Seeking advice about Bernese Mountain Dogs
December 11, 2003 3:32 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are thinking about getting a dog. We're specifically looking at Bernese Mountain Dogs and we're just starting to talk with breeders. We've heard that they're often inbred and can be aggressive--which is trouble with such a big dog. But everything we've read says they're gentle. Does anyone have experience with Berners?
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (21 answers total)
The only ones I've known (all 2 of them) have been really timid. Like too timid. One was afraid of people.
posted by mathowie at 4:21 PM on December 11, 2003

I've known a couple, and my experience is similar to Matt's. Bernese need socialization as puppies to ensure that despite their size they're not afraid of other dogs. They do seem to be pretty patient with little kids, too, if that's an issue for you.
posted by JollyWanker at 4:34 PM on December 11, 2003

We were looking at getting one as well, but couldn't afford one. They go for about $1200 (cdn) around here. And the breeders in our area are very selective about who they will sell to.

A friend of my SO's has two Berners that were great. Not aggressive, definitely not timid, and loved to play. I would still consider getting one if we had a bigger house....
posted by kelrae3 at 4:37 PM on December 11, 2003

Any dog you get from a breeder is likely to be inbred, and other than the mental aspects, they'll run into a whole lot of physical problems as well. You may want to check here and see if you can't find a Bernese MD Club in your area. They can lead you to rescue operations and give you a plethora of advice. Failing that, I wouldn't close your mind to just going to a local shelter to see what's around. Shelters usually have a lot more trouble adopting larger dogs, and they'll let you play with them and get to know them before you commit, which is a big bonus. Plus, they're a whole lot cheaper than from a breeder (our local shelter will adopt a dog over 45 pounds for about $80, which includes altering and all shots up to date).

The only reason to fix yourself on a purebred is if you are planning on breeding. Otherwise, you're likely a lot safer and happier with an animal you've rescued.
posted by Ufez Jones at 5:03 PM on December 11, 2003

This page has a .pdf (in the right column, towards the bottom) with BMD rescue information.
posted by Ufez Jones at 5:07 PM on December 11, 2003

I used to be in love with Bernese and want to get one, until I learned that they have a very short lifespan. Something around six years was what I heard from a club in Colorado. This FAQ states the median life span is 6-7 years, and about 9 years for dogs that enter adulthood completely healthy.

I still think they're gorgeous, but if I was gonna get a fancy dog, I'd choose the smallest of the Swiss mountain dogs, the Entlebucher. Their lifespan is more like 11-13 years.
posted by beth at 6:52 PM on December 11, 2003

Any dog you get from a breeder is likely to be inbred, and other than the mental aspects, they'll run into a whole lot of physical problems as well.

I'm sorry, but this is a really ill-informed comment. First of all "inbreeding" in and of itself, in the sense of breeding dogs with common relatives to each other, is not intrinsically a bad thing, if done by a knowledgeable breeder who's done their homework (inbreeding can bring out and cement good qualities as well as bad, and can only bring out qualities which are present in the first place, a good breeder does a lot of research about what's good and bad in any lines before undertaking inbreeding). Second, while it's true that many breeders line breed, it's not true that "any dog you get from a breeder is likely to be inbred", many breeders do not ever inbreed, and good breeders ensure and guarantee that their dogs are both mentally and physically sound. There are a great many advantages to buying a purebred dog from a reputable, code of ethics-following breeder (which is not to dissuade anyone from adopting from a rescue or shelter, of course), a good breeder should provide you with: a written contact which should cover health and temperament problems for at least two years, a resource to help you with the dog should you need it, someone who will help you determine if the breed is right for you in the first place (run away from any breeder who doesn't ask you any questions about you and your lifestyle), a dog with at least some known qualities (size, exercise needs, etc), somewhere for the dog to go should you be unable to keep it at any time in the dog's life (any good breeder will take dogs they bred back at any time, for any reason), and a variety of other things.

pb: as you obviously know, since you're asking here, as with any other breed, you have to do your homework well before making a decision, both on a breed and on a specific breeder. There are two things you should absolutely consider carefully when looking for a breed: exercise needs and what the breed was bred for - most anything else you can work around, but you cannot change how much exercise a dog needs, and you cannot change inherent drives (you can manage and redirect them, but you cannot change them). Look for online groups (ideally three or four, definitely more than one), contact breeders, go to as many dog shows as you can and talk to exhibitors, read as much as you can, contact rescue groups and breed clubs and find out what the common reasons for surrender are (any decent breed fancier will be at least as quick to tell you why you SHOULDN'T get a dog of their breed, as they will to tell you why you should). The purchase price of the dog will be the least you will spend on it in its lifetime, that should not be the deciding factor when choosing a puppy. When looking for a breeder, find a list of things to ask and look for online (there are many).

Since you likely already know what you like about Berners, I'll tell you what I know of the bad side (I was considering one for a while): they are big, hairy, shedding dogs, they can be stubborn and difficult to train (plan on getting into reward-based obedience classes early, and staying in them for at least a few years), they need early, regular socialization (like any dog, but it's especially important with breeds like this, which can be very suspicious of strangers), they are susceptible to bloat and prone to eye, heart and blood disorders and hip and elbow dysplasia (yet another reason to find a good breeder, you want a dog from parents both of whom are at least OFA Good or the PennHIP equivalent, and you want a guarantee at least until the age of two, which is the earliest you can get definitive OFA testing done), they need quite a lot of exercise, and like most working breeds, they need to spend a lot of time with their people (this is not a dog to stick in the back yard and forget my world, no dog is, mind you, but people-focused dogs like Berners need to be a part of the family).

They're a really nice breed of dog for the right person, but they are not the right dog for everyone (no breed is, really). Good luck in your search, and feel free to email me if I can help at all.
posted by biscotti at 7:39 PM on December 11, 2003 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, but this is a really ill-informed comment.

Hmm...that came out more harshly than I intended. Responsible dog breeding and ownership are very important subjects to me, and I tend to get a bit strident about them, I apologise for the tone, Ufez Jones.
posted by biscotti at 8:23 PM on December 11, 2003

I was going to ramble on but biscotti covered most everything I would have said. Still, since I'm a dog freak...

I know five BMDs and 3 have hip displaysia. Don't know if that's indicative to the breed or just the luck of the ones I know but you should check into conditions the breed is known for.

The ones I know are neither timid or particularly outgoing. In fact, they're oddly personality-less (at least to me, though I don't spend much time with them--most has been an hour or two in a row).

aggressive--which is trouble with such a big dog.

Don't kid yourself, aggression is trouble in any sized dog. Ever seen what a chihuahua's teeth can do to a child's face?

The biggest mistake most new dog owners make is that they buy a breed based on appearance, or, more accurately, "attractiveness". That's like marrying someone because they're hot, without finding out what they're really like first.

You should make a list of qualities you're looking for in your dog (activity level, length of hair (maintenance), amount you can afford to spend on food, what conditions you spend time in (water/winter/intense heat/etc.), the size of your dwelling and how much space can be dedicated to the dog, etc.) actually, with the exception of hair length and size, the physical is the least you should worry about. The best way to make your list is to start by making a list of your own qualities (for instance, if you're not very active yourself, it's probably not good to get an active breed. if you're small or timid, don't get a Mastiff, etc.) List things you would like to do with the dog as well (holiday, special training (flyball, agility, etc.), jogging, fetch, even things like sitting on the couch or allowing the dog on the bed will be important. BMDs can get huge!

For instance, when I was looking for a dog, I wanted: medium sized (I don't like tiny dogs and can't afford to feed a monster), strong, varied activity level (meaning happy lazing around or running a lot), confident, calm (can't stand hyper dogs like dalmations and irish setters), short or medium coat, quiet (I live in an apartment), very human friendly (I have a lot of visitors), no common illnesses, easily adaptable to new environments (since I don't own the property, there's a chance I will move--some dogs hate this), above average intelligence (I love clicker training and was interested in agility training). I also was not planning on buying from a breeder so I wanted a common breed that could be got from a rescue or pound.

Things that didn't matter to me in the slightest: color, how it got along with non-dogs and non-humans (I knew i'd never be owning a cat, for instance), "attractiveness"...

Combine all of these things together and I settled on an American Staffordshire Terrier/American Pit Bull Terrier. My first one lived with me for a few years till my gf moved out and took him with her (we adopted him together). I've had my second one, Satchel, now for 5.5 years (got him from a rescue when he was 12 weeks old). He's fantastic and the breed is a perfect fit for me.

My point? You're gonna be living with this animal for a long time (my dog relationships have outlived every love relationship I've ever had)--make sure you know what you're doing.
posted by dobbs at 9:31 PM on December 11, 2003

oh, and good luck and congrats on deciding to get a dog. The right one will change your life (well, the wrong one will too, but you know what I mean).
posted by dobbs at 9:32 PM on December 11, 2003

No apology needed, biscotti. It was my fault, I'd intended for there to be a "more" before the likely in that sentence, which would change things around quite a bit. You obviously know more about breeding than I do. I'm (as if it weren't obvious from my previous statements) more aligned on the rescue side. Thanks for presenting a knowledgable point of view.
posted by Ufez Jones at 9:41 PM on December 11, 2003

We're all just so civilized around here! Thanks for being so gracious, Ufez Jones, and thank you for rescuing.

One more thing for pb: if you're a relatively inexperienced dog owner (and everyone has been at some point), a Berner may not be the best choice for you - they can be a bit challenging to work with, they need firm but soft, positive training, but can be very stubborn (for want of a better word), this can be a very difficult combination for the inexperienced. What specific qualities attract you to the BMD? What dobbs says about choosing a breed based on attractiveness is very true (hence the post-101 Dalmatians explosion in popularity of the Dalmatian, and the subsequent explosion of shoddy Dalmatian breeders, and the subsequent explosion of Dalmatians in rescue - Rottweilers, Border Collies and Jack Russell Terriers (among others) are all victims of popularity explosions (inevitably followed by destroyed breed reputations, simply because the wrong people owned them, and the wrong people bred them) and with the numbers of BMDs I've been seeing lately, they may very well be on that list as well). There are enough breeds out there that you can usually find a dog which is both suitable for you and aesthetically pleasing. dobbs is also right about what a difference the right dog can make (and training plays a big role in that - a well-trained dog is a joy to live with, and the training itself is a lot of fun if you let it be). To my mind, the single most important thing you can do is research, research, research - the more you learn about breeds and dogs in general, the better able you'll be to make the right decision (and I have to again commend you on researching before buying).

dobbs: Satchel is gorgeous, I have a real soft spot for Staffie/Pit-type dogs, they can be some of the sweetest animals around (and my dad owned Staffies in England) - few breeds stand up to bad treatment better, and few breeds experience as much bad treatment. Here's my dog Rakki, he's a Swedish Vallhund.
posted by biscotti at 10:24 PM on December 11, 2003

Thanks, biscotti. He's smart as a whip too! (Had him turning off the lights for a whle until he missed the switch and scratched off a swatch of paint!)

Rakki's also a handsome devil. I'm not familiar with that breed at all. He sure looks happy! :)

pb, when you do get your dog, pop back in here and ask about training. I'm sure there are plenty of opinions on it. It's certainly a topic I love to talk about.
posted by dobbs at 11:44 PM on December 11, 2003

So let's help pick a few candidate breeds for pb.

What qualities do you want in a dog?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:46 PM on December 11, 2003

We have a yellow lab. Before that a yellow lab, and before that, yeah, a yellow lab. Basic Qualities:
- loves water (swimming, not necessarily drinking),
- resilient digestive systems (she loves everything except onions, tomatoes and asparagus),
- consistent personality from puppy through adult, few skeletal issues, not terribly brilliant :).

Things that vary depending on raising:
- social tendencies (ours were socialised early on and play well with others),
- obedience (labs will walk all over you if they aren't trained early and consistently with its owners. again, this was done early on),
- vocal tendencies (the one we have now isn't a barker)
- sense of humor :)

Some intangibles in there, but ours have been loyal, loving and good with people and other dogs.

Our current lab came over from Finland as a pup (8 months or so). Her frame is bulkier with a lower center of gravity(labs were bred originally as sailing companions, hence the lower center of gravity and love of water), and has a very dense undercoat with a thick, foxlike tail. She has been fabulous! Name is Dickendall's Better Finnish, we call her Betty; Dickendall was the breeder. Betty celebrated her 12th birthday on Wednesday. *sigh* we'll be looking for a new one in the not too distant future. :(

Then again we also have a rescued sherpherd/border collie mix. She was thrown off a bridge at 4 months and had a pin permanently placed in her left leg. She's quite visually oriented, very smart - good memory, quick learner. But she is also quite neurotic - afraid of thunderstorms and a finicky eater. Her name's Bungee and she is about 8 y.o.

I'd say take your time, don't settle and follow your gut.
posted by yoga at 6:16 AM on December 12, 2003

Thanks everyone for the ideas and advice! We're still in the research phase and we haven't settled on Berners (we've only met one), and we haven't ruled out rescue. We're reading everything we can, focusing on the Bernese.

What specific qualities attract you to the BMD?

We started looking at BMDs because they have many of the qualities we're looking for: at peace with other animals (we have a six year old cat), intelligence, moderate exercise needs (we're not joggers, but we walk once/day), and of course their regal good looks.

We both had dogs when we were younger (a shetland sheepdog and basenji, separately) and I really enjoyed the training process and companionship. The dog will be an integrated part of the family, and we're taking the decision very seriously. We've talked with several breeders in our area, and we're meeting some BMDs this weekend. They do seem very strict about where their dogs go. Thanks for sharing the photos, too, they're beautiful dogs!
posted by pb at 8:52 AM on December 12, 2003

I will confirm that Bernese are THE trendy dog now. I'm seeing lots of them in the dog parks. To me, that's a dis-incentive to get one. I suspect there will be a glut of low-quality, over-priced dogs on the market, much as biscotti warns.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:10 AM on December 12, 2003

pb, there used to be a very lengthy online quiz that would help you select a breed. For the life of me, I can't find it. However, here is a short version which may be of use. It also leads to profiles of the breeds so you might want to read about breeds you otherwise wouldn't have heard of. In addition:

National Breed Club:
Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, Inc.
PO Box 270692
Fort Collins CO 80527

And I agree that with biscotti and MMP re: the trendiness. As mentioned, I know 5 of them (two years ago only knew one). I also see lots in the dog park (two years ago saw none in the dog park).
posted by dobbs at 9:13 AM on December 12, 2003

Here's one quiz, but it's not all that accurate, it's based on breed standards, and many dogs do not meet the breed standard in one way or another. It will at least give you a vague idea of which breeds might suit you, however.

What I did when looking for my latest dog was make a list of requirements (which had changed since my previous dogs), then sorted them into "must haves" and "nice to haves", then started going through breed standards (AKC, UKC and CKC), narrowed it down to a few, then started doing some reading and talking to breeders.
posted by biscotti at 9:30 AM on December 12, 2003

Biscotti- Rakki is one beautiful dog.
Dobbs - I nearly made the mistake of getting a dog based on physical appearance. I went to the humane society to check out different animals and almost settled on this one hyper one just because he looks like my favorite dog in the whole world. (Blogger James Lilek's dog, Jasper.)

I ended up getting Jack, a half-Rottweiler half-Shepherd. Beautiful combination - he's high energy but very loyal and isn't too mad at me for leaving him home all day when I go to work as long the rest the day is dedicated to attending to him.

Like everyone else has said, PB, the breed you get isn't so important as WHY you're choosing that breed. However, here's a few things to think about with larger breeds (and bear in mind my dog's only 80 pounds at best)

1) Can your vehicle transport the animal?
2) How much time a day are you prepared to spend training?
3) (If not much training time) Will you and your wife be able to work together to help pin down the dog for baths or cleaning its paws? Because it's a devil to do that with one person unless you're really adept at putting it in a headlock.
4) How prone is the breed to hip problems, and can you afford to fix them if they occur?
posted by Happydaz at 9:42 AM on December 12, 2003

Just my $.02, I have some good friends with a Bernese. He is a wonderful dog, to be sure, and seems to enjoy very good health. However, he has broken a LOT of glass knick knacks in the house with his big bear paws and whipping tail action. Make sure to Bernese-proof your house!
posted by vito90 at 9:59 AM on December 12, 2003

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