The Bernese Mountain Dog, affectionately called the Berner (and known as the Berner Sennenhund in his Swiss homeland), is instantly recognizable with his flashy, tricolor coat and white "Swiss cross" on his chest. Underneath that beautiful coat is a sturdy dog well suited for heavy work: These beautiful, gentle dogs have been traditionally used in Switzerland as herders and draft dogs.
The Berner was originally a vital part of farm life, serving to drive cattle, protect his family, and pull carts loaded with goods to sell at nearby villages. Although he's a good-mannered, hard worker, he nearly became extinct in the early 20th century, when other means of transportation became accessible to farmers. Fortunately, a handful of fanciers sought to preserve the breed.
In addition to being strikingly good-looking, the Berner has a wonderful temperament. He is known for being loyal, affectionate, eager to please, and intelligent. He's easy to train, if you allow him time to analyze what you want him to do. Most of all, he has a happy-go-lucky attitude about life.
The Berner is calm but gregarious, and sometimes even a little goofy when he plays with his family. He does well with children of all ages and with adults, but he isn't a good choice for people who live in apartments or don't have a large, fenced yard for him to play in. The Berner needs to live with his family, rather than be relegated to an outdoor kennel. He's happiest when he can participate in all family activities.
Since he was bred to be a working dog, the Berner likes to learn and can be easily trained. Since he is very large — about 100 pounds — when mature, early obedience training and socialization are recommended. Prospective owners should know that the Berner is slow to mature, both physically and mentally; he may remain puppyish for some time. Additionally, the Berner is known to have a "soft" personality; his feelings are easily hurt and he doesn't respond well to harsh corrections.
Despite his beauty and excellent temperament — or perhaps because of these qualities — Berners are struggling to survive today. The breed has a small gene pool, which has resulted in numerous health problems related to inbreeding.
- Berners have numerous health problems due to their small genetic foundation, and perhaps due to other reasons yet undiscovered. Currently, the life span of a Bernese Mountain Dog is comparatively short, about six to eight years.
- Because of the Berner's popularity, some people have bred dogs of lesser quality in order to sell the puppies to unsuspecting buyers. Be especially careful about importing dogs from foreign countries that have few laws governing kennel conditions. Often these dogs are bought at auction and little is known about their health history.
- Veterinary care can be costly because of the health problems in the breed.
- Berners shed profusely, especially in the spring and fall. If shedding drives you crazy, this may not be the right breed for you.
- The Berner likes to be with his family. He's likely to develop annoying behavior problems, such as barking, digging, or chewing, if he's isolated from people and their activities.
- When Berners are mature, they are large dogs who like to have a job to do. For those reasons, it's wise — and fun — to begin obedience training early.
- Although they're very gentle with children, Berners sometimes accidentally knock over a small child or toddler.
- To get a healthy dog, never buy a puppy from an irresponsible breeder, puppy mill, or pet store. Look for a reputable breeder who tests her breeding dogs to make sure they're free of genetic diseases that they might pass onto the puppies, and that they have sound temperaments.
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.
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.