About Bernese Mt Dogs
by Clark Powell
Sometimes people ask me, quite rightly, why we at Filucy Bay don't just adopt a rescue dog instead of insisting on a pure bred Berner? We do share their concern for the disgraceful number of unclaimed dogs in the world. And I must point out that in the past, we have rescued 3 and 4 dogs at a time. However, I can easily explain why we must live with Berners now. To us, a Bernese Mt Dog is the most desirable and unique personality of the canine world. We have had rescues but we now feel that the dogs to which we are historically and spiritually attached are Bernese Mountain Dogs.
What makes the Bernese Mt Dog unique and so desirable? The breed is the result of a thousand years of selective breeding with the objective of producing the perfect Swiss farm dog. Swiss high altitude dairy farming and the Swiss farming family are central to the evolution of the Bernese Mountain Dog.
Now days one might think of the Swiss as affluent, well educated people who speak three or four languages and live in a country where everything is expensive but they can afford it. The Switzerland we see to today is the post industrial revolution Switzerland, a country that was blessed with an abundance of water power and a willingness to invest in the future second to none. These characteristics took Switzerland from an agrarian society to the well balanced industrial society that we see today.
The old Switzerland was an agrarian society that was short on land. They used what land they had. Where in America, we would would have a ski area, they created pastures for dairy cows. Unfortunately being an agrarian society, as their farms thrived and grew, so did their population and so they were always at risk of famine.
That difficult environment produced the Bernese Mountain Dog. Living perpetually on the edge of famine, a farm family must have a dog that integrates well with the farm and the family, a trustworthy dog that does not cause problems with the farm, the animals or the people. Living for centuries on the edge of starvation, the Swiss farmer bred his dog to work around the farm, to protect the farm and the family, and most importantly of all, to NOT to be a problem. The result was the strikingly wonderful companion for humans that the Bernese Mt Dog is today.
I think the farm and family compatibility of the Bernese Mt Dog is best expressed by a paragraph from a book about Bernese Mountain Dogs by Marlies Bugmann, The Dürrbächler Story, Between Success and Failure.
Fridolin loves to lick Astra's fur but, Astra has not decided if she likes this or not.
"According to the concept of a farmer, a dog is good if: he is vigilant and fierce without biting, always at heel when walking with the master, walks between the wheels of the cart and not through the crops, if necessary defends the master, guards the goods left with him in the fields, does not stray, hunt and kill, does not harass cats and chickens and does not roam about. They love to join children and be their most faithful playmate. They are attentive, they observe everything, deliver evidence of highest intelligence and reasoning, are lively and agile, very devoted, loving and faithful, without cunning; they are also courageous and fearless but no ruffians. All of these traits are far-reaching qualities attained through age-old selective breeding." (Letter from Vererinary Surgeon Dr. Adolf Scheidegger to Professor Alfred Heim, 1914)
The plucky geese can chase a Berner around the farm without fear of retaliation.
A quality farm dog will not bother the farm animals but will watch and protect them. The prey instinct is minimal in a well bred Berner and with proper training they can be taught to not stalk and attack any farm animal, chicken, goat, cat, rabbit, etc. I have encountered Berners who would chase all of the aforementioned animals plus squirrels, ducks, and other small rodents but the difference is that these Berners were never told to not to chase these animals or perhaps they were even encouraged to do so. Most canine breeds are oriented towards pleasing their their humans but, Berners are more receptive to human wishes that go counter to typical canine tendencies.
Berners need their masters to tell them what animals are a threat to the farm and which belong on the farm. I'm probably one of the worst dog trainers that I know but when I was walking with my six month old Fridolin, one easiest things to teach him was not to chase squirrels. Of course the first time he saw one, he was quite interested. But, all I had to do was give him a firm NO and remarkably from then on he didn't care about squirrels. I've been able to produce the same response in him with deer, chickens, goats, and cats. I strongly recommend all owners to do the same because having a prey instinct can kill a dog. When they are focused on prey, they are most vulnerable to threats like cars and trucks or even cliffs.
On Margaret's farm the deer are a problem because they like to eat the garden. Her Berners don't chase the goats, the chickens, or the geese but they do chase the deer out of the garden. She tells them to chase the deer from the fields and they dutifully follow her wishes. For her, they also occasionally roust coyotes and raccoons but mostly these pests stay away because of the robust size and bark of Berners.
The robust Berner bark and their size terrify humans who might be in a place that they are not supposed to be. They make wonderful watch dogs because they seem to be like ferocious wolves but in reality they tend to be very timid about physical contact with humans they don't know. A Berner is like the popular, "Beware of Dog" sign where there is no dog. Just the threat keeps burglars away without any significant physical threat to humans. As Dr Scheidegger wrote in his letter to Dr Helm, "They are courageous and fearless but (they are) no ruffians."
Another good farm dog trait is living off the land. This is typically not something we need in the 21st Century but the ability still exists in some Berners that are actual Swiss farm dogs. While looking at a litter in the Swiss Alps I noticed that the mother of the litter had mud on her muzzle as did three other pups. I ask the farmer, why the mud? She replied that the mother was teaching the pups to sniff out mice, dig them up, and eat them. This Berner was twice the good farm dog; she not only eliminated the mice but she also fed herself. (These excellent farm dogs were also fed normal meals by the farmer with some reduction in calories to compensate for their wild food.) Good farms dogs will, if necessary, feed themselves with whatever is available. When food is scarce a self feeding dog is a very good dog indeed!
Berners also tend not to steal food from humans. I have difficulty remembering when if ever, my Berner, Fridolin, has stolen food from me, even food he knows is destine for him; it is untouchable until I tell him it's OK to eat it.
When I start preparing his food, I usually don't hesitate to feed him since once he knows that there is food coming, he drools like any dog would when food is coming. But, when food is not involved Berners do not drool. As the well liked and respected guru of Berner veterinary medicine, the late Dr Cindy Geisler, once told me, "Berners are dry mouth dogs. If they are drooling all the time then they most likely have a nervous problem or an oral problem." The dry mouth of Berners is yet another thing I like about Berners.!
Another Berner breed trait that was useful to Swiss high altitude dairy farming was their affinity towards drafting, (pulling a cart.) In the high altitude, Alpine dairy farm, grazing fodder was scarce and was saved for the the basis of the farm's existence, dairy cows. There was no extra fodder for grass eating draft animals. Bernese Mountain Dogs ate little or no grass, and were bred to have a natural ability for drafting. Now days, the Swiss have tractors so Berners are not required to pull wagons for work but drafting has become a sport for Berners and their humans. Twice a year in the Northwest, Berners and their masters congregate for a drafting competition in which human and Berner teams compete for best control and ability in drafting.
Fridolin and I at the Home, WA Fourth of July parade. We were advertising Margaret's flower business, Dog House Flowers. The Berners like drafting as you can see from Fridolin's happy face.
All Berners (and all dogs) are individuals so I can't guarantee that all are going to be as I've described in every respect. In my experience Berners have a common set of characteristics that make them more compatible with humans and their environment than most other breeds. These good characteristics are the result of a thousand years of selective breeding but all this good breeding can be lost by a careless breeder. Protect yourself by seeking a well bred puppy from a conscientious breeder who has been recommended by your local (BMDCGS) or national (BMDCA) Bernese Mt. Dog club. Verify on Berner Garde and Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) that the breeder does health checks on the dogs they breed. Be advised that a pedigree is not a guarantee of health or quality; it is only a guarantee of ancestry regardless of their health and personality. If possible, meet and evaluate the sire and dam of any puppy that you might adopt.
For an example of a contrasting breeding objective, consider hunting breeds and their origin compared to Bernese Mountain Dogs and their origin. For much of history, these hunting breeds were a luxury owned by people who could afford luxury, the aristocracy. Wild game belonged to the fiefdom so there was no one but a noble who would have need for such a dog. The nobles did not care how the dog acted as long as the dog hunted well. In other words, good manners were not as important as locating game and other hunting skills. If a dog hunted well it was bred with other dogs that hunted well and if a dog didn't hunt well it was not bred. Behaviors that were not useful for the family were not considered in breeding these dogs because they worked only in the field. And so the breed progressed to help man as a hunter but, not as a family dog.
A well bred and trained hunting dog is a joy to behold in its work. Their work being finding game, remaining quiet while the hunter dispatches the game and retrieving game for the hunter. But, I would prefer not to have a hunting dog on a farm nor would I want to try to train a Berner to hunt. They are dogs developed for different purposes. One could have a hunting dog in the suburbs or a Berner. Now days the hunting breeds probably outnumber the Berners in suburbia, 10 to 1. In spite of their popularity I think the Berner is a much better suburban family dog than a hunting breed (with the caveat that if you like to hunt with a dog then a hunting breed exists just for you.) This is why for our family, the Bernese Mt Dog is the best dog. We like all dogs but it is only the Bernese Mt Dog with which my family has a historic and spiritual connection.
On walks, Fridolin's favorite pastime is meeting other dogs, big or small. People are properly amazed at his congenial nature.