One ancient breed, the Molosser, stands out as of the most versatile, well traveled, and influential in the development of a variety of Mastiff-type dogs, including Berners.
It's thought that the four Swiss Sennenhund breeds (Appenzeller Sennenhund, Entlebucher Sennenhund, Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, and Berner Sennenhund) developed as crosses between farm dogs from the Swiss Alps and the Molosser or Mastiff-type dogs that the Romans brought with them when they invaded the Alps in the first century B.C.
It's likely that the Berner has been working on Swiss farms for more than 2,000 years, quietly tucked away on small holdings in the Alps, where he's been pulling carts, accompanying livestock, standing watch, and providing his owners with loyal companionship.
It is known that by 1888, only 36 percent of the Swiss population worked in agriculture, and need dwindled for a strong dog who could herd cattle and pull a cart filled with goods. In 1899, however, the Swiss became interested in preserving their native breeds and founded a dog club called Berna. Members included breeders of a variety of purebred dogs.
In 1902, the Swiss dog club sponsored a show at Ostermundigen that drew attention to the Swiss mountain breeds. Two years later, the breeds took a big step forward through several events: At an international dog show held in Bern, the Swiss dog club sponsored a class for Swiss "shepherd dogs," which included the Mountain dogs. This was also the first year that these dogs were referred to as "Bernese." And in that same year, the Swiss Kennel Club recognized the Bernese Mountain Dog as a breed.
During World War I, dog shows and breeding took a backseat to war efforts. But after the war, the first Bernese Mountain Dogs were exported, first to Holland and then to the United States — although the breed was not yet recognized by the American Kennel Club.
In 1936, two British breeders began importing Berners, and the first litter of Berner pups was born in England. Also in 1936, the Glen Shadow kennel in Louisiana imported a female and a male Berner from Switzerland. By early 1937, the AKC sent Glen Shadow a letter saying that the Bernese Mountain Dog had been accepted as a new breed in the Working Class.
World War II again interrupted the progress of the breed outside its native land, but after 1945, importation and registration resumed in the United States.
In 1968, the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America was founded, with 62 members and 43 registered Berners. Three years later, there were more than 100 members in the club. Meanwhile, the breed, which had died out in England during World War II, was reintroduced in Great Britain.
The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America became a member club of the AKC in 1981. In 1990, the AKC adopted its current Bernese Mountain Dog standard.
Berners are not suited to apartment or condo life. A home with a large, securely fenced yard is the best choice. Because the Berner is a working dog, he has plenty of energy. In addition to yard play, he needs a minimum of 30 minutes of vigorous exercise every day; three times that amount keeps this sturdy dog in top condition.
With his thick, handsome coat, the Berner is a natural fit for cold climates. He loves to play in the snow. Conversely, with his black coat and large size, he's prone to heat stroke. Don't allow him to exercise strenuously when it's extremely hot; limit exercise to early mornings or evenings, when it's cooler. Keep him cool during the heat of the day, either inside with fans or air-conditioning or outside in the shade.
You'll need to take special care if you're raising a Berner puppy. Like many large-breed dogs, Berners grow rapidly between the ages of four and seven months, making them susceptible to bone disorders and injury. They do well on a high-quality, low-calorie diet that keeps them from growing too fast.
Additionally, don't let the Berner puppy run and play on hard surfaces (such as pavement), jump excessively, or pull heavy loads until he's at least two years old and his joints are fully formed. Normal play on grass is fine, and so are puppy agility classes, with their one-inch jumps.
The Berner is an excellent family pet, and he's usually gentle and affectionate with children who are kind and careful with animals. Being so large, he can inadvertently bump or knock over very young or small children.
As with every breed, you should always teach children how to approach and touch dogs, and always supervise any interactions between dogs and young children to prevent any biting or ear or tail pulling on the part of either party. Teach your child never to approach any dog while he's eating or sleeping or to try to take the dog's food away. No dog, no matter how friendly, should ever be left unsupervised with a child.
The Berner gets along with other pets well, though the greater the size difference, the more supervision and training required to keep everyone safe.
The Berner is an affectionate, intelligent, and alert dog. He's also gentle, calm, and tolerant. He likes to be with his family and thrives when he's included in family activities. His large size is one of his most notable features, and of course early training is essential to teach him how to behave properly in the house and with people. Slow to mature, he reaches his adult size long before he reaches mental maturity.
The Berner is protective of his family, though he isn't usually aggressive. He can be aloof with strangers and generally a bit shy, so exposing the Berner puppy to a wide variety of people, animals, and situations is important.
Temperament is affected by a number of factors, including heredity, training, and socialization. Puppies with nice temperaments are curious and playful, willing to approach people and be held by them. Choose the middle-of-the-road puppy, not the one who's beating up his littermates or the one who's hiding in the corner.
Always meet at least one of the parents — usually the mother is the one who's available — to ensure that they have nice temperaments that you're comfortable with. Meeting siblings or other relatives of the parents is also helpful for evaluating what a puppy will be like when he grows up.
Like every dog, the Berner needs early socialization — exposure to many different people, sights, sounds, and experiences — when they're young. Socialization helps ensure that your Berner puppy grows up to be a well-rounded dog.
Enrolling him in a puppy kindergarten class is a great start. Inviting visitors over regularly, and taking him to busy parks, stores that allow dogs, and on leisurely strolls to meet neighbors will also help him polish his social skills.
Berners are generally healthy, but like all breeds, they're prone to certain health conditions. Not all Berners will get any or all of these diseases, but it's important to be aware of them if you're considering this breed.
If you're buying a puppy, find a good breeder who will show you health clearances for both your puppy's parents. Health clearances prove that a dog has been tested for and cleared of a particular condition.
In Berners, you should expect to see health clearances from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for hip dysplasia (with a score of fair or better), elbow dysplasia, hypothyroidism, and von Willebrand's disease; from Auburn University for thrombopathia; and from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) certifying that eyes are normal. You can confirm health clearances by checking the OFA web site (offa.org).
Cancer: Various forms of cancer afflict a large number of Bernese Mountain Dogs and can cause early death. Symptoms include abnormal swelling of a sore or bump, sores that don't heal, bleeding from any body opening, and difficulty with breathing or elimination. Treatments for cancer include chemotherapy, surgery, and medications.
Hip Dysplasia: This is an inherited condition in which the thighbone doesn't fit snugly into the hip joint. Some dogs show pain and lameness on one or both rear legs, but others don't display outward signs of discomfort. (X-ray screening is the most certain way to diagnose the problem.) Either way, arthritis can develop as the dog ages. Dogs with hip dysplasia should not be bred — so if you're buying a puppy, ask the breeder for proof that the parents have been tested for hip dysplasia and are free of problems.
Elbow Dysplasia: Similar to hip dysplasia, this is also a degenerative disease common to large-breed dogs. It's believed to be caused by abnormal growth and development, which results in a malformed and weakened joint. The disease varies in severity: the dog could simply develop arthritis, or he could become lame. Treatment includes surgery, weight management, medical management, and anti-inflammatory medication.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA): This is a family of eye diseases that involves the gradual deterioration of the retina. Early in the disease, affected dogs become night-blind; they lose sight during the day as the disease progresses. Many affected dogs adapt well to their limited or lost vision, as long as their surroundings remain the same.
Portosystemic Shunt (PSS): This is a congenital abnormality in which blood vessels allow blood to bypass the liver. As a result, the blood is not cleansed by the liver as it should be. Symptoms, which usually appear before two years of age, can include but are not limited to neurobehavioral abnormalities, lack of appetite, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), intermittent gastrointestinal issues, urinary tract problems, drug intolerance, and stunted growth. Surgery is usually the best option.
Von Willebrand's Disease: Found in both dogs and humans, this is a blood disorder that affects the clotting process. An affected dog will have symptoms such as nosebleeds, bleeding gums, prolonged bleeding from surgery, prolonged bleeding during heat cycles or after whelping, and occasionally blood in the stool. This disorder is usually diagnosed between three and five years of age, and it can't be cured. However, it can be managed with treatments that include cauterizing or suturing injuries, transfusions before surgery, and avoidance of specific medications.
Panosteitis: Commonly called pano, this condition causes self-limiting lameness. At about five to 12 months of age, the dog may start to limp first on one leg, then on another — then the limping will stop. There are usually no long-term effects. Rest and restricted activity may be necessary for a while if the dog is in pain. The best thing that you can do for your Berner is to feed him a high-quality dog food that doesn't have too much calcium or too high a percentage of protein, which some believe may cause pano. Ask your vet for his recommendations.
Gastric Torsion: Also called bloat, this is a life-threatening condition that can affect large, deep-chested dogs such as Bernese Mountain Dogs. This is especially true if they are fed one large meal a day, eat rapidly, drink large volumes of water after eating, and exercise vigorously after eating. Bloat is more common among older dogs. It occurs when the stomach is distended with gas or air and then twists (torsion). The dog is unable to belch or vomit to rid himself of the excess air in the stomach, and the normal return of blood to the heart is impeded. Blood pressure drops and the dog goes into shock. Without immediate medical attention, the dog can die. Suspect bloat if your dog has a distended abdomen and is salivating excessively and retching without throwing up. He also may be restless, depressed, lethargic, and weak, with a rapid heart rate. It's important to get your dog to the vet as soon as possible if you see these signs.