A larger than life Teddy bear, the Bernese Mountain Dog is part bear, part cuddle bug. One moment he’s guarding you from danger, and the next he’s determined he can fit in your lap! But maybe that’s no surprise, given his jack-of-all-trades background. He began life as a draft dog, guardian, drover, and general farm dog, but these days he’s more likely to be a therapy dog, a kid’s playmate, or all-around family dog.
The Bernese Mountain Dog belongs to the family of Swiss mountain dogs, or Sennehunde (senne from the German word for alpine pasture, and hunde meaning dog). Other family members are the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, Entelbucher Mountain Dog, and Appenzell Mountain Dog. These dogs may have come from Roman mastiff-type dogs crossed with native cold resistant Swiss flock-guarding dogs after the Roman invasion of Switzerland. The Bernese is the only of the four breeds to have a long coat.
The Bernese Mountain dog was developed near Berne; this is why it’s a Bernese, not “Burmese” Mountain Dog, as some people assume.
The breed went by various names in its native land, including Gelbbackler (meaning yellow cheeks), Vierauger (meaning four wyes), Durrbachhunde, and Berner Sennenhund.
It functioned mostly as a watchdog for most families, but it could also pull a cart or drive a small herd of livestock for short distances when needed. It was not really a herding dog, though, and was more likely to guard the livestock than control them.
By the late 1800s, few Berners remained in their homeland. Only through a concerted breeding program was the breed revived.
The American Kennel Club recognized the Bernese Mountain Dog in 1937. It is in the AKC Working group. In parts of Europe the breed is included in the “cattle dog” group, however.
The Bernese Mountain Dog comes in only one color pattern: black and tan trimmed with white. The tan is an intense shade. For genetics buffs, this pattern is caused by the interaction of the gene that causes black and tan (such as what you see in Doberman Pinschers) and the genes that cause what’s known as Irish spotting, which refers to white on the lower legs, muzzle, parts of the neck, and tail tip.
Berners are talented cart pullers and can earn titles in drafting.
A Bernese Mountain Dog was in the film Good Boy!
A Bernese Mountain Dog is the subject of the book Bad Dog: A Love Story.
Owners include Robert Redford, Goldie Hawn, Robert De Niro, David Carradine, Julia Child, Nick Faldo, Charles Gibson, Mark Harmon, James Gandalfini, Robert Duncan, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, William DeVane, William Safire, and Francois Mitterand.
Like most giant dogs, Berners have a short life span: only seven years on average. The Swiss have a saying about the breed’s lifespan: “Three years a young dog, three years a good dog, three years an old dog … all else a gift from God.”
Berners are enjoying a surge in popularity, rising from number 51 in the AKC breed rankings a decade ago to number 33 today.
As you’d expect from a dog developed in Swiss mountains, Berners love the cold and go nuts in the snow.
Top Image by Richard Gillin
Do you own a Bernese Mountain Dog? Have you spent time with one? Let’s hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you’d like us to write about, let us know that, too!
About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.