannah battled auto-immune polyarthritis for 3 years after a Lyme shot. That’s the last one I ever gave. I also avoid ALL chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides. Odds are that beautiful Chem Lawn you have will ultimately kill your Berner – and that’s not just my opinion. Cornell University did a study which proved that lawn herbicides and pesticides are the #1 cause of cancer in dogs. So if you want your lawn to look like a magazine, and are willing to do anything to make it that way, please do NOT get a Berner. I’ve actually become very fond of all the weeds in my yard. They’re still green, and they’re safe for my dogs.
A Berner is for you ONLY if one day, you can say goodbye. It is excruciatingly difficult, downright heartbreaking in fact, but odds are it will have to be done. The breed is not long-lived. I and many other breeders are continually striving to change that, but only time will tell if we have succeeded. You must understand the risk of losing a beloved Bernese before you open your heart to one. There’s a reason everyone stands and cheers and weeps when those 11-13 year old veterans come into the ring. They are the exception, not the rule. I would say, barring tragic early cancer, the average life span of a male is 7-9 1/2 years, and of a female 9-11 years. Which is too too short. I have lost my share of wonderful dogs over the years, and it has been terrible every time. But the joy and comfort and love I have received from my Bernese has vastly outweighed the pain I feel when they leave me. In time, the pain eases, and I am left with many, many happy memories which I will always treasure.
The Bernese Mountain Dog: A Dog of Destiny, Bernd Gunter, 2004
The New Bernese Mountain Dog, Sharon Chesnutt Smith, 1995
The Beautiful Bernese Mountain Dogs, A Complete American Handbook, Russ and Rogers, 1994
The Complete Bernese Mountain Dog, Jude Simonds, 1990
The Bernese Mountain Dog, Diane Cochrane, 1989
Bernese Mountain Dog, Lilian Ostermiller
All of these, and a few more recent books that I have not yet read, can be found at www.Amazon.com