The Bernese Mountain Dog has a sweet, calm nature and a soft expression, along with distinctive markings on the coat and face. All of these factors contribute to their popularity as a devoted family companion. Add Berners’ solid work ethic and sturdy size, which helps tell the story of this breed’s noble history, from dependable working dogs to beloved pets.
The Origins of the Bernese Mountain Dog
Two thousand years ago, dogs resembling Mastiffs, along with large black-and-tan dogs with white markings, were enlisted by Roman soldiers crossing the Alps. To control the route from Italy to Spain, the Romans invaded what’s now Switzerland, relying on guardian dogs to help them. Using their enormous strength and intelligence, these dogs pulled carts loaded with supplies much heavier than their own weight, moved cattle that fed the troops, and acted as watchdogs. Eventually, crosses between the Mastiff type and the black-and-tan dogs produced what we know today as the Bernese Mountain Dog.
Named for the midland region of Switzerland near Bern, the Berner is one of four Sennenhund breeds. “Sennenhund” loosely means “dairy farmer’s dog,” used in many regions of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. With their unique tricolor coats, these breeds include the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, the Appenzeller Sennenhund, and Entlebucher. Part of the AKC’s Working Group, the Berner sports a similar appearance to the other Sennenhunde. But it is the only breed of the four Sennenhunde with a moderately long and silky coat, which can be either slightly wavy or straight.
Since the first record of these dogs, the city of Bern evolved into a vast agricultural area of dairy production. The people of Bern began to export dairy-based food products, like chocolate and cheese. Farmers and basket weavers in small valley farms and Alpine dairies depended on Berners to pull milk carts and wagons piled high with textiles. These dogs also helped herd small groups of cattle. Even though farmers depended on the breed, industrial farming soon replaced canine labor, and the number of Bernese Mountain Dogs began to decline, and the Saint Bernard eventually became known as the Swiss national breed.
Bernese Mountain Dogs Were Repopularized in the U.S.
In 1892, local dog fancier Franz Schertenleib searched for a good example of the breed. When he couldn’t find one, other Berner fans joined in the quest. The group formed a specialty club in 1907 for the purpose of re-establishing the Bernese Mountain Dog as a breed. Because of their efforts, the Berners regained status as a favored farm dog in their native country, and their popularity increased among Swiss dog owners.
It is believed that a Kansas farmer, Isaac Schliess, was the first to import Bernese Mountain Dogs to the United States in 1926 to try to gain AKC recognition for the breed. Another attempt was made in 1936 by Glen Shadow of Ruston, Louisiana, imported a pair of Berners called “Felix” and “Fridy.” The dogs soon proved themselves, saving Shadow’s life only a few years later when a 350-pound buck attacked and mauled Shadow. Felix and “Frances” (a daughter of Fridy) grabbed the deer off their owner and chased it away.
One year later, in 1937, the American Kennel Club recognized the breed. In 1968, the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America (BMDCA) was formed. The BMDCA established a drafting and carting program to maintain and test the breed’s historic working ability as a carting dog.
Using Their Skills in Drafting and Carting Sports
Berners still have outlets to do what they were bred for in the Swiss Alps. Julie Bacon, performance and draft Chair of the BMDCA, participates in a variety of dog sports with her three Berners, 12-year-old Grand Champion “Indie,” 7-year-old “Moxie,” and 6-year-old “Trip.” Indie was the first Berner to earn a Master Agility Champion (MACH) title in agility. All three love drafting and carting and have Grand Master Draft Dog titles.
In drafting and carting tests, the dogs are required to pull a load for a half-mile, similar to what they did historically in the past. They must complete the task within 12 to 15 minutes. “They love pulling a cart above all else, probably because it comes easiest to them,” says Bacon. Although cart weights vary in style and design, the average cart weighs about 20 pounds.
Until the dog’s growth plates close around when they’re 2 years old, it’s dangerous for Berners to pull a cart. Owners can introduce the harness around 6 months and use training wheels to move slowly, but there should be no weight inside the cart until the dog is two. Once they mature, these dogs tend to like carting. “I enjoy doing what my dogs were bred to do and we have so much fun participating in sports,” says Bacon. “This breed is incredibly biddable and up to trying new things.”
Although Berners aren’t known for their swimming ability, many will go fearlessly into the water without encouragement. Others dislike water unless they’re introduced to it at a young age. “I wanted to see what Indie would do around water, so I took her to the Newfoundland Water Test Trials,” Bacon says. “I was shocked when she pulled a boat in the water without any training.”
Bacon adds that the Berners are usually game to try something new, especially when treats are involved. “When introducing them to a new sport for the first time, they have such a great expression on their face. It’s like, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I’m up for the challenge,'” Bacon says.
Though Berners aren’t regarded as natural retrievers, Bacon’s dog Trip loves to show off his playful side and retrieve objects at home. “When we’re working on a home improvement project, he picks up tools and carries them around for us, whether we need him to or not.”
Berners as Loyal Family Dogs
“Over the last 30 years, the breed’s popularity has surged,” says Georgeann Reeve, president of the BMDCA. “Berners are so photogenic, and you see images of them all over the place now.”
After spending time with her brother’s Berners, Reeve got her own Bernese Mountain Dog in 1993. “My husband and I wanted a good family dog, and we were never disappointed,” Reeve recalls. “When we took our children to surf in the Outer Banks in North Carolina, our Berners would notice if the kids swam out too far, and the dogs would grab the boogie boards and bring them back.”
According to the AKC breed standard, females measure 23 to 26 inches tall, while males range from 25 to 27-1/2 inches when measured at the shoulder. Males of the breed weigh 80 to 115 pounds, and females ranging 70 to 95 pounds. These are large dogs who command respect, but Reeve says Berners are friendly in personality and attitude, in a way similar to a Leonberger.
Berners don’t require as much exercise as a Swiss Mountain Dog or a Saint Bernard would. They love to go on long walks in the mountains when it’s cold, also adapting to the family’s social activities. “They’ll run along the soccer field or are content with little bits of exercise on summer mornings,” Reeve says.
Bred for companionship and working ability, Bernese Mountain Dogs handle cold, rainy, and snowy weather well. Their weather-resistant coats require some grooming and shed less when regularly brushed and maintained.