Breeding Bernese Mountain Dogs is easy since the breed is very popular and loved by the general public. Regular Bernese Mountain puppies are priced between $1,000 and $2,000 which is a good price point for both buyers and sellers.
Yet, when wondering how to breed Bernese Mountain Dogs, the future breeder needs to be ready to relentlessly focus on health. The breed has a short lifespan with ten years old as a common ceiling. The breed is not aging very well, probably due to its heavyweight and the inherent stress imposed on the musculoskeletal system.
Background of Bernese Mountain Dog Breeding
The Bernese Mountain Dog, or the Berner, belongs to the ancient family of dogs known as molossers. These dogs have a history that goes back in time for more than two thousand years. They include the powerful dogs developed by the Romans for war. This line includes mastiffs, and the St. Bernard. These dogs migrated throughout Europe as Rome expanded its territories. The large dogs that accompanied them were left in those areas of conquest and remained even after the fall of the Roman Empire. These large dogs were put to multiple uses on the many farms throughout Europe.
More recently, the Bernese Mountain Dogs were used as large farm dogs in the area that is now Switzerland. The name comes from a popular place of origin, “Bern”, a canton in Switzerland. It is one of four farm dog breeds, or Sennenhunds, that originated in Switzerland. The others include the Grosser Schweizer Sennenhund, the Appenzeller Sennenhund, and the Entlebucher Sennenhund.
Specimens of the breed rarely appeared in paintings prior to 1800 because of the lowly duties of these working dogs but enough document that their existence has a long past. These other Sennenhunds are popular in Europe but rarer in the United States. The Berner is the only Sennenhunds of the four with a long silky outer coat.
Purposes Over Time
Prior to the 20th century, Swiss farmers used the dog as a working dog on the farm. The sturdy dogs drove cattle and pulled carts. However, as the Industrial Revolution came to Switzerland, dogs were replaced by machines. The breed almost became extinct. The breed was saved through the efforts of people like Professor Albert Heim and Franz Schertenleib.
Franz Schertenleib began his efforts to save the breed in 1892 (see PDF) when he searched out the canton of Bern and bought some dogs. Originally, the dog breed was called Durrbachlers after the area in Berne where they originated. The farmers in the communities of Switzerland, also, had other names like:
- four eyes,
- cheese factory dog,
- farmer’s dog, and
- yellow cheeks.
In 1907, Schertenleib along with other breeders including Gottfried Mumenthaler and Max Schafroth took their dogs to the International Dog Show held in Lucerne. There, the judge was Albert Heim. It was Heim that judged the dogs belonging to Schertenleib to be the two representatives of the class of dog then known as “Durrbachler”. Heim set out the breed standard. Also, in 1908, Albert Heim proposed that the dog be renamed Berner Sennenhund. By 1912, the new breed club became the Berner-Sennenhund Klub (today Schweizerische Klub für Berner).
The Berner came to America in 1926. A couple in Kansas imported a pair of dogs for their farm. The breed was registered in the AKC in 1937 and categorized in the Working Group. The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America was formed in 1968 and sanctioned by the AKC in 1973.
Over the years, the Berner has risen in popularity. According to the AKC, it ranked 25th out of 194 breeds in 2017. In 2013, it ranked only 32nd. Its popularity can be attributed to the dog’s amiable temperament and its beauty. This dog has a striking black coat with specific markings of white and rust. It is a large dog that weighs 80-115 pounds for a male and 70-95 pounds for a female. Height is 25-27.5 inches (male) and 23-26 inches (female).
The breed standard describes the dog as a large and sturdy breed. It describes a dog that is longer than wide. The coat and the markings are described with specificity. The markings should be symmetrical with rust appearing above eyes, under the tail, on each side of the chest, and on all four legs. Ideally, the white on the chest appearing as an inverted cross. The long silky coat must be tricolor with black foundational color with white and rust markings. White legs and a white collar are serious faults. Disqualifying characteristics include any foundational color other than black and blue eyes.
The temperament of this dog is described often as amiable, loyal, and a bit reserved with strangers. This breed is reportedly and ideally a good family dog and trustworthy around children.
Berners are sociable dogs that need to be with their families. They love to play in the snow and enjoy pulling sleds. They need a moderate amount of exercise such as a daily walk. Bernese Mountain Dogs are somewhat heat sensitive because of their thick coats and should not be subjected to long periods of hot conditions.
Best Practices When Breeding Bernese Mountain Dogs
When breeding Bernese Mountain Dogs, always enquire about the health of the sire and dam and, if possible, the age of death of the grandsire and grand dam (as far back as possible). The average age at death of the ancestors of the pup is particularly relevant in this breed. The availability of certain health tests and genetic testing may not be available. However, a buyer can glean the potential health of a prospective new pup with this information. If it is determined that one or more of the immediate or grandsires/dams died before the age of 8 that is a red flag. The question “why” should be asked. No dog with cancer in its immediate background should ethically (and in the UK perhaps legally) be used for breeding purposes.
Average Size of the Litter
Litters from Bernese Mountain Dogs range in size from 1 to 14 puppies, with 8 being the average. Puppies are readily for sale in the United States. Also, the American Kennel Club provides information on reputable breeders. The factors influencing the size of a Berner’s litter range from the health of both parents, the size of the mother, to how nutritious the parents’ diet is. The breed does not generally go through cesarean sections since the size of the uterus allows for a healthy pregnancy.
The average price of a healthy Bernese Mountain dog is $1,500. An American Kennel Club or Kennel Club registerable puppy can be acquired for less than $2,000.
Just like with any breed, prices can skyrocket depending on how valuable a specific dog is, and that inevitably inflates the price of the offspring. Popularity in show rings is often the main reason why a Bernese Mountain Dog will see its value increase. However, some buyers are solely interested in the working abilities and skills of a dog. Some working bloodlines are also priced very highly.
The Bernese Mountain Dog requires regular grooming and it is prone to excessive seasonal shedding. It should be brushed once a week and daily during the seasonal sheds. The grooming needs are rated moderate to high maintenance. It is necessary to use a combination brush and a slicker brush at least twice a week to prevent matting. A sprint of detangler on the coat can help with the job. The coat should have a natural sheen. After proper grooming, it should flow freely without excessive curl.
Puppies of this breed do not have their full adult coat until about 12 months. At about six months, the puppy-fuzz will give way to the longer, and more dense and silky adult coat. Aspects of puppy fur can be visible on the fringe of the ears even after the body has filled in. Frequent brushing will assist in making the transition from puppy to adult coat. Scissors can be used to trim those fringes in they pose an issue. This beautiful dog has a double coat. It has a wooly undercoat and a long silky topcoat.
Breeders of Berner’s should know that Berners are large dogs. Although Berners are not technically in the Giant breed category, they do tend to achieve their full size much later than other dogs. Most Berners will achieve their full adult height at 15 months. They will, though, continue to mature and add weight into their second and third years. Such delayed maturity means that the dog will not be ready for breeding before a good bit of time has passed. Veterinarians and most breeders follow the rules of not breeding a bitch until after the second heat. That means a good number of bitches will not be physically mature enough to breed until around age 3.
Health Concerns When Breeding Bernese Mountain Dogs
Berners are a very special group of dogs because they die at an unexpectedly young age. Berners are a breed with a short lifespan. Many die before the age of 10 years old from various causes. Their ability to reproduce may, also, be unexpectedly cut short. The number reason for the early death of the breed is cancer. The specific scourge is histiocytosis. This cancer is being researched around the world.
Histiocytosis & Cancers
Histiocytosis starts with a group of specialized cells called histiocytes. These cells originate from cells produced by the bone marrow. They are an important part of the dog’s immune system. Histiocytes will be found throughout the dog’s body in the dermis (skin) and in the connective tissue.
Histiocytes cells can become abnormal and malignant. Basically, two conditions can occur. The first condition appears as small warts or tumors on the dog’s skin. This condition is called systemic histiocytosis. This disease can be treated with immunosuppressant medications. Sometimes the rate of progression can be delayed. This disease will ultimately spread to the dog’s vital organs and cause death.
The other type is known as histiocytic sarcoma. This form of the disease is an aggressive form of cancer which is usually non detected before any meaningful treatment can be started. Symptoms include loss of appetite, weakness, weight loss, cough. This cancer quickly spreads to the dog’s vital organs. Sometimes if caught very early some slight remission of its progress can be accomplished by the removal of the dog’s spleen.
Some veterinarians and breed clubs recommend regular six-month screenings after a dog reaches the age of four. A screening test has been developed. This is a risk assessment and does not directly indicate that any dog has or will have the disease. Researchers have narrowed the disease to the existence of nine genes on five chromosomes. Dogs can be categorized in one of three groups: A. the dog is four times lower risk for developing the disease, B. Neutral, C. the dog is four times higher risk for developing the disease.
Because of the severity of the disease, many breeders will want to know the risk of their breeding stock. The cost of the test (not including the veterinary fee for the blood draw) from Optigen is $130. It is not a cheap test. Additionally, ongoing research into the genetics of the disease. Breeders who have dogs that die from cancer should be aware of the many research projects, especially into genetics. Data is currently being collected in the United States by the Berner-Garde Foundation and in Europe by antagene.
Cancer is not, however, the only problem this beleaguered breed faces. Berners have a broad chest and can be stricken with gastric dilatation and volvulus or “bloat”. In canine bloat, the stomach of the dog becomes twisted. It is a problem affecting all broad-chested dogs. It is not known exactly why some dogs bloat. It seems to happen more often after a large meal followed by exercise.
Symptoms include a distended abdomen, drooling, restlessness, panting and all the signs that indicate that the dog is in pain. It is an emergency situation because if not treated the dog will ultimately go into shock and die.
Though the Berner is built for work, it is subject to a variety of musculoskeletal conditions which range in severity and can sometimes shorten a Berner’s life. Hip dysplasia is a common condition among larger dogs. It is an inherited condition of polygenetic origin. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) has recommended screening procedures that are highly recommended for breeders.
The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America specifically suggests that breeders have their breeding stock tested for hip problems at ideally 12 months of age for Pennhip (four months is acceptable). OFA will not certify the soundness of hips until a dog is two years of age. Breeding stock should rank in the 60th percentile for hip tightness.
The elbow presents another joint problem and it is a serious one in Berners. Berners rank 8th in the occurrence of diseases of the elbow. The three conditions listed by OFA are
- ununited anconeal process (UAP),
- fragmented medial coronoid (FCP) of the ulna, and
- osteochondritis of the medial humeral condyle.
These conditions manifest themselves over time and are polygenetic. OFA will not certify the soundness of elbows until a dog is two years old. These diseases of the elbow all will make a dog increasingly lame.
Other common diseases that affect the skeleton and joints are osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) and panosteitis. These diseases have a genetic component but there is currently no DNA to diagnose them. In addition to these conditions, osteoarthritis attacks the deformed bones and joints. Inflammation from osteoarthritis is painful for the dog and further complicates any structural changes from the precipitating disease. The presence of connective tissue disease and arthritis seem to co-occur with the presence of histiocytosis. Researchers are currently studying whether there is an underlying genetic mechanism at work.
Another fatal genetic disease common in the breed is degenerative myelopathy (DM). The breed ranks in the top ten for either occurrence or carrier. DM usually strikes in older dogs. In this condition, the dog has a progressively weakening and loss of limb control. The disease progresses much like ALS in humans. No treatment is available. Fortunately, researchers have developed a genetic test for the disease. Dogs should be tested for DM prior to breeding.
Another genetic problem that crops up in the breed is Progressive Retinal Atrophy. This disease results in the blindness of the dog usually by age 4. There is a genetic test for it and breeders should consider testing for it especially if somewhere in the bloodline it has occurred. Other eye problems commonly seen are ectropion, entropion, and cataracts. In ectropion, the eyelids turn out and, in entropion, they turn in. These genetic eye problems can be corrected by surgery.
A small percentage of Bernese will develop hypothyroidism. In this condition, a lack of thyroid occurs. Symptoms include weight gain, weakness, and a loss of fur or a full coat. The problem is typically one of the middle-aged or older dogs. Treatment involves replacement thyroid hormone which will be needed throughout the dog’s life.
A genetic problem that appears in young puppies is hypomyelination. In this condition, the body of the dog fails to produce enough myelin. Myelin is the material that coats the nerves in the dog’s central nervous system. The primary symptom is that the young puppy will shake. No treatment is available. The condition does improve over time in some dogs.
Von Willebrand’s Disease is fairly common in the breed. The breed ranked 14th in its rate of incidence. In this disease, the dog’s body fails to produce a blood clotting factor. It is the result of an autosomal recessive gene. That is, dogs with two of these genes are much likely to be severely affected by the disorder. Many times this disease is hidden and only becomes a problem when a dog is brought in for surgery. Because of the high rate of occurrence, it is prudent to have dogs tested for this genetic disease.
To conclude, although Bernese may be readily acquirable, they are dogs with the potential of having very costly veterinary bills. The cost of pet insurance on dogs of this breed may be a cost-effective expense. Pet insurance companies, also, are a good source of information on the health problems and associated costs of any given breed. In the case of the Bernese Mountain Dog, researchers used data collected from these companies in developing the genetic screening tool for histiocytosis.